Engaged employees tend to perform better, remain with their employers longer and enable businesses to innovate and maintain competitiveness. Most existing employee engagement programmes rely on face-to-face interactions and perks in the office to get people fired up. So how does engaging employees look in the post-COVID-19 era?
One of the key questions for leaders is how they can effectively communicate with employees to energise the employee experience. The way leaders communicate with their workforce can give employee engagement a much-needed boost, particularly when part or all of the workforce is working remotely.
Step one: Understand your workforce
Leaders need to develop a deep understanding of their workforce — who they are, what motivates them, what challenges they face and what they value. Effective employee listening strategies are a critical first step.
Most businesses recognise that their workforce is becoming increasingly diverse. The trend toward new hybrid workforce models — including gig workers, independent contractors and remote and on-site permanent employees — was already noticeable pre-COVID-19. The age spread of the workforce has also been increasing significantly: Many companies now have up to four generations (baby boomer, Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z) working side by side. Each group differs in their expectations, motivations and how they prefer to be communicated with.
The pandemic has also accelerated the importance of empathy as a leadership strategy. As COVID-19 pushed people into working from home, employers were forced to see people more holistically and acknowledge that their employees are also parents, partners and caregivers to their loved ones. Zoom calls had managers peering into the real-life situations of employees all over the world. Businesses have started to look for ways to support important aspects of employees’ lives by offering flexibility and addressing caregivers’ needs. There is a strong imperative for change: At present, most leaders do not know the number of caregivers in their organisation.
Leaders are also starting to pay more attention to purposeful employment. Younger members of the workforce are voicing their growing concern over economic, sociopolitical, and environmental injustices: The newer generations expect that employers share these concerns and play an active role in addressing them. For example, a recent paper on ESG trends shows how contributing toward social good can make a company more attractive to talent. In response, leading companies are looking to improve outcomes for multiple stakeholders, not just shareholders.
Be open with your employees
Openness is an important strategy for building organisational trust — employees want to be able to trust their leaders and, in turn, feel trusted. This sense of mutual trust has become even more necessary in a remote work setting.
More importantly, obscure and conflicting messages from leadership carry severe reputational risks. Employees expect transparent and truthful communication from the company leadership, especially during difficult times, such as during times of political or economic crises or organisational restructuring. Failure to meet this expectation risks exposures and backlashes — particularly with the advent of social media — which can leave crippling effects that may take companies years to recover from, if at all.
Create a caring culture
Employers need to foster a culture of care: There is no business without a healthy workforce. Unfortunately, two out of three employees already felt at risk of burnout even before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only worsened the situation.
Leading businesses are taking steps to support the mental and physical health and wellbeing of their workforce. For example, many companies are accelerating the use of Employee Assistance Programs, developing employee health-monitoring apps, upgrading employee benefits or offering child care allowance. Our recent article, the effects of COVID-19 on workforce wellbeing, explores how you can put yourself in a better position to support your employees.
The message of care must be consistently at the centre of employee communication — and even more so during times of crisis. The absence of care and empathy for employees from leadership will likely lead to productivity declines, behaviour lapses and lower retention rates.
Be mindful of cultural difference
An engagement strategy may work well in one culture but may be ineffective in another. Accounting for cultural differences can help business avoid costly mistakes resulting from misunderstandings that stem from ineffective organisational communication and underestimating local social norms. Leaders need to strike a balance between aligning communication and engagement initiatives across different office locations while taking care to respect local values.
Leverage technology to enhance communication
Digital tools and applications can speed up two-way engagement processes, cultivate workforce understanding, and encourage organisational communication. For example, many companies are conducting virtual “Ask Me Anything” sessions hosted by senior leaders, virtual town halls and virtual focus-group discussions that allow employees to ask questions anonymously if they choose.
However, companies should watch out for over-emphasising “tech” and not enough “touch.” Information collected via digital communication channels needs to be analysed with a human mindset to shed light on employee voices and needs: A superficial scan of single data points or top-line results can lead to inaccurate conclusions. Second, in rolling out digital communication strategies, companies should address the risks of data security and anonymity. Failing to abide by appropriate protocols may result in irreversible damage to organisational trust.
The pandemic brings an opportunity for companies to expedite their flexible work models, experiment with digital tools and realise engagement prospects that they didn’t think possible before. Businesses that take advantage of the headwind to renew and refresh how they engage with employees will reap rewards from a recharged and committed workforce.
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