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Engaging Employees Has Never Been More Important and Here’s How…

Things are turned upside down right now. We’re seeing stock index returns dropping dramatically. We’re seeing businesses reeling, many being forced into layoffs.

This is the global pandemic reality.

But it’s not just the markets. It’s not just the companies. It’s the engagement of individual employees that fuel companies that is going down. A lot of people are feeling a wave of uncertainty. Based on the feedback WorkTango is getting from organizations, some 42% of employees are less engaged than they were at the beginning of March 2020; 57% feel that communication is worse than it was 30 days ago, and sentiments around company outlook and success are down significantly too.

Employees are going through a change curve on many layers: their job, the new remote work environment, changes to the organization, changes personally in their lives. And they’re not alone. We’re all going through this.

Here are four approaches to make sure engagement doesn’t drop and drop and drop some more.

First: THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS OVER COMMUNICATION. When there’s uncertainty you really need to bolster communication.

Be honest and transparent. If authenticity and transparency aren’t part of your values, you need to embrace it now because as the Leadership Institute tells us: “Management transparency is the MOST SIGNIFICANT predictor of employee happiness. Leaders are seen as more trustworthy and effective.” Let people know where the company stands, where the team stands. Secrecy erodes trust. It’s important to make sure that everyone’s on the same page.

Don’t just stop at telling people WHAT, you need to establish WHY. You can’t just tell people you’re changing your sales and marketing approach because of what’s happening with COVID, or you’re letting people go. A great example in the news recently was GE’s idea of lowering salaried employees’ pay to save the jobs of hourly people on shift work. If GE had just announced that measure without explaining the why, they’d be met with a lot of resistance. But when they started talking about the impact on their numbers, on their customers’ success, on all the things that drive their business so that they can be successful later everyone understood and bought in. So, if you’re going to communicate something to an individual employee or the whole organization explain the why so people can sink their teeth into the communication.

Set a frequent rhythm…and change communication vehicles if necessary. During a crisis people need and want to be informed. Communicate on a daily basis. Get together as a team. If people have questions, answer those questions. Let’s say you’re used to having communication around people’s birthdays. Great. With remote work you can’t do it in person anymore, but maybe you can put something out on video and share it that way. Don’t eliminate what you’ve been doing. Adapt.

Educate with a source of truth, in other words, there’s a lot of hearsay in times of crisis or uncertainty. Share with people how the organization is making decisions – based on legislation from XYZ. If you’re communicating everyday or every week about what’s happening, and you’re the source of truth, that’s where people start getting out of that uncertainty rut and you start driving a more engaged workforce. A great example of best-practice communication in crisis is Hatch, a global organization, where their CEO talks live giving updates and answering questions.

Engaging Employees Has Never Been More Important - Communicate

Remember communication is two-way. It’s not just the information you have to blast to employees.

Promote dialogue to build understanding. Even if you do communicate every day and you’re telling people what’s going on, it’s hard to tell what people are absorbing. Promote two-way dialogue to build understanding. Every single day at WorkTango there’s an open dialogue ‘Daily Tango’ so people can ask questions to leadership about what’s happening. Knowing that sometimes people want to be more anonymous WorkTango also has an anonymous survey that goes out towards the end of each week, where people can ask the leaders a question, and every Monday the team gathers together and those questions are answered. “You have to build two-way components to make it valuable,” stresses WorkTango’s Chief Engagement Officer, Rob Catalano.

Elevate employee listening. There are organizations that might do an annual engagement survey, which is great, but it’s not giving you insights about what’s happening in an uncertain time. Many organizations today are asking people how they’re feeling about COVID-19, how they’re feeling about their new remote work environment. What would they recommend? It becomes a diagnostic tool. And it doesn’t have to be a survey, you can have an online forum. The key is to listen. And when you elevate that during uncertain times, that’s when you’re going to see a lot more engagement. And it’s also going to be important for decision making at the leadership or executive level.

Adopt an inclusive approach to planning. Don’t only ask how employees are doing, ask what they recommend. Getting people involved to support their organization leads to more engagement.

Adapt don’t stop your engagement rituals. If you don’t have any maybe now is a good time to start. Take stock of what your current rituals are. Maybe you do daily meetings, or monthly luncheons, or quarterly updates. Make a list of your communications, events, and social programs. Identify which rituals or programs are disrupted and find alternate ways to make them real.

Be creative. Make the best out of the situation. Code scientists brought their kids into a video conference. They had fun with it, it was probably noisy with a lot of muting going on, but they made lemonade out of a crisis.

Rally and unify for a bigger cause than the organization. Maybe you have specific values that you follow. Can you tie into something there? What about ideas to help out the community in this situation? A couple of organizations have gone that route. Crocs, for instance, has rallied people around sharing free pairs of their signature product for health care workers by forming a team involved with making that a reality. Or Krispy Kreme donuts making sure health care workers have what they need. Or Hertz offering free rentals for frontline workers. Or Starbucks giving first responders and healthcare workers access to free coffee. Burberry is making gowns and masks for the NHS in their trench coat factory. Labatt’s Brewery started making hand sanitizer. Maybe you have nothing obvious to give, but consider the company that realized their parking lot is close to a healthcare facility and offered it as a place to park for free. If you can unify about something bigger than yourselves, that really helps engage people

Second: FOCUS ON EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE. Some would say that this is important across the board all the time. It’s definitely heightened during uncertainty and during a crisis. To focus on emotional intelligence:

Understand what employees are going through. There are three ways to think about uncertainty when you’re talking to individual employees:

External (environment) – COVID is a great example of that, we don’t know when it’s going to end.

Organizationalremote work, the company itself is changing, having to shift things around

Individual (job role or status) – maybe people aren’t doing the things they used to do, maybe their status is uncertain, they don’t know if they’re going to have a job.

In the immediate crisis it’s all three. Understand with EMPATHY. Don’t just listen to what your employees are going through, understand what they’re going through if you can and acknowledge it, relate to it if you can. If it’s something you can’t relate to from personal experience, be genuine in that conversation. Empathy is not as fluffy as you might think. There’s a lot of data out there that shows employees that have an empathetic employer are 93% more likely to stay. This is why engaging people, especially during uncertain times, is SO important.

When you think about your employees in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the theory of human motivation, some are worried about their base needs: physiological things like will they be able to pay rent, to buy food. They’re worried about safety, security, stability. If you’re an employee with these concerns, how are you going to think about belonging and achievement, self-esteem and self actualization? Putting yourself into their mindset – their concerns about paying bills or whatever it is, that’s what we need to think about when it comes to empathizing with those employees, though they may not be concerns of your own.

To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.

Douglas Conantformer President and CEO of Campbell Soup Company

Double-down on gratitude. Remember your staff is likely doing things they’re not used to doing and gratitude is an intrinsic motivator. What gets recognized gets repeated. It has a huge impact on engagement and guess what? It costs you nothing. Be specific, meaningful and timely. Be very specific about what the behaviour was that you’re recognizing (thanks for going out of your way, changing your job role to shift to this new strategy…). Be very specific about how meaningful it is (the impact on business, you made the customer happy, you helped us get through this challenging time…). And be timely – do it right away, right when your folks are going above and beyond.

Enhance your focus of engagement to include wellbeing. Provide support where possible to normalize stress: physical (remote work) and mental (isolation). Be flexible, when stress is heightened people need control over their actions or things happening around them. The ability to be flexible lets them play within in their new world. Check-in and stay connected. This lets employees know you care about their wellbeing.

Trust your employees. Period. How many people do you have in your organization? Multiply that number by 35,000 – that’s the number of decisions a single person makes in a single day. You can’t control all of those decisions. You need to trust your employees to make the right choices, even more so during this time of uncertainty. You’re either building trust, or you’re eroding it. There’s no in between.

Engaging Employees Has Never Been More Important - Employee Recognition

Third: LEADERS ARE KEY. They’re critical during a crisis. Be clear about who’s accountable. This is NOT an HR strategy. Your organization has a business strategy and people are aligned to that. It starts from a leadership perspective. If you have a small company, it’s the handful of people at the helm or on your senior management team. If you’re a large enterprise it’s the tens, hundreds, thousands of leaders, the people with manager or supervisor in their title, that have to make sure employees are still engaged.

Bring your leaders together and align them on why this is important. Employees may not have a direct line to the executive team. They may only be able to talk to their direct leader. Help your leaders understand what the company is trying to do.

Be explicit about why empathy is important.

Promote more one-on-one conversations as part of the concept of checking in.

Great leaders are willing to sacrifice the numbers to save the people. Poor leaders sacrifice the people to save the numbers

Simon Sinek

Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of your leaders speak louder than anything you communicate. If you instruct your workforce to stay at home, and then your executive team show up for work – what’s that illustrating?

Fourth: THINK EMPLOYEES FIRST. Don’t forget that it all starts with employees. Everything.

You might be worried about financials and your company, but without employees it’s going to be hard to find success. Think of your profit chain like this: if employees are doing the right thing –> customers will be happy –> shareholders will be satisfied.

Profitability and success are outputs. You can’t change those things tomorrow but what you can change are the inputs: what employees do every day, the behaviours, the products they build, the services they provide. Focus on that to impact better customer satisfaction, better products, better service, better shareholder value.

Create a dedicated crisis team. If you’re five or ten employees – that’s your team. Having that accountability engages employees.

These are defining moments for you as a company and leader. A lot of the things you do right now are really impactful on the brand you have as an employer after this crisis.

Think long term. If your company was never off-site remote, and now it is, your workplace may never be the same. Have a retrospective after this. Sit down once this is all said and done with your leadership team, your whole team company, however big or small, and find out what you did well and didn’t do well. We do that when we’re building technology. We do it as organizations and teams. So, why not do it through this crisis?

Remember, we’re all in this together. Lean on your community. This IS an unprecedented time. There are other people, other organizations going through the same things you are. There’s no point reinventing the wheel. Find out what others are doing. Find those communities that can help you. Ask for help. Your team, your division, your company, your industry is not alone.

Additional Resources

Check out our guides on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys. Learn about every aspect of a successful employee voice initiative!


Read great blog posts on workplace culture, employee engagement, employee surveys and other great workplace topics.


Watch the webcast that inspired the article, How to Engage Employees in Uncertain Times.