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During the pandemic, things were turned upside down. We saw stock index returns dropping dramatically. We watched organizations reeling; many were forced into layoffs.

That was the global pandemic reality. And truth be told, things are still pretty crazy in the aftermath.

It’s not just the markets. It’s not just the companies. It’s also the engagement of individual employees (who fuel those companies). Many people are still experiencing waves of uncertainty. Based on  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 levels. Their tasks may be shifting. They’re adapting to an ongoing remote or hybrid work environment. There are changes to the organization, and changes personally in their lives.

Here are four approaches to make sure engagement doesn’t take a dive when circumstances are disruptive.

1: There’s no such thing as over-communication when you’re managing crisis or change

When there’s uncertainty in the air, that’s your cue to bolster communication.

Be honest and transparent. If authenticity and transparency aren’t part of your values, then it’s time to embrace them now.  Why?  Because, as the Leadership Institute points out, “Management transparency is the MOST SIGNIFICANT predictor of employee happiness. Leaders are seen as more trustworthy and effective.” Let people know where the organization stands, where the team stands. Secrecy erodes trust– and therefore, levels of engagement. It’s important to make sure everyone’s on the same page about current realities and changes that may be coming.

Don’t just stop at telling people WHAT, you need to establish WHY.

Communicate the “why”

Think back to the early days of the pandemic.  Flatly saying  “We’re changing our sales and marketing approach because of what’s happening with COVID. We’re letting people go” is an alienating approach. Instead, communicate the reasons. Start from why and elicit understanding, support, and even buy-in. A great example is GE’s idea of lowering salaried employees’ pay during the COVID-19 crisis to save the jobs of hourly people on shift work. If GE had merely announced that measure without explaining why, they’d have encountered strong resistance. But when they revealed the impact on their numbers, on their customers’ success, on all the things that drive their business, their people understood and bought in–they engaged. So, if you’re going to communicate something to an individual employee or the whole organization, explain the reasons clearly.

Communicate steadily; establish yourself as the source of truth

Set a frequent rhythm for communication…and change communication vehicles if necessary. During a crisis or a major change, people need and want to be informed. Knowledge gives us a sense of control, and having a measure of control boosts engagement. Communicate on a daily basis. Get together as a team. If people have questions, answer them frankly (that’s important for alignment and for reassurance). 

Keep as many familiar communication pieces as you can–let’s say you’re used to communicating around people’s birthdays. Great. If you’ve shifted to remote work you won’t be able to do that in person anymore, but maybe you can put something out on video. Don’t eliminate what you’ve been doing. Adapt. Employee engagement depends on it.

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–e.g., based on legislation from XYZ. If you’re communicating everyday or every week about what’s happening, and you’re the source of truth, you have the power to help people out of that uncertainty rut. You start driving a more engaged workforce.

Engaging Employees Has Never Been More Important - Communicate

Practice two-way dialog

A great example of best-practice communication in crisis is Hatch, a global organization, where their CEO gives live updates and answers questions.

Remember communication is two-way. It’s not just the information you blast out to employees, it’s about listening too. Employees who feel heard are more likely to be engaged.

Promote dialogue to build understanding. Even if you’re communicating every day and you’re telling people what’s going on, it’s hard to know exactly what people are absorbing. Promote two-way dialogue to build understanding. A WorkTango there’s an open update dialogue– so people can ask questions about what’s happening. Having access to other teams and senior leaders builds engagement.

Knowing that sometimes people want to be more anonymous, WorkTango also has an confidential pulse survey that goes out every two weeks and invites people to  ask questions. Early the following week the leadership team gathers together to answer those questions. Survey results and leadership responses are emailed to everyone that same week alongside a  bi-weekly all-hands Zoom session where more clarity is offered. “You have to build two-way components to make it valuable,” stresses WorkTango’s Rob Catalano.

Elevate employee listening. 

There are organizations that might do an annual engagement survey, which is great, but that can’t give you ongoing insights about what’s happening during an uncertain time. Many organizations asked people how they were feeling about COVID-19. How they were feeling about their new or ongoing  remote work environment. What they’d recommend?

Employee listening becomes a diagnostic tool. And it doesn’t have to be a survey–you can have an online forum. The key is to listen. When you elevate active listening during uncertain times, you get a lot more engagement.

If you don’t have an employee listening strategy in place yet, we can help. WorkTango’s Surveys & Insights solution allows you to regularly gather employee sentiment around any topic you choose–employee well-being, the safety of the workplace, confidence in leadership, the quality of communication–anything. You can’t know what employees are thinking if you don’t ask. And you can’t address what you don’t know. Taking the kind of action that leads to engagement depends on hearing what employees need and want first. 

Involve employees in planning

Accessing the employee voice is also important for decision making at the leadership or executive level. Adopt an inclusive approach to planning. Don’t just ask how employees are doing, ask what they recommend. Involving people in supporting their organization leads to more engagement.

Adapt–don’t stop your engagement rituals during times of crisis or change. If you don’t have any engagement rituals, maybe now’s a good time to start. Take stock of what your current practices 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 by the change or crisis and find ways to adapt them.

Be creative. Make the best out of the situation. During the pandemic, a group of 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.

Connect with values

Rally and unify for a bigger cause than the organization. Start with specific values. Can you tie into something there? What about ideas to help out the community? A number of organizations went  that route during COVID. Crocs  rallied people around sharing free pairs of their signature product for healthcare workers. They specifically formed a team to make that a reality. Krispy Kreme donuts made sure health care workers had what they needed. Hertz offered free rentals for frontline workers. Starbucks gave first responders and healthcare workers access to free coffee. Burberry made gowns and masks for the NHS in their trench coat factory. Labatt’s Brewery started making hand sanitizer. If you unify about something bigger than yourselves, you strengthen engagement.

Maybe you feel you have nothing obvious to give to your community, but consider the company that realized their parking lot was close to a healthcare facility and offered it as a place to park for free. Be creative, and ask for employee input.

While you’re at it, why not incentivize serving the community (or other behaviors that align with organizational values)? In WorkTango’s Recognition & Rewards solution individuals can earn points for participating in actions like volunteering outside the organization or serving on a team that orchestrates a cultural initiative. It’s a light form of gamification that sparks an extra measure of engagement. 

You can also create a custom reward that allows employees to pool their reward points to make a donation to a non-profit. When people are serving causes they believe in, their engagement blossoms.

2: Strengthen engagement by focusing on emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is important across the board, all the time–but the need is even greater in times of uncertainty, crisis, and change. To focus on emotional intelligence, seek to understand what employees are going through. There are three ways to think about uncertainty when you’re talking to individual employees:

External (environmental) change–COVID was a great example of that. We didn’t know when it was going to end. We had to stay six feet apart, wear masks, maybe even work behind plexiglass barriers–and that was if we were in person at all.

Organizational change–this includes shifts to remote or hybrid work, leadership changes, and changes in the company itself.

Individual (job role or status) changes–during a crisis or change people may not be doing the things they used to do; maybe their status is uncertain; they may not know if they’re going to have a job at all.

For many people, COVID touched all three. 

Understand with EMPATHY. Don’t just listen to what your employees are going through, seek to understand what they’re going through, to acknowledge it, and to relate to it if you can. If it’s something you haven’t experienced personally, be genuine and name it.  Empathy isn’t a fluffy skill, by the way. It’s a powerhouse. Data shows employees who have an empathetic employer are 93% more likely to stay. That’s why engaging people empathetically, 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, you may find some are worried about their base needs: physiological things like being able to pay rent or to buy food. They’re worried about safety, security, stability. Employees with these concerns may not have enough emotional energy left to think about belonging and achievement, self-esteem, and self-actualization. Do what’s in your power to help. Listen, seek to understand, and take action. 

Where are your best opportunities for supporting empathetic conversation? In 1-on-1 Sync-Ups between managers and their individual team members. The sense of familiarity established by regular, weekly conversations can help anchor (and engage) employees in turbulent times. Our Goals & Feedback approach prompts managers and team members with reminders about upcoming Sync-Ups (and quarterly performance Check-Ins). 

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

Douglas Conant, former President and CEO of Campbell Soup Company

Double-down on gratitude

Remember, during change your people are 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. When you give recognition, be specific, meaningful and timely. Be detailed about the behavior you’re recognizing (“Thanks for going out of your way and 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. Our Recognition & Rewards solution makes that the work of a few clicks. Public (or private) praise is instantly on its way to the organization-wide recognition feed. You can couple it with a gift of reward points to show even more appreciation.

Enhance your focus of engagement to include well-being 

Provide support where possible to minimize physical and mental stress. Be flexible. When stress levels are high, people find stability in having control over their actions, environment, or the things happening around them. Your ability to be flexible lets them play within in their new world.  Stay connected–by encouraging Sync-Ups with managers; by tuning into the employee voice through frequent pulse surveys and even listening groups. This lets employees know you care about their well-being.

Related to giving people control: 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 times 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

3: Leaders are key. 

They’re critical during a crisis. Be clear about who’s accountable. Your organization has a business strategy and people are aligned to that (and hopefully engaged by it). 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 changes are 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 organization is trying to do.

Be explicit about why empathy is important and how it relates to engagement.

Are you wondering how your organization’s leaders are doing in terms of empathy and communication? All you have to do is ask their teams. Surveys will get the results to you instantly. You can separate data based on team, department, level in the organization– anything. It also provides leaders with easy-to-read reports that include customized recommendations for learning and action. By pulsing employees frequently, you give managers the opportunity to fix what’s not working immediately–and that’s especially valuable during times of crisis or change.

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 policies communicate. During the pandemic, if you instructed your employees to stay at home, and then your executive team showed up for work – what did that illustrate to them?

4: Think employees first

Don’t forget that it all starts with employees. Everything.

You might be worried about financials and about your organization, but without employees it’s going to be hard to find success. Think of your profit chain like this: if employees are engaged and doing the right things –> 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 behaviors, the products they build, the services they provide. Focus on that to impact better customer satisfaction, better products, better service, better shareholder value.

If your organization is walking through something difficult, create a dedicated crisis or change management 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 as a leader. What you do during change or crisis impacts the brand you have as an employer afterward.

Think long term 

After you’ve navigated the season of change (e.g., transitioning to remote work or going through an M&A) have a retrospective. Sit down with your leadership team, your whole team, even your entire organization–however big or small–and find out what you did well and what you didn’t. We do that when we’re building technology. We do it as organizations and teams. So, why not use this change or crisis management experience as an opportunity for growth? When employees see you’re willing to listen, learn, and implement their feedback, they’ll be that much more engaged.

Remember– you’re not alone

Lean on your community. There are other people and other organizations who’ve gone through the same things. There’s no point reinventing the wheel. Find out what others are doing or have done. Find those communities that can help you. Your team, your division, your organization, your industry isn’t an island. And while keeping employee engagement up during a crisis or change is challenging–it’s absolutely achievable.

At WorkTango, we’re revolutionizing how the world’s most forward-thinking companies engage and inspire their people. We offer the only Employee Experience Platform that enables meaningful recognition and rewards, offers actionable insights through employee surveys, and supports alignment through goal setting and feedback.

WorkTango is built for the workplace we all want to be a part of – where priorities become clear, achievements are celebrated, and employees have a voice. So if you’re ready to make work lives better, schedule a demo today.