Engaging Employees During COVID-19
Making an effort to engage employees can help mitigate retention challenges and result in a stronger, more efficient workplace.
By Paige McAllister, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Vice President for Compliance – Affinity HR Group, Inc.
In addition to a tight labor market and increasing wages, employers are dealing with employee “bored out” (chronic boredom leading to feeling totally meaningless) and “the big quit” (with 4 million people quitting their jobs in April 2021 alone), while also trying to balance client demands and the changing business environment.
Gallup defines engaged employees as being “highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace.” Employees who are engaged help to improve and innovate the business and are not just watching the clock to collect a paycheck. Higher engagement also results in lower turnover which is a crucial advantage in today’s tight labor market.
As we all continue to deal with COVID-19, working to engage employees should be a matter of highest priority for business leaders. While engagement techniques used to involve lofty ideas, these days smaller, more personalized techniques may prove best. Some effective ways to engage with employees are:
First, acknowledge everything is different.
Employers should freely acknowledge the changes many of their employees have faced and that most people are making lifestyle changes because they have to or want to as a result of COVID-19’s wide-ranging impacts. Regardless of the underlying reasons, employees are reevaluating their lives and priorities after these past 18 months and are making big decisions, such as looking for new jobs. Employers should also be honest about the changes to the business — clients, products, services, protocols, finances, staffing, etc. — that have impacted employees.
Check in with your employees regularly.
Before they return to the office, find out what life looks like for them now and have an honest dialogue about their concerns. After they return, continue to check in to make sure things are going well and make adjustments as needed. Do not check in too often as most employees only want to hear from their boss once or twice a week.
Review the possibility of remote or hybrid work arrangements.
A survey conducted by FlexJobs revealed 98% of workers want to stay remote either full-time or as part of a hybrid arrangement for various reasons including not having to commute (84%) and cost savings (75%) which is estimated to save $5,000 to $10,000 per year. Employers who want employees in the office should explain the job-related necessity and, if at all possible, try to make some more flexible arrangements to retain these employees. If they cannot work remotely all, part, or any of the time, acknowledge that too and perhaps provide an off-setting benefit such as free lunches or flexible scheduling.
Address employee concerns, especially regarding health and safety.
The FlexJobs survey also showed employees’ primary concerns surrounding the return to the office included exposure to COVID-19 (49%), lack of COVID-19 health and safety measures (32%), and being required to adhere to health and safety measures (21%). When you implement and enforce the guidelines set by experts and legal authorities, not only are you abiding by the legal regulations, but you also are assuring hesitant employees of your commitment to safety while also creating a zero-tolerance policy your resistant employees know they need not waste time in thwarting.
Establish and enforce job, performance, and availability expectations.
Whether an employee is in-person, remote, or hybrid, and regardless of their position in the company, you should hold them accountable for doing their job duties, communicating with co-workers and managers, and being available for clients and meetings. Avoid “presenteeism” – focus on availability, not attendance. If needed, re-evaluate the job duties to accommodate where they are working or what they want to do so employees are less likely to feel bored and discontent.
Establish clear channels of communication throughout the company.
Companies function best when everyone is communicating clearly, and this is even more important when some employees are remote. While walking to someone’s desk may have been the norm before, now there needs to be structure and planning. Video and phone conferencing can be an efficient way to schedule meetings, send invites, and track attendance. Instant messaging or texting may be a new way of getting a quicker answer.
Respect personal time and needs.
Be mindful when work demands extend beyond the employee’s day and try to restrict or discourage emails and voicemails outside work hours. Everyone needs time away from work whether to relax and recharge, to attend a kid’s soccer match, or to just get to the grocery store. It may be harder for employees who work from home to truly check out from work, and if they are non-exempt, they probably need to be paid for that time. Encourage all employees to unplug to handle what they need to so they can focus when back at work.
COVID-19 is not going away any time soon so we will all have to continue to make adjustments. Employees will get sick or have to care for people who are sick. Employees will have to quarantine or stay home with a child who is quarantining. Understand that employees have to take care of their families first and the more flexible you can be, the more they will feel supported and ready to work when they can.
Allow employees to have some fun at work.
While potlucks may be out of the question for a while, you can still give employees a chance to have fun at work. Hold a spirit day where people can wear their school or team colors. Sponsor a group to participate in a local charity event. Surprise employees with a half-day off when things are slow. Celebrate birthdays and special occasions with cupcakes and cookies. Find out what your employees value and work them into your plans.
Consider the big picture.
While many employers may wonder how they will be able to add this to their long to-do list, it is important to balance the effort engaging employees requires with the possibility of those employees leaving the company. Often it is easier to accommodate a current employee’s temporary needs than recruit, hire, and train a new employee, which is even more difficult in today’s labor market.