Employee Engagement Essentials Post-COVID

August 24, 2020 Jason Lauritsen

9-minute read

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This week, all over the U.S., schools are reopening and millions of kids are heading back to the classroom. As educators and parents navigate their way through this process, there are big questions to be answered.

Don’t worry, this isn’t another post debating school openings. Rather, as I’ve been both watching and experiencing this process personally, it struck me that the challenge of school reopening isn’t too different from what organizations are wrestling with in terms of what the “workplace” looks like post-COVID.

At the heart of both issues is the reality that we are living through a global pandemic that no one was fully prepared for. The past several months have produced change at a pace we’ve rarely experienced. We’ve all been knocked off balance.

As we look to the future for both schools and our organizations, one thing is for sure – the future won’t look anything like the past. Too much has changed and there are too many new forces in play now. But not everything has changed.

The key to success on the road ahead is identifying the important things that have stayed the same and keeping sight of those as you navigate the key changes. Here I unpack what’s changed and what hasn’t for organizations that want to continue to engage employees through and beyond COVID.

What employee engagement essentials haven’t changed?

Let’s begin with two things that haven’t changed and likely never will for employee engagement. I like to call these the fundamentals. No matter how much the world changes, there are core needs employees need satisfied to stay engaged in their work. These were important before COVID, they are vital now, and they will continue to be critical in the future.

Communication

Communication is an essential ingredient to employee engagement and should stay at the heart of any effort to improve engagement and performance. 

But I’m not talking about sending more formal email updates or posting memos on the company intranet. To drive engagement, communication is about creating greater clarity and reducing uncertainty for each employee.

The importance of communication can be summarized in three words: uncertainty kills engagement.

Uncertainty is dangerous because of how our brains have evolved to keep us safe. The fight-or-flight response means that our brains will frequently interpret an unknown stimulus as a threat and will trigger a response that preserves our safety. This helps us stay alive. If you are walking through the woods at night and hear a sound you can’t identify, it’s not bad to have a fear response and do what you need to do to stay safe (run, turn on a flashlight, etc.).

The problem is that the brain isn’t particularly discerning about the type of unknown stimulus. It generally reacts to that uncertainty in the woods in a similar way as it does to uncertainty at work. When we are uncertain, our brain fills in the details in a way that creates a fear response to help us find safety. 

This is what makes uncertainty in the office really dangerous to engagement. Think back to the last time your boss requested an impromptu meeting with you and provided no explanation. You likely had at least a flash of anxiety or panic as you imagined all the negative things that might have prompted the request (“OMG, I’m getting fired”). Or maybe you started racking your brain for what you may have done wrong recently.

When we don’t know what’s happening, our mind creates a story that is often much worse than what’s actually happening. It’s our brain's way of preparing us for something bad to happen so we can protect ourselves. We don’t need to be prepared for unexpected good news, so the default setting when we fill in the details is the worst-case scenario.  

This is what makes communication so important. The key is to keep ongoing, two-way communication happening at all times. This includes manager check-ins, team meetings, senior leader forums, and employee surveys. Any activity that identifies areas of uncertainty for employees and attempts to replace that uncertainty with clarity is engagement communication. 

If you want to fuel engagement today and in the future, invest more time and intention on communication to combat uncertainty.  

Appreciation

Nearly twenty years ago, Don Clifton and Tom Rath from Gallup published the book, “How Full Is Your Bucket?” This was in response to a finding in Gallup’s employee survey data that 65% of employees reported receiving zero moments of positive recognition in the previous year at work. That’s two-thirds of employees who said they showed up to work every day for a year and no one ever offered up even a simple “thank you.”

On my optimistic days, I want to believe we’ve gotten better at this over the past two decades, but my experience suggests that any gains we’ve made have been small. Far too many employees still feel undervalued and unappreciated at work. And this was before the new era of remote and distributed work ushered in by COVID.

If we weren’t expressing enough appreciation to one another when we were in the same physical space together, this won’t likely improve when we are physically apart. This is a problem because we know that feeling valued and appreciated are drivers of employee engagement. 

To meet this challenge, we have to think more broadly about how to create moments of recognition and appreciation. Employees should experience acknowledgment and appreciation from their manager through regular check-ins and one-on-one meetings. But co-workers can also play an important role. If you want to make huge leaps in helping your employees feel more appreciation, there are two places to focus.

First, you need to make appreciation and recognition a part of how you do things. This might mean having “shoutouts” as part of your team meeting agenda. It could also mean implementing a technology tool to enable peer-to-peer recognition and make it easy for all employees to share and receive. The other key is to teach people how to show appreciation. If we were naturally great at it, this wouldn’t be such a huge issue. Simple training, guidance, and role modeling have a big impact. The more people see and experience genuine appreciation, the more likely they are to pay it forward

How has employee engagement changed post-COVID?

While the core drivers of engagement, like the two just outlined, haven’t meaningfully changed, there are some essential factors that have. These are not necessarily new considerations, but rather some factors that have been elevated in importance based on external forces.  

Flexibility

A number of years ago, when I was involved in Best Places to Work research, we conducted some exploratory research to check our assumptions about what was most important to and valued by employees in their job. The results surprised us. Flexibility emerged as one of the most highly valued elements of the work experience.

Employees’ desire for greater flexibility isn’t new. Some organizations (pre-COVID) even used flexible work arrangements as a competitive advantage in attracting talent. This was effective because so many other organizations were telling employees that flexibility considerations, like working from home, were not possible. 

Now that employees know what’s possible, there’s no going back. Employees now know that it was never a matter of it not being possible, it was that leadership didn’t trust them. Employees have proven that they can be productive away from the office, even at home under really hard circumstances.

Notice I’m using the phrase flexibility, not “work from home.” What’s changed isn’t necessarily that everyone wants to work from home. When the dust settles and it’s safe to go back to the office, the key question isn’t “do we or don’t we?” Instead, the opportunity will be to step back and, with feedback from your employees, to redesign how, when, and where work best gets done. 

If your organization values having people physically together, work with employees to imagine and create a workplace experience that employees crave. Create a place where they want and prefer to be. Then you can give them the freedom to choose. 

The bottom line is that post-COVID, if you intend to limit or dictate when, where, or how an employee does their work, you had better be able to defend that with a clear and legitimate business reason. Leader and manager comfort or preference won’t cut it.  

Safety 

This may seem a bit obvious, but I don’t think it can be understated how important safety is in terms of an employee’s experience of work. When we don’t feel safe, that same fight-or-flight fear response that interferes with communication also causes all kinds of other issues (both psychological and physiological) that are detrimental to our ability to do our best work. 

While Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs clearly illustrates the vital importance of safety, most organizations have not focused on this area unless they rely on manual labor to create value.  Even the concept of “psychological safety,” which has become popular recently, is relatively new.  

COVID has reminded all of us how fragile our sense of safety can be. Even if we cared about safety in the past, most of us took it for granted, particularly at work. Going forward, feeling safe is now a primary consideration. It is essential to our ability to be at our best and engaged fully in our work. 

To foster a feeling of safety at and about work, remember that safety is intertwined with trust. When you consider the people in your life with whom you feel the safest, it’s likely people who you also trust the most completely. You know they have your best interests at heart, would never do anything to intentionally harm you, and would do everything in their power to protect you from harm. 

For employees to feel truly safe at work, they need to believe the same to be true about the people who employ them. Not sure where to start? Ask your employees. They will tell you what’s working and what needs work. Take that feedback and do something about it. Over time, they will develop deep trust that whatever needs to be done to keep the workplace safe (and otherwise functioning well) will get done. 

More human employee engagement post-COVID 

The common theme running through the four factors highlighted here is a deeper understanding of and connection to the core needs of the human being who’s doing the work. COVID forced us all to stop and take some account of what really mattered as organizations. At the top of that list was making sure our people were OK. 

Employers are more intertwined in people’s lives than ever before. This is both an invitation and a wake-up call. We’ve learned that our people are resilient, capable, and committed. We’ve learned that work can get done in ways we didn’t recognize before. And we’ve been reminded that our employees are people who are also spouses, parents, children, and community members. 

When we put the employee at the center of how we design and manage work with the focus on how to enable them to do their very best work in the context of their often complicated lives, everyone wins. 

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About the Author

Jason Lauritsen

Jason Lauritsen is a global speaker, consultant, and advisor on employee engagement, workplace culture, and performance management.

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