Working from home can be a disorienting experience for most people accustomed to being around their colleagues in the office. A simple task of walking across and reaching out to someone at work becomes a tedious affair when done over the phone or a video call. The little things that matter – a smile, a quick greeting, getting to know colleagues better or celebrating special events and moments – are hard to replicate with everyone confined to their homes.
The much-needed downtime in the form of tea/coffee breaks and the proverbial watercooler chats that actually helped improve productivity are gone, replaced by more work hours at home. This seemingly unending period of social isolation and a progressively blurring divide between the workplace and home have created new forms of stress that are taking a toll on employees’ wellbeing and their capacity to be productive.
When all this started, companies had gone into crisis mode to address the baseline priority areas. They swiftly swung into action, making sense of the changed reality to maintain business continuity and guiding employees through the so-called ‘new normal’. From the senior leadership team to HR and communications teams, employers put their best minds to work in addressing the unfolding crisis by displaying inventiveness and clarity of purpose.
With the normalising of WFH to a large extent, business organisations now have a bigger challenge on their hands – keeping employees engaged in the middle of a pandemic while grappling with a less certain future.
To be sure, this isn’t an easy task for any employer. The Covid-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event that no one could’ve anticipated or prepared for. Companies would do well to stop seeking answers in the past. Addressing employee engagement through the lens of previously successful strategies therefore might not be sufficient, or relevant to a large extent. Here’s what you could do, to begin with:
Connect in new ways: Having nearly your entire office workforce distributed remotely can be unsettling from a communications and interaction point of view. While workflows have streamlined and adapted to the online way, the personal connect is sorely missing.
Use the digital and social platforms you already have to connect and interact with your people beyond work and work-related issues. Show them you care by regularly reaching out to them and staying in touch. It could be newsletters, phone calls or zoom calls to check in on employees’ health and wellbeing, hosting fun sessions where everyone can let down their hair down, or even virtual thank you notes and messages. Make every opportunity count.
Adjust your expectations: The pandemic has been termed as a great leveller, and in some ways that is true. But keep in mind that not everyone going through this shift has a strong or even adequate coping mechanism, and some may be more affected than others.
This is the time to live your company’s values and show compassion. Treat your employees as the unique individuals they really are. Reach out to each person, as far as possible, to understand their fears, concerns and anxieties through this phase. Help them cope with their situation – it could be the difficulty of bringing up a child or looking after an ailing parent or even managing their own physical and mental health – by offering greater flexibility to work around their personal commitments and challenges at home.
Don’t put off that survey: : Ever so often, companies flaunt the results of their employee engagement surveys as a badge of honour, propped up by great PR and marketing. Conducting such surveys during a pandemic, then, may not seem like a great idea. After all, who wants to ask people how they feel when they are barely optimistic or resilient enough to give in their best.
Well, like it or not, this is the time. Some responses in engagement surveys could reveal the underlying anxiety your employees are currently experiencing around their careers and a sense of gratitude for even having a job. It is also likely they will open up about what they feel unhappy about or what they would like to see improved. Chances are if you use this opportunity, you just might uncover some valuable insights to set your engagement efforts on the right course.
Be generous with your R&R: Thinking rewards and recognition in these times might seem far-fetched, right? Yes and no. While it should be amply clear that the conventional motivation tools need to be set aside for a while, everyday acts of appreciation can still be your best bet to make employees feel valued during the pandemic. For this, taking your existing interventions digital is the first step. From basic ‘thank you’ notes, letters of appreciation and emails to acknowledging someone’s hard work and contribution in an online meeting, these little things can go a long way in keeping the morale of your remotely distributed teams up.
But more importantly, you will need to revisit the basic premise of your R&R programmes in light of the new realities. What is more likely to motivate your people now? While monetary rewards may not be as feasible as they were before the onset of the pandemic, these could be better utilised for, say, improving healthcare support or adding new healthcare benefits. By paying for and connecting them with new digital healthcare platforms, resources and other services, employers can send a powerful message that they value their employees and their wellbeing.
Invest in training: With economies tanking and companies juggling salary cuts and layoffs, new learning and development (L&D) investments are hardly on any company’s radar. Yet, you would be doing great injustice to your employer brand by skimping on training investments right now.
However difficult it may seem, try to make room for your employees’ knowledge and skill upgradation. Professional courses and training programmes have moved online like everything else. Employees can benefit from new and upgraded skills, and so can you as a business when things improve.
The Covid-19 pandemic, like any major global crisis, promises to be the acid test of a company’s culture going forward and how well it engages with its employees through these uncertain times. This is when employees seek purpose and connection with each other and with their company’s values and culture.
It is only through clear and honest communication and an empathetic approach that employers can foster trust and confidence among their employees and help them navigate the complexities of this crisis to come out better and stronger.
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