COVID-19: Showing another way to engagement

Employee engagement has remained at a steady low for decades – plaguing organizations with the challenge of how to boost it. We hadn’t been successful at leading and creating organizations and cultures where people felt fully dialed up for the work at hand.

Then suddenly, a global pandemic hits us and we see reports from the likes of Gallup saying that we’re reaching the highest employee engagement levels since the year 2000.

To understand why, we first need to acknowledge that engagement and culture are brothers and sisters in an organization, and they can’t be treated separately:

• Culture is “the way things are done around here”
• Engagement is how we feel about “the way things are done around here”

So, the question to ask is:

What has happened during this crisis that has impacted how we feel about our culture?

Answering this can give insight into what we – as critical parts of our organizations and therefore collectively responsible for our cultures – should be taking forward into our ‘new normal’, ensuring we don’t miss the opportunity to make necessary changes that would have been harder before.

Josh Bersin recently covered some of the possible drivers behind this sudden increase in engagement in his podcast. I want to unfold these more, looking at the human needs behind these drivers, as well as share some thoughts on which learnings we can take and apply to our cultures in the long-term.

Safety: As customers and colleagues we want to interact with companies radiating safety and comfort – in contrast to the amount of fear that’s being felt throughout society. It’s become even more clear to companies how safety – both physical and psychological – is a priority. During the crisis, this has shown up in many forms, such as offering the right protective equipment, non-public modes of transport, health benefits and insurance, etc. It’s also shown up in the form of opening up for more conversations about needs and fears: people now realize it’s okay for them to voice being scared about losing their job, of mortality – and leaders, teams, and colleagues can have more transparent dialogues about it. Sometimes, we think all that’s needed are the words “we aren’t going fire people”, but it takes more for people to actually believe them and feel safe. Taking the worry of safety off the table is an ongoing responsibility, not a single piece of communication. And while in many sectors, physiological safety becomes less relevant as the pandemic passes, psychological safety is always relevant for us to build – to our staff, to our colleagues and customers – because it means we allow worry to waste energy. So how do we ensure a continued culture where we remain aware of and able to openly discuss our worries, and address our human needs for safety?

Flexibility: Much of the global workforce has shifted their workplace from the office to home. With it, many of us are more in control of our schedules and patterns, and better able to integrate our work and private life. Being empowered by this flexibility is more than fulfilling practical needs, and meets our need as humans for respect. To feel that we are trusted to perform without tight control on work hours, and rather determined by the value we create. And while the blurring of boundaries has also increased stress levels as we navigate finding a new balance with, for example, being a parent and working, or when to sign-off and rest, it’s clear many organizations have acknowledged this challenge and offered flexibility, respect, patience, and placed trust in their people to find ways to work that works for them. When we’re able to feel respected and trusted, when we can bring our whole selves to work without feeling fragmented, we are empowered to be more productive and perform better. And with the need for respect is also the responsibility to honor it. As we slowly become able to return to offices, flexibility is not just about the schedules we work or being enabled by technology to do our jobs remotely – it’s a question of how we will create balance and continue respecting our people and peers to perform in ways that work for them.

Purpose: Being faced with our mortality prompts us as humans to reflect on our lives; why we exist and what impact we want to create. Companies too are now driven to revisit the core of their identity and why they exist. For some, this has meant reinforcing and recommunicating a clear vision and purpose. But for others, it’s meant reexamining the role they want to play in society and for a greater good – like choosing how to invest, repurposing products for Corona-relevant responses, etc. Reports have shown people are increasingly attracted to organizations that have a purpose they feel is meaningful – both as customers and as employees. Top leaders have responded by taking action and bringing to life what could have just been words on the wall or in an old PowerPoint presentation. Looking ahead, the opportunity is in finding ways to continue articulating and demonstrating meaningful, purposeful practices – for ourselves and as collective organizations – even when there is a less pressing crisis at the door.

Leadership: In a Willis Towers Watson study, 81% of HR teams say their leaders were responding to the needs of others (up from 53% at the start of the crisis) and 95% believe senior leaders have demonstrated a sincere interest in employee wellbeing. And this has paid off: 85% believe employees have trust and confidence in the job being done by senior executives which is an all-time high. So it seems we respond well to this refreshed approach of human-centric leadership. And that it’s set a new expectation that leading means being present for their people, communicating clearly, and being an anchor in turbulent waters. And the leaders, both formal and informal ones, must realize that this expectation is not just for the current times of crisis – but lasting going forward. It invites the leader in all of us to truly consider if this is what drives our desire to be a leader, or are they more passionate about being experts, having all the answers, having the title. So how will we all leverage the basis of this new era of leadership principles to contribute and create value?

Disruption always has the potential for enrichment – so long as we choose to embrace the opportunity of the new. Now is a moment to pause, connect, and reflect on the topics here and learnings from this crisis, to look at how you want to move forward as an individual, as part of a team, and as an organization.

How will you leverage this moment as a catalyst for shaping your culture?

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