As well as impacting the health of millions of people around the world, COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on workplaces. Some have folded and some have had to re-think the way they do business. Many workers have lost their jobs and those who haven’t are now working in very different circumstances to what they’re used to, and may even be worrying about the security of their own job.
At the best of times, keeping employees engaged and motivated can be challenging. However, during times of rapid change and uncertainty keeping them engaged and motivated is a significant ask.
So how can businesses rise to meet the challenge?
Navigating Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity
Since COVID-19 hit our shores in early 2020, the world of business has become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). Changes to the way we live and work are occurring every day, causing people to feel out of control and uncertain about the future. This uncertainty increases fear, while reducing productivity and engagement in the workplace. Employees who are uncertain as to whether their job is secure can experience increased levels of stress and anxiety, while the pressure to keep their jobs can lead to presenteeism, burn out and reduced performance.
Times of uncertainty can also cause workplace culture to suffer, as employees focus on their own issues, and begin to disconnect from their company (especially when working remotely), and all the things that made it a great place to work.
During times of rapid change, employers also operate in unchartered territory. For example, the current pandemic has meant that companies need to comply with physical distancing measures, remote working arrangements and learning to do business in ‘new ways’ where there is no clear road-map on how to make this work. All of these factors present many challenges for employers and businesses.
Yet in these difficult and volatile circumstances, employee engagement has never been more important.
The challenges of working at home
If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s the possibility for more people to work efficiently from home. It’s a scenario that’s likely to become more common, with future workplaces becoming more like ‘hubs’ for white collar employees, than primary places of work.
While working from home may have some perks, there are some challenges that must not be overlooked in order for this model to work well.
For a start, employers must ensure that whatever environment their employees work in, complies with Work Health and Safety (WHS) legislation requirements. Employers have a primary duty of care for the physical and mental health and safety of their employees, and as such, they must take measures to ensure that this is just as important for work-at-home employees as it is for those who are based in an office.
For example, many home-based work environments may not have the ideal ergonomic workspace set-up. When work-at-home directives were initially given as a result of COVID-19, many employees may have scrambled to set up a work-at-home space which equated to placing their laptop on the dining room table and working from there. Aside from the increased risk of workplace injuries related to inappropriate ergonomics, working in a non-business environment has the potential to reduce productivity and impact mental health.
Lines between work life and home life have become significantly blurred with employees working longer hours, either to make up for lost productivity during the day, or because it’s harder to ‘switch off’ from work when they’re working and living in the same space. Not being as ‘physically connected’ with their usual workplace has also equated to a level of disengagement, lack of motivation and no longer feeling part of a team while working in isolation.
As a result of these challenges, we’re seeing employees experiencing increased levels of stress, anxiety, frustration, and decreased engagement with their work.
Keep employees engaged with the three ‘Cs’
Engaged, loyal employees are one of the most valuable assets businesses have, especially during and after a pandemic. In a VUCA environment, it’s not just the employer’s response that determines how well a company will survive, but the effectiveness of the overall workforce. Engaging employees and keeping them motivated should therefore be one of the highest priorities for workplaces that are currently navigating rapid change, and trying to stay relevant in a turbulent market.
Greater employee engagement means higher productivity and efficiency, greater employee satisfaction, increased staff loyalty, and lower staff turnover, all of which equates to a better customer service, a better bottom line and the realisation of a company’s goals.
But how can employers improve employee engagement during these unsettling, unprecedented times?
Regular, clear communication is important at the best of times but it’s vital during times of uncertainty and upheaval. Information needs evolve during a crisis and people often need more regular communications. This doesn’t necessarily equate to an increased volume of communication, but it does mean that employers should disclose more information including the kinds of decisions that are being made and why they’re being made. Where possible, communications should come from the top (i.e. CEO, President, Founder, etc.) and should continue to reinforce the company’s overarching mission and goals.
Open and transparent communication from employers about how the company is handling current challenges, along with what’s expected of workers during this time, can help employees feel less unsure. However, taking the time to listen to the underlying feeling and concerns of employees, and then acting upon them will also build trust and loyalty, help workers feel more engaged, and help them connect to a deeper sense of purpose within their workplace.
Empowering and praising employees is another way to keep them feeling positive and engaged in the workplace. Promoting a culture of resilience, flexibility and adaptive thinking and helping employees develop these skills, will equip workers to better manage any future upheaval, so they may be able to develop strategies to help them, and the company thrive.
Care and compassion
While keeping employees safe and well is mandated for employers in any situation, it’s crucial to for employers to understand that periods of rapid change and upheaval such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can take a significant toll on people’s physical and mental health. In fact, the Australian Medical Association says that many health professionals are seeing significant growth in the number of patients seeking treatment and support for their mental health as a result of the pandemic.[i] In addition, increased unhealthy behaviours such as overeating and drinking (that are often used as coping mechanisms for stress) are also likely to take a toll on employees, and will impact the workforce both now and in the future.
Providing information on how employees can stay physically healthy while working from home, along with information on managing stress and anxiety, and where to go for help, are all excellent ways to support employees during this time. Similarly, being empathetic about the realities at-home workers are facing (i.e. shared workspaces, increased responsibility, and increased uncertainty and anxiety), and not putting unnecessary, extra pressure on them, will assist in helping remote workers feel less overwhelmed, better supported and more motivated in their work.
Connection and camaraderie
Finally, fostering a sense of connection and camaraderie is particularly important for teams that are working separately from one another. Regular video conferencing calls for the purpose of connecting rather than meeting can help people feel less isolated. Setting up team challenges or competitions that focus on improved health outcomes can increase the sense of teamwork and a sense that ‘we’re all in this together’. Having weekly phone calls or video calls to ‘check in with’ (as opposed to ‘check up on’) employees may help build and maintain connections between employers and employees, while celebrating team and individual achievements can also improve overall morale.
Fostering these connections and listening to employees’ challenges, concerns and feedback will also provide important information to help businesses develop systems and support to help workers ‘return to work’ post-COVID, and create a thriving, motivated workforce.
Employee engagement is more complex, ambiguous, and urgent than ever before. However, crises have the potential to bring out the worst, and best in people. By investing time and effort in engaging their workers, employers have a unique opportunity to grow stronger individuals, stronger teams, and therefore stronger workplaces.
[i] Australian Medical Association, Joint Statement – COVID-19 impact likely to lead to increased rates of suicide and mental illness, 7 May 2020,
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