The four drivers of employee engagement at a time of crisis

Written by Geoff Matthews CMgr FCMI Tuesday 22 September 2020
We’re at a fork in the road. Leaders must resist their command-and-control instincts and instead dig deeper to benefit from the best of their employees
Four different-coloured paper aeroplanes against a white background

In my research over the years into employee engagement, one point that particularly strikes me is how a crisis can be a fork in the road for how organisations think about their people.

For some, a crisis becomes the time to put ‘soft’ topics on the back-burner; leaders may decide they’re too busy to worry about employee engagement, and when layoffs could be coming they may stop internal listening processes, especially if unwelcome feedback is anticipated. They may also believe that a recession will automatically lower engagement levels anyway – in which case there is little that can be done – and that a financial focus is the way ahead.

For others, it’s the exact opposite: they realise that they cannot succeed without their people being engaged too. They make sure that employees are informed and involved, and their energies are harnessed in order to help turn things around. For such organisations, it’s better to double down on employee engagement than risk employees just going through the motions of their job.

As William Kahn, the originator of the concept, said, individuals who are engaged at work become more energised in their role, give of their best and so positively impact their workplace as well; in short, “they fully inhabit their roles, not just do their jobs.”

Subsequent research has found a clear correlation between employee engagement and key topics such as innovation and customer satisfaction, so having engaged employees could be a key factor in the difference between success and failure for businesses.

This is the time to be candid

When writing the book Engaged: Unleashing Your Organization's Potential Through Employee Engagement, a key finding was that trust and fairness were critical preconditions for having engaged employees. In a crisis, this means leaders need to be candid about what’s going on, be visible and in touch with their employees. People will be concerned about job security, and even if managers cannot provide any news at this stage, it can help to reduce uncertainty if they can indicate the timeframe in which decisions will be made. When tough choices need to be made, it’s about ensuring they are done fairly. This is when values statements are put to the test. If layoffs do eventually occur, employees may be more reconciled to these if they know that all other alternatives were explored first, and that redundancies were the last resort.

The four drivers of employee engagement

We also identified four key drivers of engagement. The first of these is connection – how far employees identify with and take pride in being part of an organisation. The onset of Covid-19 has put this severely to the test – furloughs and working from home (WFH) may have weakened this sense of identification, or generated rethinking about future career priorities. Finding ways of really reconnecting (and not just endless Zoom calls!) is key, and leaders play a vital role in helping employees understand where things are now heading and how they can contribute.

The second driver is support, which relates to how far employees feel they are valued and set up for success in their job. At a time when there is so much uncertainty, line managers play an important role in recognising the anxiety their employees may feel and fostering a greater sense of psychological safety. This can range from fears about returning to work, to issues such as financial wellbeing, dealing with bereavement, or struggling to combine one’s job with children still being at home. Simply taking some time to discuss these worries, demonstrating empathy and concern, and offering whatever help is feasible, can therefore make a real difference.

Thirdly, we found that employee voice matters greatly. While it may be tempting in a crisis to rely on rapid ‘command-and-control’ ways of managing, we found that those leaders who took time to encourage two-way communication not only increased trust, but also benefited from harnessing employees’ views on what to do. If customer needs have dramatically shifted, frontline staff may be better informed than senior management about what’s going on. Where organisations need to do more with less, employees may also be able to offer a fresh perspective on where efficiencies may lie or how tasks can be redesigned.

The fourth factor we identified was scope. This means giving the opportunity for personal growth, fostering autonomy, and helping people find intrinsic motivation in their work. In this respect, WFH has been welcomed by many employees given the greater freedom and flexibility it offers, but this requires employees to be trusted, not micromanaged. When budgets are being squeezed, pay increases may well be out of the question, so genuine acknowledgement and recognition matter even more when times are tough. Finally, the crisis has forced many organisations to become more agile and ‘up their game’. Help with reskilling, or just looking at simple redesigns to jobs or work processes are also important.

How engaged employees make a difference

Examples abound of the difference such actions can make. For instance, our book highlighted public-sector organisations benefiting from employee insights into how they could deliver services better. We found one leading technology company that bounced back from multiple business challenges through the way it engaged its employees. Similarly, another multinational I spoke to attributed much of its turnaround to the involvement and commitment of its employees.

Employee engagement is therefore core for organisations trying to find a way out of the current crisis. It’s too important to be put to one side, or simply left to HR to worry about. Given current financial concerns, one of the positive things about the above measures is that they are generally no or low-cost in nature. And while employee engagement has become synonymous in some organisations with annual staff surveys, this is not the priority. That’s not to say that measuring opinions can’t help; smart organisations will be curious about whether employees understand and have confidence in the future course set by management. But ultimately it’s about managers putting people at the heart of what they do. Employees will remember how they were treated at this time, and organisations will only succeed in reinventing themselves for the future if they draw on the ideas and support of their people. As one HR leader that I interviewed told me, “Good people want to work for great leaders, not great surveys.” The current crisis is therefore the chance for leaders to make the difference. By showing they are authentic, approachable and credible, they can create the conditions where employees are engaged, and so promote the best possible outcome for their organisation - and the people working in it.

CMI members get exclusive access to ManagementDirect, which has many tips, videos, and articles on employee engagement – you can find a taster of that in our Knowledge Bank post on the topic.

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