How do you Keep Employees Engaged During the Pandemic?

January 13, 2021

Just be more engaging

The Harvard Extension School did a study on remote management and discovered that “managing a virtual team requires managers to double down on the fundamentals of good management, including establishing clear goals, running great meetings, communicating clearly, and leveraging team members' individual and collective strengths.”

But in order to accomplish all of that, managers need to keep employees engaged and empowered. And, because many, if not most, of any company’s employees are working remotely, that goal has become more difficult than ever.

For example, the Harvard study found that, without the clear boundaries that office life provides, many of the most productive employees can find themselves spinning their wheels, with workdays that never end. All this does is set them up for becoming exhausted and resentful.

Keeping motivation high is also difficult. Situations like working from home because of the pandemic can begin with excitement and energy but eventually grind down as the situation drags on.

But a remote team that canl feel organically part of a strong company culture will find it easier to remain engaged, motivated and productive. 

Managing remotely isn’t the same as managing in-person — except it is

Managing remotely because of the pandemic is pretty much like managing in-person — emphasis on the “pretty much.” The fundamentals and best practices of good management are still applicable, but they need to be used and presented in a much different way.

You need to adjust to and make the best use of technologies and communication techniques you might not be accustomed to using…and you definitely need to pay more attention to the “who” as well as the “what.” It’s tough to do a managerial “walk around” to see how people are doing, engage in small talk and just be present (in a good way).

Managing remotely can be complicated. Add a dash of national emergency, and it becomes even more challenging to engage employees. As organizations across the world transition to a partial or fully work-from-home environment in response to COVID-19, understanding what managers need to lead remotely is a must.

Of course, not all managers view remote work the same way, especially when it's driven by circumstance rather than choice. Some managers will embrace a little separation from their teams -- they may even see it as an opportunity to get some uninterrupted work in. Others get energy and focus from their people and will feel isolated and less in a position to help their teams and their organization when they aren't in the office every day.

So while some managers are busy decorating their home office and celebrating not having to commute, others will resent forced isolation and feeling disconnected from their people. And, according to Gallup, because 70% of an individual's engagement is driven by their manager, it's crucial that leaders individualize to best support them.

This pandemic lockdown has been hard on everyone, but particularly hard on younger employees. They’re often the ones just starting a career; they have young children; and they are possibly more social.

Remote supervisors who demonstrate confidence as well as find ways to empower their employees are getting better results.

What can managers do to create more engagement

They can start by acknowledging that things are different; that micro-managing is bad, but even worse when you try to do it online; and that they will have to work at it. Which means what?

Here are a few brief online “best practices” we’ve discovered by talking with many of our clients:

  • Clarity is essential — Setting clear expectations and making sure everyone has what they need to complete their tasks is fundamental at any time, but it’s especially crucial when most of us are working from home.
  • Schedule shorter, more frequent meetings — long, drawn out in-person meetings are bad enough, but online they can be a disaster
  • Combine offline meetings with what’s known as “asynchronous communication” (email, text, etc.) — Not every communication requires a meeting and emails in particular are far better ways to disseminate a lot of important information as well as deliver urgent messages
  • Try to make meetings less formal — Trying to keep online meetings “formal” when you’re dealing with dogs, kids and spouses in the background is a losing battle. Take advantage of the natural “looseness” that results from meeting via computer screen and embrace the looseness. It’s easier, more practical…and engaging.
  • Ask people what they need to be successful — Don’t assume you know or that they already have the tools. And asking involves the employees, which is also a great way to create and sustain engagement
  • Create social interaction — You take breaks during in-person meetings, so why not when you’re online? Throw in a happy hour or two every week to build more camaraderie. Ask questions. Play games. Anything to bring a remote team together.
  • Give people permission to “take a break” — Not only breaks during the work day, but also a day off or morning off every now and then. Maybe even a series of “mini-vacations” like long weekends. As long as it doesn’t disrupt other members of the team or the work itself, this can be an important way to keep morale up.
  • People are more engaged when they feel they’re doing meaningful work — Not all work is obviously “meaningful” but how you frame a project, task or assignment can make all the difference. This goes hand-in-hand with the next point.
  • Create a “Done” list – Instead of always concentrating on the “To Do “ list, show the results of the work. Then celebrate the accomplishments (see “Throw in a happy hour…”) with positive stories.
  • Ask non-work questions — Find out what your team is binge-watching. Ask how they’re doing? Inquire about their kids and spouses, even their pets.
  • Show empathy — This doesn’t mean doing the digital equivalent of patting someone on the shoulder and saying “There, there…”. It means truly demonstrating that you understand what the employee is going through during the pandemic and even sharing stories that reveal your own problems. If there ever was a “we’re all in this together” moment, this would be it.

Here’s a deeper dive into some of the important ways you can create and sustain engagement during this long lockdown:

Adopt “curiosity” as a leadership style — Be candid and honest with the team to draw out how they’re feeling and what they need. Share what you know…and what you don’t know. Admit when you’re lost at sea and seek direction. Ask questions. Let others provide answers.

Treat people as individuals and give them individual attention
When people are in the office, it's easier to have one set of rules for everyone. But when many employees are working from home — often using the dining room as their office, when children are not in school or can’t go to daycare, and when broadband connections are stressed to the point of overload, providing individual attention is absolutely key to engagement.

Decide where structure is required (no crying children or barking dogs during client calls) and where it can be more flexible. This can mean anything from scheduling meetings when a child is napping to allowing for the fact that people will often need to finish work later in the evening rather than the office close-of-business. Every employee may have different ways to remain productive and, within reason, you need to make sure they have the space — and the empowerment — to work the way it works best for them.

Communication is the key
Connecting with employees face-to-face can be significantly different than doing so online. You have to allow for the technology and how it can alter how you communicate. For example, how you look on-camera can send positive or negative signals, including how often — and how — you smile; how your tone of voice comes across during online meetings; and making sure you give the employee enough space to finish their thoughts rather than abruptly cutting them off, to name a few.

Even asynchronous communication can send the wrong message (this applies even when everyone is back in the office). If an email tone is too harsh, there is no facial expression or tone of voice to truly signal what you’re trying to get across.  

A lot of what employees pick up from managers is nonverbal. Managers need to communicate with teams in a variety of ways using multiple mediums always keeping expectations clear, making sure priorities are in sync, and to removing barriers that keep managers and employees from doing their best work.

Transactional versus relationship communication
Before we all went home to work, communication with employees could easily be more transactional — “need to get this done by end of day” — but doing that online, over the phone or through email (again, without the benefit of seeing a facial expression or hearing a tone of voice), can feel curt and leave employees with a bad feeling. Involving yourself more personally with employees creates more human relationships, which can provide a far better context for what are essentially transactional messages. That means finding out what employees are working on, what they’ve completed, what kind of help do they need, and especially how they’re doing.

Listen, and listen carefully
Strong leadership inspires everyone. Ask employees what they need to hear from managers and what they want to hear from the top. Ask them how they want to be held accountable, if they’re concerned about being able to deliver quality work and how they think they and the rest of their team can be more engaged and connected.

Managers need to also ask how employees prefer to be contacted. Are text messages OK for urgent issues, or is that an invasion of privacy? Do they have everything they need to videoconference comfortably? Scheduling weekly check-ins with their teams — not necessarily formal meetings — can replace the informal conversations managers can have when they’re simply walking through the office.

Don’t assume that people working at home don’t feel accountable — They may have children, spouses, repair workers, phone calls on the other line, and other distractions working against their ability to be engaged and productive, but these are the same people you hired. Trust them.

And when you “check in” with employees, try not to make it about checking in on the employees. Instead, make it about the project. Remember, just because you can’t see the work being done, doesn’t mean it isn’t getting done.

Demonstrate that you trust employees
Embrace acceptable risk in trying new things. Give employees more latitude than you may have in the past. Get creative. But, above all, make sure employees know that you trust them to get the job done right and be as productive as ever.

Be open to new ideas
This is always a tough thing to do. New ideas mean risk. Be open to learning lessons from this experience and even having some of your thinking about work, the organization and your customers turned upside down. You can always go back to what you’ve done in the past, but in the meantime you may discover that you’ve developed even more effective ways to do the work and manage the team.

Allow your culture to evolve
Your overall work culture can become more inclusive, friendlier, more enjoyable for everyone involved, and ultimately more productive when you’re forced to work in new ways. These changes may have positive effects on the company’s culture long after COVID-19 is under control and many of us return to the workplace.

Talk about the future — It’s easy to only focus on the details, those things that must get done. But don’t forget to talk about strategic direction and what that means for the future. Discuss what work will look like in six months, in a year or in ten years. Putting employees’ minds to work on bigger issues can be incredibly healthy.

Expand technology support
Start by making sure everyone has the right technology to do their jobs and stay in touch. This includes, but isn’t necessarily limited to:

  • Work-related wi-fi
  • Project management software
  • Web and video conferencing tools
  • Collaboration tools
  • Scheduling programs
  • Workflow automation
  • Chat

Even your most tech-savvy manager will be dealing with a variety of technical difficulties if they are not used to working remotely. Ensure your technology team is ready to assist managers and their teams. Open all available resources to keep work occurring from anywhere and everywhere.

Emphasize well-being, including your own
Share how you’re feeling and get employees to open up about how they’re doing. Talk about how team members are keeping fit, eating healthy (or not), the ergonomics of work spaces — anything that promotes well-being.

Watch for warning signs
The pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have created intensely stressful situations. Everyone — employees, children, spouses, pets — are often together 24/7, trying to live lives while working. The ongoing and sometimes intensified stress can lead to emotional, mental and physical issues that can produce negative effects on the employee, the entire team, and ultimately the productivity of the organization.

So, keep eyes and ears wide open. If someone appears out of sorts or is obviously beginning to exhibit signs of stress, talk with them. Offer any help you can. Better sooner rather than later.

A few quick reminders:

  • Try not to micromanage (but don’t stop managing either)
  • Do your best to create balance between work and life for you and your team
  • Work with employees to set realistic expectations
  • Collaborate as much as possible, even when it seems easier to “do it yourself”
  • Find ways to do the digital equivalent of the “office walk around”
  • Don’t avoid personal conversations; they’re more important than ever

MMA can help

Marsh & McLennan Agency has deep expertise in helping clients of all sizes and in a wide range of industries develop strong engagement and better communication. To learn more, talk with your MMA representative.