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3 Leadership Best Practices That Improve Employee Engagement Amid COVID-19

Gina Miller
Gina Miller

The COVID-19 pandemic has, undoubtedly, changed consumers and employees. What can company leaders do to address concerns and thrive during this unprecedented period?

As the world reacts to the COVID-19 crisis and adjusts to a new normal, brands around the globe are doing their part to maintain the integrity of our shared healthcare, social and economic institutions. This is an important effort, but brands must not lose sight of maintaining integrity internally as well. Companies that turn inward to invest time and resources into their workforce will soon find themselves in a far better place than those who hold the external-only focus.

To master this inside approach well, consider these three things:

  • Everything has changed, and if leaders fail to address that, they fail their employees on a fundamental level.

  • Leaders must reengage employees as they try to return to some sense of normalcy. This requires commitment and proactive communication.

  • By keeping rumors at bay, displaying empathy and understanding, and giving employees an active role in reinventing the company, leaders can empower employees in building a stronger post-COVID business.

The pandemic marked a period of intense, rapid change. In order to arrive on the other side as efficiently and soundly as possible, companies need to minimize ambiguity, doubt and fear. It's up to leaders to draft a plan to help employees find a sense of normalcy and productivity. This is especially important for employees who return to an office after working remotely for months. As of mid-April, the Institute for Public Relations reported only 10% of communications executives had started creating such a plan, supporting the idea that this is an area where many companies may already be behind.

When forming your plan for crisis recovery, remember that one of the most forgotten elements of that plan is giving the same time and energy to your employees as you’re giving your customers. Too often, executives start from a business and operations perspective, asking the question "How will we get the customer to buy again?" And the mistake is they stop there.

Leaders who simply assume their employees will naturally fall back into "business as usual" are mistaken. Employees, like customers, need to adjust, trust and reengage. And the responsibility of making this happen falls on the organization's leadership.

Engagement is more than job satisfaction

As employees adjusted to working from home around the clock, most found ways to be equally, or even more, productive. But just because employees are doing their jobs – and doing those jobs well – doesn’t mean they're engaged. That only happens when employees have a personal sense of satisfaction from helping the organization reach its higher purpose. It's neither easy nor common to keep employees engaged at this level. In fact, 90% of employees say they'd be "willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work."

At its core, employee engagement is all about commitment: to the company, leadership and a bigger purpose. So when the crisis subsides and business resumes, employees need to feel motivated by and committed to your company's purpose.

Once things begin going back to some kind of normalcy, this requires you to communicate with your employees differently. Talk about your purpose. Give the employees a clear reason to be committed to this new normal. Employees cannot commit to the company, the leadership or the bigger purpose if they have no understanding of what or who these things are. Be clear. Be sincere. Be relevant.

A new era of communication

When a significant change happens externally, you must focus on your crisis management strategies. You've likely already had to alter your communication strategy in the past due to internal business changes. For example, perhaps you hired a new president who preferred more frequent communications with employees while the previous one preferred to share information each month via an all-hands employee meeting.

Our current pandemic situation, however, is entirely different. No one has had to deal with crisis communication management on this scale before. Being global means our employees are watching what other companies are doing and hearing about the experiences of their friends and family members. This "collective community" can mean magnified experiences and expectations. With a crisis like COVID-19, this magnification means your employees need more from you than they would in a smaller-scale, limited-impact crisis.

For example, employees who have been laid off or furloughed are returning with greater fear and trepidation. They don't know how their job has changed, but they know those changes may be significant. They may even question whether the company still values them at all. They could feel angry or jealous of co-workers who were able to continue working and feel frustrated that they were cast aside so quickly. All of these are valid emotions, and if leadership doesn't strategically manage them, employees tend to grow more resentful over time.

What can companies do?

Any crisis situation has three crisis management stages: planning, mitigation and recovery. Through each stage, there are some universal employee engagement best practices that are especially valuable as you work through the course of this outbreak. You can apply them immediately, and do so in a way that engages your workforce and supports a return to normalcy.

1. Keep the "grapevine" well pruned.

The first part of the planning step is to update and inform employees. By doing so, you control your own messaging. If you don't, someone else will – likely via rumors and false information spread among employees.

Start by updating employees on the immediate COVID-19-related information. What safety measures are you implementing in your offices? What education and resources are you providing to employees? What policies are you changing (e.g., leave policies for employees caring for affected family members)? As your work ebbs and flows, make sure that you have plans in place to keep operations flexible.

Even if all you're doing is communicating that there is nothing to communicate, you'll still mitigate speculation and fear. Employees just want to feel like they're in the loop.

2. Acknowledge current challenges, but focus on the future.

Most challenge happens in the mitigation stage, and it's likely where a lot of folks are still living right now. Many companies are on the backside of this stage. They have reduced their workforce, changed what they needed to change and are surviving. Now, they're just waiting. But do not wait quietly. Internal communication has never been more critical.

Although mitigation is that period of trying to establish and maintain control, there are actually many positive things that can come out of this period. Acknowledge the situation to employees and be empathetic to their plights, and you will demonstrate understanding and foster rapport. You also have the opportunity to guide employees to the light at the end of the tunnel; to do so, you have to communicate a vision for recovery that involves and elevates everyone. This message could come from the CEO, managers or peers, depending on your organization, but it should always be future-focused.

If you decide to go the peer-to-peer route, you might consider having a happy hour to get bodies in the room (even if that room is still, at the moment, virtual). Then, have a peer leader help facilitate the discussion. It doesn't have to be a fancy party; people will be eager to reconnect and catch up with their colleagues. Now is the time to rely on those internal brand ambassadors to create those small cohorts and ensure people are checking in on each other.

3. Embrace employees as you reinvent and restore.

Many business owners are thinking, "If I make it to recovery, I cannot do business the same way. I need to reinvent my [fill in the blank]." They're exactly right. It may be a new process, product, service or approach. This is a golden opportunity to think differently about where you want to go –instead of investing time and energy finding ways to return to exactly where you were.

As you and your fellow leaders consider this new normal and your company begins to recover, you must bring employees with you. For the best employee engagement, make sure they understand the impact they have on the company's purpose and vision. Start by acknowledging that things are shifting, then asking employees to stand with you and be a part of that change. Create communication that compels employees not only to think about restoration but also to act on those ideas. Ideally, you also create a way for the employees to collaborate, create and contribute to the change.

Your frontline workers know your organization's common issues and challenges better than anyone. Ask them questions; use surveys, assessments, and focus groups to gain insights, for instance, and listen to their answers. You can even incentivize them to offer ideas through a dedicated Slack channel or email chain. Just acknowledge and appreciate their ideas, and look for the opportunities that excite them most. If they feel heard, employees will bring valuable insights and ideas to your company, and they will feel more connected as a result. Your future becomes our future. It's a win-win.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, undoubtedly, changed consumers. They're thinking and acting differently,but so are your employees. To keep employees engaged, company leaders must communicate consistently with care, concern, control and commitment. The more you listen to and have a dialogue with employees, the more you can empower them to bring new ideas and solutions to the table, which benefits everyone involved. This is the opportunity that COVID-19 has given us.

Image Credit: julief514 / Getty Images
Gina Miller
Gina Miller Member
Gina Miller is the senior vice president of employee experience at Mitchell, a leading integrated PR firm that creates real connections between businesses, brands, and people.