The COVID-19 pandemic has been cataclysmic, with managers and employees challenged as never before. Workplaces are already undergoing continuous change, including economic uncertainty, a continuously evolving marketplace, the rapid and disruptive pace of technology, and a multi-generational workforce.
Coupled with the pandemic, these changes drive productivity and new business operating models, supporting innovation; delivery of business processes; virtual customers and suppliers; and virtual employee communication and engagement.
There is also an increase in the use of contractors, virtual teams and home working, flexible working, and project-based contracts, with many employees having portfolio careers with multiple employers.
How do we prevent people from becoming demotivated and disconnected, and heading towards lower wellbeing and perhaps even burnout?
Employee engagement may be a management approach that you are already familiar with, as it has become increasingly more mainstream over the last decade, with many organizations already promoting strategies to foster engagement, as a way of working which benefits both employees and employers.
As well as improving performance and productivity, employee engagement research demonstrates positive impacts on levels of absenteeism, retention, innovation, and customer satisfaction, plus importantly in these challenging times, reciprocal positive influences on wellbeing. When engaged, people find what they do fulfilling and rewarding, offer more of their commitment, capability, and potential, and have a real sense of belonging and well-being.
However, it is important to note that, despite the differing definitions and applications of employee engagement, research has shown it to be a psychological or physical state of being. It is not a management activity, where something is ‘done to employees to ‘make’ them engaged (although management is a factor that influences engagement), nor is it job satisfaction (which may contribute to or result from engagement, but is distinct).
Employee engagement is much more about a two-way commitment and communication between an organization and its employees, based on trust and integrity. Bailey et al. (2017) review of 214 engagement studies, plus Gifford and Young (2021) engagement evidence review for the CIPD, suggest that organizations need to pay attention to:
each employee’s self-efficacy (belief in being able to succeed in the workplace, based on skills they have and circumstances they face), resilience (ability to recover quickly from difficulties) and personal resources (such as time, energy, focus, willpower, money, mood, connection and support). Recruiting the ‘right’ person, with personality traits and capabilities to do the job, is important, but employers and managers must also create the right work environment, including work that is meaningful (personal growth and contribution to a greater goal)
job design, where people have the resources to perform tasks successfully, whilst not being overwhelmed. Both line managers, and other co-workers within teams, need to determine individual requirements for support, feedback and recognition, as well as appropriate levels of autonomy
positive leadership and management behaviours, where these are both authentic and foster trust, plus inspire people to work towards a goal or vision. Providing employees with a meaningful voice, such as facilitating upwards feedback, and enabling respectful, adult-to-adult conversations, is also critical
organisational and team factors, where employee contributions that are valued; wellbeing is deemed important; procedural justice exists (fairness of decision-making processes); psychological safety is paramount (where speaking up is not punished by rejection or ridicule); plus providing employees with both responsibility and autonomy to decide how to do their job
social factors, such as feeling a sense of belonging, receiving concern for wellbeing from others, and social support from co-workers and line management
The connection between engagement and wellbeing
Could this insulate employees from covid-19’s potentially damaging effects?
Gallup’s (2020) annual study suggests that not only are engagement and wellbeing highly reciprocal, but high well-being enhances the benefits of engagement, influencing employee performance beyond that reached through engagement alone. When employees are engaged and thriving at work, burnout decreases, and productivity improves.
Unsurprisingly, during the pandemic, wellbeing suffered a considerable decline, with stress and worry at continually high levels, fuelled by everything from health and job concerns to social disconnectedness; from social injustice to childcare strains; plus uncertainty about the future. This is even more prevalent in remote workers, with people forced to parent, teach and undertake extended workdays, or endure loneliness and isolation, often within in a single space since early 2020.
Therefore, how employers respond to the wellbeing of workers during and after this pandemic will be key in both protecting employee engagement, and avoiding greater instances of absence and/or staff turnover.
Influences of Forced Remote Working
Interestingly, Gallup (2020) also found that some remote workers experienced significantly higher engagement than on-site workers during the pandemic. They reported being thankful for their jobs, plus preferring the increased flexibility and autonomy, as well as strong leadership efforts to engage them. They were also inspired by having a shared sense of purpose.
Therefore, for remote workers, this suggests a paradox, with both greater levels of engagement and negative emotions that impact wellbeing, demonstrating the extremely polarizing work-life experiences resulting from the pandemic! This is an important insight for leaders when managing remote teams: when capitalizing on the advantages of having employees who work from home, there must also be mechanisms in place to actively reduce sources of exceptional stress and worry.
If organizations can both engage remote employees and take serious action towards repairing wellbeing, the results will be a stronger, healthier, and more productive workforce, with greater individual and organizational success.
There is also compelling evidence that employers need to ensure remote workers still have a meaningful voice. As above, this is about creating credible opportunities for engagement: genuine communication between management and employees is essential, with opportunities to ask questions, raise concerns and offer suggestions.
However, the use of email as a means of engaging employees offers very limited opportunities for genuine interaction. If employees perceive their work environment to be one in which they can continually share opinions, ideas, and concerns, they will in turn be more likely to demonstrate higher levels of engagement (Rees et al., 2013).
Furthermore, Wieneke et al. (2019) found that a work unit well-being champion, alongside the strong organizational commitment to employee wellbeing, can lead to greater employee engagement and well-being, as well as a more favorable view of the organization, which would suggest real benefits of a robust well-being champion program.
What might this mean for day-to-day workplace practices?
De-la-Calle-Durán and Rodríguez-Sánchez’s (2021) review of 148 employee engagement and wellbeing studies, identified five main drivers of engagement that also lead to wellbeing, within the current pandemic context: conciliation, cultivation, confidence, compensation, and communication.
Questioning current practices, and asking employees what each of these means to them, may illuminate areas where both engagement and wellbeing could be enhanced. Questions to consider may be:
Is there flexibility for people to work in a way that suits them?
How would employees describe their work-life balance?
How is the challenge of embedding new mindsets managed, where managers feel able to trust employees who work out of their sight?
Do current employee development opportunities consider changes to working practices and recognize diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns?
Can people manage their energy, fitness, and recovery through reasonable workloads, healthy working practices, time for rest, and professional support?
Are there mechanisms in place to relieve and prevent psychological health issues resulting from isolation and lack of connectedness?
Are there fair, equitable and open policies for remote working, particularly around management, scheduling, and technology (beyond how to protect and secure devices!)?
Are employees’ efforts, and additional costs, adequately rewarded? Are there “perks” to attract and retain employees, such as working mothers or single parents? Has consideration been taken of possible financial hardships?
Does the current workplace culture accept and support heroic employee juggling acts?
Are employees included in wellbeing conversations? Do workplace reviews and progress meetings include wellbeing milestones? Does leadership communication emphasize both employee and family wellbeing?
Do managers have the skills and training to recognize that high engagement may mask poor wellbeing and possible burnout?
Do employees feel they have the same or greater participation in, and engagement with, organizational values and goals?