Improving Employee Engagement & Experience Through Leadership

Jul 22 2020 | Insights
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It could be one of the greatest challenges that business leaders have ever faced.

You know that employee experience is critical to the success of your company. You also know that thanks to COVID-19, millions of people have lost their jobs, with millions more ripped from the security of their office environments and forced to work from crowded kitchen tables.

How can leaders continue to build an experience for their employees that ultimately leads to healthier, more productive workforce? It starts with the size and scope of the challenge.

Engagement vs Experience

Employee engagement is manifested in qualities like dedication, loyalty and the discretionary effort. Numerous studies have established a clear link between engaged workforces and business success.

The Harvard Business Review has reported often on the fact that disengaged workers are more susceptible to absenteeism, workplace accidents and errors. And that organizations with disengaged workforces have lower productivity, profitability and share price.

Employee experience – compensation, career development opportunities, well-being support and recognition programs – is what organizations use to build engagement. And there’s no getting around the fact that employee experience and engagement have suffered during the pandemic.

As the employee experience is upended, engagement drops

In early March, survey firm Gallup found that 38 per cent of American employees were actively engaged; by June that number had dropped to 31 per cent, a “historic” drop in a key business metric.

How exactly has the pandemic eroded engagement? The most significant change has been the sudden and profound shift from corporate office to home office. The same Gallup poll showed 31 per cent of Americans working away from their offices; by April 2, the number had increased to 62 per cent.

The shift has been as profound in other countries. In the United Kingdom, half of all employers reported the gross majority of their employees were working from home. An early April survey in Argentina reported that 93 per cent of all employers had sent their employees home to isolate from the virus.

In the face of these trends, how can leaders create a positive employee experience when we are away from our offices and so few of us have face-to-face contact?

Shifting demands in employee experience

A recent survey of companies with more than 1,000 employees conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (I4CP), a think-tank funded by large employers from around the world, found a significant shuffling of employee experience priorities.

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, I4CP surveys established compensation as the number one element of employee experience, with leadership development and performance management close behind. Wellness/well-being programs and recognition programs completed the top five elements.

In its most recent survey results, remote technology became the number one-ranked element, followed by compensation and flexible working arrangements. Wellness/well-being and recognition programs held their spots. “As organizations work their way through the rigors of ongoing crisis management, the focus is moving from basic needs, safety, and security to long-range enablement,” I4CP said of its results.

Leaders: the bridge to continued positive employee experience

First, the good news. A June survey of 800-U.S. based employees by McKinsey found that 78 per cent believe their organizations responded appropriately to the pandemic and 80 per cent believe leaders acted “proactively to protect their health and safety.”

But now that it appears we’re in for the long-haul – efforts to return to normal working lives has backfired profoundly in some jurisdictions – what can leaders do to build on that trust and support? There are three themes that seem to be part of most must-do lists:

Listen and engage: At the top many lists of best practices is listening to employees and engaging directly on the things that concern them the most. “By being readily available and helping employees give meaning to a crisis (“sense making”), leaders … can help connect employees to the organization and to one another and can help enhance social connection and affiliation—not just formally, but also by allowing informal and organic conversations to emerge,” McKinsey said in the aforementioned survey.

Health and well-being are no longer optional. Before the pandemic, there was a growing consensus that wellness is a business issue. The threat COVID-19 has posed to physical and mental health has confirmed that leaders must create healthy environments. “In addition to providing masks, sanitizers and personal protective equipment, HR leaders must proactively monitor how employees feel about their work and workplace,” according to Brian Kropp, vice president at global research firm Gartner.

Act urgently and decisively to build employee trust. In May, the Harvard Business Review lauded two leaders who triumphed in the face of the pandemic: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. While many leaders dithered, Silver and Ardern defied critics and responded to the pandemic quickly and decisively. This, authors Michaela Kerrissey and Amy Edmondson said, builds an environment of trust and support. “Crises of historical proportion can make for leaders of historical distinction, but that is far from guaranteed,” they wrote.

Employee experience has been upended by the pandemic. Now, it is more likely to be defined by the quantity and quality of video conference calls, or the number of VPN licenses your organization holds. Regardless of the components used to build employee experience, the most successful leaders know it is no less important than before the pandemic.

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