And vs. Or: Don't Forget About Employee Engagement

Updated: Sep 11


As Human Resource professionals, we have a lot on our plates right now.  I get it.  Some have moved employees back to the office, at least part-time.  Others never left.  And there are those, well it may seem like the return to the office will never arrive.  In any case COVID-19 appears to be your biggest concern.  And it is.

But so is payroll, the FFCRA, benefits, the eventual open enrollment looming 90 days from now, filling open positions, missed pay increases, performance management, employee relations, FLSA compliance…  The list could go on and on.  However, one thing we sometimes forget is employee engagement.

It’s like the age-old question – what’s more important: the employees or the customers.  People have argued both ways for as long as the question has been asked. The right answer is both by saying it is the employees AND the customers. The same is true today for the response to coronavirus.  Is it more important to focus on keeping employees safe, or keeping them engaged?  My question is why are we supposed to choose?  Instead of asking which is more important, we need to be asking how do we accomplish both. AND, not OR.

In all the webinars, articles and opinions on COVID-19, rarely do I see information or support for continued employee engagement. The focus is 100% on the employer response to the virus.  I get it.  I have led some of those webinars myself.  But there comes a time when we need to add another component.  Now that we have plans and processes in place to keep our employees safe, we also need to keep them engaged.  Here’s why.

According to Gallup, arguably the foremost expert on understanding the state of employee engagement, effective engagement leads to higher customer ratings, higher productivity, increased profitability, reduced turnover and less absenteeism.  We need these things in our business…right now.  Organizations are struggling with concerns over the lasting impact of COVID-19, mandatory shut-downs, increased new cases of community spread, as well as reduced customer demand and increasing frequency of pivoting their products and services.

To successfully manage these concerns, here are some tips to increase employee engagement among your staff – whether or not they are on-site, working from home, or still in a furloughed status.

On-site employees

For employees who never left the office, or just returned, we have to remember it is not enough to think they are engaged because they showed up to work.  They are stressed. Some because they didn’t want to return but had to, and for others, they are doing the work of two and three people.

Providing engagement to this group of employees should be the easiest, but the results might surprise you.  The first step in engaging this group is to understand what they want and need.  How?  Ask!

There is probably not time to do a full employee engagement survey, but you don’t need to.  Regular communications between managers and employees is enough to get started, but only if managers first engage with the employees.  Safety and security are going to be their first needs.  They need to feel safe at work.  What is you plan of action?  What are you doing to protect them from the virus?  What can you do to help their families feel safe?

Next, how do they belong in the current environment?  What is their role in the organization and how are they contributing to the success?  Ensure each employee in the office understands the importance of their role and why they are there.

Then comes recognition.  Life is different.  Work is different.  Our responses to their successes should be different. In many respects, employees are taking a chance coming to work, yet they are showing up every day.  While regular attendance was and is expected, maybe a little thank you now and then will increase their satisfaction in their job.  What used to be a small task might be harder because of the current environment.  A gift card to a food delivery service might provide them with a nice meal for the family.  What can you do different to recognize employees?  

Employees working from home

Create a sense of belonging, particularly for those employees who may still feel lost at home.  Some employees relish the fact they get to work from home and don’t have to put on pants every day.  However, there are others who are craving interaction with another human being.  It may get so bad that depression starts to set in.  Zoom calls where no work is done (and drinks are had), snacks sent to their home with a message from their manager, unexpected handwritten notes in the mail are all ways to create a sense of community in an otherwise disconnected world.

Engagement also comes in the form of more frequent feedback to work-from-home employees.  Too often out-of-sight means out-of-mind. Or at least that is a strong perception.  Encourage and train managers on how to provide regular feedback to employees they don’t see regularly.  Recognize accomplishment, encourage collaboration and let them know they are important.  Each of these things can go a long way in helping remote employees feel valued.

Employees on furlough status

Finally, the employees you had to furlough.  There is a reason you haven’t permanently laid them off.  If it is because you currently plan to bring them back, then you need to keep the line of communications open.

Monthly or bi-weekly emails with a status update is a great start.  While it would be risky to promise a return date, let them know the current status of the company.  Have you been able to bring others back?  What are the plans when the shutdowns are lifted?   Also – provide resources they may need to help them through this time.  Is your EAP still available to them? 

In some cases, it might be appropriate to give them a call.  When the time comes to return to work, they will be grateful that you took time with them.  And if the time comes to lay them off permanently, they may not feel like they have been abandoned.  Dignity and respect go a long way.

When all is said and done, the C-Suite will look back at the performance of human resource professionals and the impact we have had on the workforce.  In addition to taking care of the normal transactional relationship with employees and the added stressors of dealing with COVID-19, they will also see a department that took time to engage employees and ensure the relationship between the workforce and the company stayed strong.  They will see that HR didn’t have to decide on “task a” OR “task b”, but rather decided it was going to be “task a” AND “task b”.  Keep up the good work and fight the good fight.  I know you can do it.  You are HR!