Reengaging employees under COVID-19 will be key to building a ‘new normal’. If the ripple effects of the global health crisis remain difficult to assess, the immediate impact of the pandemic is felt by all businesses around the world. Managers are faced with multiple challenges that span from reorienting operations, ensuring employee safety and shifting to new working patterns —to name just a few. Maria del Peso, Vice-Chair of Your Public Value’s Supervisory Board and Founding CEO of InSpirente reflects on one of these challenges: How could companies reengage employees who are worried about their future?

VUCA —short for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity— was first introduced by the U.S. Army War College in the late 1980s-early 1990s as a reference to the rapid changes that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet bloc. This acronym was later on adapted to the business world to describe the state of flux that followed the 2008 global financial crisis. Since the onset of the COVID-19 world health crisis its relevance has become even more evident. Unpredictability now prevails everywhere, in the economy, in healthcare, in politics, in society. The pandemic impacts on our daily lives and influences our medium and long-term projections. In the post-COVID world, uncertainty is becoming a certainty.

One thing is sure, though: each individual is experiencing the global health crisis in a different way. When assessing the disruption that the coronavirus pandemic may cause in people’s lives, no generalisation can be made at this stage.

In addition to looking for ways to continue operating in the post-COVID economic environment, companies are faced with a key question: How can they mobilise or remobilise their employees whose professional future looks uncertain? And, corollarily : What should be the role of managers in employee re-engagement?

Below we develop a few recommendations —based on individual accounts and the results of a qualitative survey we conducted in June 2020— that we believe business leaders should use to motivate or remotivate their teams.

  1. Take the diversity of individual experiences and situations into account.
  2. Reaffirm the role of companies in the protection and safety of employees.
  3. Involve employees in concrete and immediate changes.
  4. Adapt management practices to the new context.
  5. Communicate.

Recommendation #1: Take the diversity of individual experiences and situations into account.

  • Many people responded to the pandemic by sharing fun videos and photos of their lives in quarantine on social networks. For many others, however, human mobility restrictions and social distancing under COVID-19 turned into a nightmare. Depending on whether they worked from home or in an office, whether they were on short-time work, whether they had young children to take care of during the day, whether they lived in cramped urban housing conditions or in spacious country houses, people experienced sanitary constraints differently. With new lockdowns looming on the horizon, the gap between these personal experiences is likely to re-emerge or even widen further.
  • The crisis may appear as an opportunity for professional development or, conversely, a cause for concern for the future. It is therefore crucial that companies listen to and ‘take the pulse’ of each of their teams and employees. Prior to building a ‘new normal’, they must offer their staff an opportunity to share their personal experiences and lessons learnt.

Actions

  • Integrate regular and frequent ‘bottom-up’ listening schemes and ‘many to many’ discussion spacesinto your management and internal communication rituals.
  • Give individuals and teams new landmarks through effective collective and organisational coaching.

Recommendation #2: Reaffirm the role of companies in the protection and safety of employees.

  • Companies that made the protection of their employees a top priority during the COVID-19 crisis developed valuable trust capital to re-engage their teams. This is what the aforementioned survey shows. A study conducted earlier this year by McKinsey & Company on ‘COVID-19 and the employee experience’ reached a similar conclusion.
  • Employee safety if both a legal and moral obligation of companies towards their staff. Under several national legislations, e.g. France’s Labour Code, employers have a responsibility to ensure a safe workplace to their employees and protect their health. Employers must prove that they have taken all necessary steps to that effect. However, the challenge now for companies is to reassure their teams in order to remotivate them.
  • Since the beginning of the crisis a large number of companies have become more vigilant about psychosocial risks. It is worth noting that, for many people, working remotely during confinement has led to overwork and/or stress related to a sense of isolation. Even before the pandemic, the business world was increasingly aware of mental health and stress issues among employees. According to Willis Tower Watson, depression and anxiety in the workforce increased by 15 to 20 percent over the past decade. In many industrialised countries, these mental disorders account for 35 to 45 percent of employee absenteeism.

Actions

  • Implement pre-emptive measures to prevent psychosocial risks (if not already in place).
  • Do everything possible to maintain the financial and professional security of your employees.

Recommendation #3: Involve employees in concrete and immediate changes.

  • Today’s working patterns will evolve over time towards a hybrid organisation combining on-site and remote working. Social distancing, stricter health regulations and human mobility constraints call for enhanced flexibility and innovative technological solutions. Teleworking has become part of our professional world. Remote work tools such as videoconferencing or collaborative work applications are becoming more and more widespread.
  • Between proponents and opponents of the ‘all-remote’ work model, voices are being raised to suggest intermediate solutions. Citing the risk of anomie —a societal condition resulting from a breakdown of standards or values, or from a lack of purpose or ideals—, many entrepreneurs and employees advocate maintaining ‘face-to-face’ activities to preserve social cohesion and a sense of belonging.
  • The possible long-lasting effects the COVID-19 crisis will have on people’s mental health are likely to become a global issue. Giving employees time and space to discuss the impact of new work models on their personal well-being and that of their families could be the next hot issue facing human resources experts.

Actions

  • Involve your teams in decisions affecting their work organisation (space, presence, technological tools). Employees are the ones who know the company’s processes best and they are the first to be impacted by change.
  • Encourage your employees to exchange views on good practices and suggest changes that could bring concrete and immediate results.

Recommendation #4: Adapt management practices to the new context.

  • Mastery of collaborative tools is now a prerequisite for remote management. But it is not enough. To avoid the pitfalls of ‘meeting mania’ or over-controlling, managers ought to change their behavior and modus operandi. This means reviewing some of the criteria —both formal and informal— used to judge individual and collective performance. This also means fostering trust and collaboration among individuals and teams, whether internal or external to the company.
  • Priority should be given to skills development e.g. technological, collaborative, complexity management.
  • Last but not least, employees are now more than ever expecting recognition, feedback and genuine dialogue. Managerial habits must be changed accordingly.

Actions

  • Help your managers adapt their leadership style to new situations.
  • Develop a corporate culture of feedback, dialogue and recognition.

 Recommendation #5: Communicate.

  • As our June 2020 survey shows, the way a company communicates is a decisive judgment criterion for its employees when assessing crisis management. Communication is essential if we want to give meaning to the contribution of each employee to the company’s future. Today more than ever, communication must be adapted to the multiplicity of individual and collective experiences.
  • Employees and all other stakeholders expect leaders and managers to provide transparent and comprehensive answers when asked about the short- and long-term effects of COVID19 on business. Should the company’s development strategy be reviewed? How will future developments affect everyone? What can everyone contribute to these developments?

Actions

  • Talk regularly to all your employees and adapt your message to their experiences and expectations.
  • Give the activities of your company and the issues it faces enhanced visibility.

A case for reviving Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

In times of crisis, employees expect their companies to do all they can to protect their health and secure their jobs and income. They also want to be involved in organisational changes in their daily work and maintain social connectedness as this has a direct impact on the quality of their professional life. In this respect, meeting the primary needs of the staff, ensuring its safety and belongingness is a must do in employee (re)engagement. It seems that Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid of needs has once again become a grid for reading our behaviour.

First developed in 1943, Maslow’s theory of human needs has been criticised for its purported lack of scientific rigour. Some experts have also pointed out that, in their quest for esteem or self-actualisation, not all individuals need to satisfy their primary needs first. In that sense the traditional representation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the form of a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom (see fig. 1) may seem misleading.

Fig. 1: Maslow’s pyramid of needs

More relevant, in our view, is the alternative dynamic illustration which reflects all the complexity of individual motivations, while reaffirming the satisfaction of basic needs as a first step towards optimal personal development (see fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Alternative illustration as a dynamic hierarchy of needs with overlaps of different needs at the same time

Engagement in the workplace also requires adapting management styles to working patterns (physical, remote, hybrid). Supporting managers in this transformation must be an integral part of a trust and collaboration culture that is now paramount.

Communication is crucial both in crisis management and team engagement. Communicating means giving meaning to the company’s objectives and putting them into perspective. It also means that difficult issues should be discussed as transparently as possible. This is also one of the foundations of recognition, another major lever of employee engagement.

Involving all stakeholders —including employees— in a reflection on what the purpose of the common good is and how to contribute to it is a sustainable exit strategy from the current crisis. But this reflection should only come once employees feel protected by their company and are reassured about their daily lives and their future. It is on this ‘common’ basis that the speeches and action plans for recovery and/or business continuity will succeed in building a ‘new normal’ beneficial to all of us.

 

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