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How to engage employees in the new world of work

Written by: Andrew Clark
(View Author Bio)

Employee inspiration is reciprocal. Since 2014, we have been updating our global employee research to understand motivation and behaviour. In June, we updated our New Rules of Engagement® employee research to understand what has changed and what has not? So much has changed throughout the Summer and into the Fall. What themes are at the forefront in our new world reality? In addition to validating the New Rules of Engagement, two new rules have emerged as key to how we inspire during this uncertain time.

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We know that the investment made in inspiring employees had a direct correlation to the intensity of their work and their commitment to the organization. While some have gradually returned to their workplace, many will not. In fact, we could see the reverse. Many may return to working from home in the coming months. We have collectively been through a lot with no end in sight for now, it seems the anticipated “new normal” gets further and further away. How do you engage employees today vs. March 2020 when everything changed?

New world. New rules.

Rule #1. Make it personal

Employee engagement is an individual phenomenon. Everyone’s motivations, abilities, and goals are unique. Many emotions will come to play as you welcome some of your team back to the office. Many more are not coming back and need to be equally, if not, more engaged. Often there is a certain newfound freedom in working from home, however, everyone’s experience through various states of isolation will have been different as we begin to master interacting in a virtual world as our primary conduit for interaction. Their reasons for needing or wanting to work differ. Everything, including the New Rules themselves, need to be adapted to the circumstances and personality of the individual worker. More than ever, great managing is a matter of intense understanding of each unique individual; knowing their abilities, their aspirations, and how they work best. Success on this rule is critical for achieving all the others. It’s important to ensure each individual is led and managed with compassion and understanding. We have all had differing reactions to our circumstances so that can happen only if someone takes the time to really decipher that employee to “make it personal.”

Key themes:

  • My manager understands me.
  • My manager makes decisions with my best interests in mind.

Rule #2. Make money a non-issue

Employees are expected to look out for the long-term financial health of their organizations. And in many cases, have made personal sacrifices with pay and benefit reductions in the last few months. Is it not reasonable to expect that the company should look out for the financial trajectory of the employee when they are able? As businesses recover over time, leaders will have to consider if, how, and when you will return employees to their previous compensation levels (some are even returning salary with interest). To real people, it’s the thought that counts as much as the cash.

Key themes:

  • Am I paid fairly? I receive excellent benefits.
  • Over the long-term, I believe I can earn more here than somewhere else.
  • My organization is actively helping me reach my long term financial goals.

Rule #3. Help them thrive

The responsibility for a worker’s health rests primarily with the employee. That being said, never have work, personal life, and health been so inextricably connected. Screen fatigue and burn out are real impacts of our current situation. Protecting employees’ holistic wellbeing doesn’t just reduce costs, it invigorates the employees and the business. With the headlines and updates, growing impacts, and the renewal of limitations on the horizon, this has been tough. At a basic level, everyone wants to be safe, but we also need more than that. And yet, there’s no escaping the fact that a person’s job influences his or her health one way or the other. No one leaves the office at the office, especially when so much of it comes home. More likely now work is actually at home. Policies, workloads, vacation time, boredom, manager quality, and other aspects of working at a place can either help those employees thrive or can degrade their health, their psychological wellbeing, and the performance of the enterprise. Wellness is about more than avoiding sickness. It’s about thriving over the long haul. Emotional health is the best predictor of commitment and inspiration.

Key themes:

  • My job allows me to balance priorities at work and in my personal life.

Rule #4. Realize their potential (New)

While these are difficult times for many, businesses’ employees have an inherent need to be able to see beyond the situation today. Many businesses have made short-to-medium term tactical shifts, however long-term potential is important. In lieu of permanent placements and pensions, employers are expected to provide growth opportunities. Offering tools, learning and development for employees to be successful will grow your top talent — and your bottom line. Now more than ever there is an opportunity to utilize virtual meetings and distance learning to allow employees to remain engaged in the longer-term strategy.

Key themes:

  • This organization will do exciting things in the future.
  • My organization is open to different points of view.

Rule #5. Foster belonging (New)

Employees cannot fully commit to a company they do not feel a part of. Fostering a sense of belonging within the organization on three levels. The team, feeling that your skills and abilities complement the team and that you can make a meaningful contribution. The work itself, having passion for what you do or feeling well suited for your role. Organizational belonging is also about inclusiveness, and how you feel represented at work, representation of age, gender, race, and ethnicity in your team and leadership can have an impact before you even consider the work itself. Do I see myself represented in the organization? A strong sense of teamwork is critical for employees to stay and do exceptional work.  

Key themes:

  • My ideas are taken serious.
  • I am supported when I make mistakes.
  • I understand how my work connects to the mission.
  • I receive recognition for good work.

Rule #6. Be boldly transparent

This rule is about clear, regular authentic communication from leaders. It’s also about leadership listening to employees. Employees who feel their managers are transparent are much more likely to work hard and stick around. Every business has been impacted in the last months. Some have thrived, many have not. Many decisions have been made to streamline, preserve cash, and regain market share quickly. It has never been more important to run a company so that there’s nothing to hide. Communicate with employees candidly and frequently. Silence is now assumed to mean either the news isn’t good, or the employees aren’t trusted. There are very few situations today where the best option is not the most transparent one. The signals are clear: It’s a two-way street. It’s now time to share and listen.

The best ideas may come from employees, so listen with an open mind and use those ideas to shape the vision for the future.

Key themes:

  • My leader has shared information regularly and has listened to the information I have shared with them.

Rule #7. Don’t kill the meaning

There hasn’t been a time in recent memory when purpose and meaning haven’t been more celebrated.  Keep line of sight to your mission and how individual performance makes a difference, is connected, and matters. Over the past months, we have come to appreciate many of those that have been at the ready to keep us safe – the list of front-line workers is long. Purpose-driven motivations charge through in the comments of those who participate in BI WORLDWIDE studies. ‘Helping others.’ ‘Knowing that my decisions directly benefit people.’ ‘Keeping the public safe.’ ‘Doing work that matters.’

This is the reason why the seventh New Rule of Engagement is ‘Don’t Kill the Meaning.’ Without question, most people need meaning in their work. Their identity is intertwined with their career, and often, with their current job.

Key themes:

  • I value my organization’s mission.
  • I see how my work connects to the larger organization's goals.

Rule #8. See their future

With everything that has happened, visioning the future is really critical. Great organizations are making deliberate short-term shifts. Those short-term shifts must be accompanied by a long-term view. It’s almost impossible for an employee to feel he or she has a bright future with the company if the company itself is not going anywhere. This rule varies greatly by age. The younger the employee, the less committed they are if their next career step is not clear to them. Career pathing is still important at all levels of the organization. The reaction is part logical; why shouldn’t someone look for the best path forward? And its part emotional; we have been inundated with bad news for months. Seeing little future is too depressing to bear for long.

Key themes:

  • I know what my next career step will be at my current organization.
  • My career will advance as this organization grows.

Rule #9. Magnify their success

You need to remind people that their jobs matter. What a company recognizes gets repeated. Those who anticipate recognition for their future successes feel a greater obligation to work hard, give a higher proportion of their full effort, look for ways to improve the way they do their work, and deliver more of their best ideas to the company. Those that receive incentives are even more inspired to perform. There are so many great stories of people who have made sacrifices big and small. Now is the time to share them with your team. Reinforce a culture of recognition, appreciation, and inspiration.

Key themes:

  • I am confident that if I do good work, it will be recognized.
  • My manager tells me when I do a good job.

Rule #10. Unite them

It has been more difficult for those working from home to feel a strong sense of teamwork with their colleagues. While we need to have technology so we can all seamlessly communicate, we all have a bit of screen fatigue. 

Collaboration and teamwork have wide-ranging effects on an employee’s performance; those that are deploying teams’ home for the long haul will have to reinvent their approach to foster strong collaboration. 

Employees who regularly share their work with other employees who may be interested, foster collaboration. Hard work is socially contagious. It’s not just teamwork, but also intensity, that drives the 

highest levels of performance. There is a direct relationship between the quantity and quality of collaboration and the degree to which employees say their job brings out their best ideas and how hard they intent to work. There is a thirst to reconnect, for now, with physical distance precautions. We need to harness the collective energy of our teams to build for the future.

Key themes:

  • I get to work with a lot of talented people.
  • There is a strong sense of teamwork at my job.
  • I have many strong working relationships at my job.

Rule #11. Let them lead

Employees today don’t just want to voice their opinion and have it taken seriously. They want to take the lead and show what they can do, take risks, and be supported regardless of the outcomes. It’s about a sense of empowerment. Many have been deployed to agile teams and had to innovate and rapidly change their workflow process. Some unexpected leaders have emerged. Now is the time to capitalize on this momentum to rebuild your organization towards the “next normal”. Our research bears this out.

It’s not just about leading a team. Those that were allowed to pursue their new ideas are more inspired, make sure you are listening to employees, empowering them, and trusting them. Of course, getting the chance to run things is a more powerful motivator than just getting to comment on how things are run. Managers need to avoid micromanaging. This was more difficult in March when many people were deployed home for the first time.

Key themes:

  • My organization trusts me with important decisions.
  • I feel culture of support, even when I make a mistake.
  • My ideas are taken seriously.
  • I get the chance to lead at my job.

Rule #12. Challenge them

Your best employees are eager to accomplish something incredible together. They want to be proud of the work they are doing. Challenge, rally, and support them wholeheartedly and you’ll be struck by what they can do. Those that have challenging goals are more than twice as inspired as those that don’t and feel a greater sense of belonging at work. Particularly now, this rule conjures up reminders of the hero stories and the selfless acts we have seen. Many of those we triggered by forces outside our control, but people have stepped up. It’s said that times like these don’t form your personality, they cause your true personality to come to the surface. With so much negative news and varying states of isolation, if they don’t find that sense of accomplishment at their current employer, they’ll go somewhere else.

Key themes:

  • I will accomplish incredible things at this job.
  • I enjoy being challenged to push my limits at work.
  • I believe I can accomplish more at my current organization than I could somewhere else.

All of this begs the question, why is employee engagement important and how has it evolved over the past few months when so much has changed? We know through our research that inspired employees are more intensely committed and perform higher.  And it’s reciprocal. You get what you give. This is a leadership moment which can have huge impact on the future of organizations.

How engaged are you? Let’s find out.

Andrew Clark

President, BI WORLDWIDE Canada

As President of BI WORLDWIDE Canada, Andrew's primary focus is to develop employee engagement strategies and recognition solutions that change the behaviours of employees and achieve measurable results. Andrew is an evangelist for the principles of behavioural economics which are at the core of what BI WORLDWIDE Canada does.