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How to engage employees as they return to the workplace

Written by: Andrew Clark
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Employee inspiration is, in fact, reciprocal. Since 2014, we have been updating our global employee research to understand motivation and behaviour. In our New Rules of Engagement℠ global employee research, in addition to defining 12 New Rules of Engagement, we learned that the investment made in inspiring employees had a direct correlation to the intensity of their work and their commitment to the organization. And as we gradually return to our workplace, we need everyone committed right now more than ever. We have collectively been through a lot. How do you engage employees today vs. five months ago? What has changed and what hasn’t? What themes are at the forefront?

Rule #1: Get inside their heads

Employee engagement is an individual phenomenon. Every person’s motivations, abilities, and goals are unique. Many emotions will come to play as you welcome your team back to the office. Everyone’s experience through various states of isolation will have been different as will their comfort level with returning. Their reasons for needing or wanting to work differ. Remote options are at the forefront right now, some people won’t come back at all. Everything, including the New Rules themselves, needs to be adapted to the circumstances and personality of the individual worker. The most important imperative to prevent employees from being treated like widgets is to ensure each is led and managed in a way that fits his or her personality. We have all taken this personally so that can happen only if someone takes the time to really decipher that employee, to “get inside his or her head.”

Key themes:

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

 

Rule #2: Make them fearless

There is no more primal emotion than fear. It’s a survival instinct and it can distract people so that nothing else matters. We are hard-wired to experience and react to it. And we have witnessed countless examples over the last months. Because the human brain evolved a powerful fight-or-flight response against mortal dangers, people struggle to give measured responses to the non-lethal dangers of a poor performance evaluation, a boss who yells, or the potential furloughs or layoffs.

 Key theme:

  • I worry about losing my job.

 

Rule #3: 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 #4: Help them thrive

The responsibility for a worker’s health rests primarily with the employee. With the headlines and updates, growing impacts, and recent limitations this has been a tough one. Everyone wants to be safe. A documented and communicated return to work plan is an important first step. And yet, there is 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.

Key themes:

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

 

Rule #5: Be cool

Not only is much of what we see and hear very sobering, many have rushed to set up non-traditional workspaces at home. Many are rethinking their current office space to ensure appropriate physical distancing; this is an opportunity to create something better. A cool place to work stimulates the brain. Time spent there is enjoyable, rarely boring, at least occasionally fun, often different or unexpected, unique, authentic, quirky, and intense. As the generation with 140-character attention spans takes its place in the mix and the line between time off and time on is erased, it’s now a full-blown imperative and an opportunity.

Key themes:

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

 

Rule #6: Be boldly transparent

Almost nothing is secret anymore. Every business has been impacted. Some have thrived, many have not. Many decisions have been made to streamline, preserve cash, and regain market share quickly. It’s never been more important to run a company so that there’s nothing to hide. To be boldly transparent, a company must communicate with its employees candidly and frequently. Rumours—and now online reviews and endless news reports—fill any vacuum. Silence is now assumed to mean either the news isn’t good or the employees aren’t trusted (This is also tied to Rule #2). And ulterior motives can be spotted a mile away. There are very few situations today where the best option is not the most transparent one. The signals are clear: It’s now time to share.

Key themes:

  • I trust the leadership at my organization.
  • The leaderships at my organization has a compelling vision for the future.

 

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. Over the past few 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.’ And, from a young woman working for a biotech company, ‘curing cancer.’

This is the reason why the seventh New Rule of Engagement is “Don’t kill the meaning.” Most people flat-out 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 will be a bit tough. 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. It’s equally unlikely that someone sees the company going places unless it’s taking him or her along for the ride. If the dual optimism that people hold for their current employer and their own prospects at the company is extinguished, they need to escape to rekindle it somewhere else. The reaction is part logical; why shouldn’t someone look for the best path forward? And it’s part emotional; we have been inundated with bad news for months. Seeing little future is too depressing to bear for long.

Key themes:

  • I am optimistic about my future at my current organization.
  • My career will advance as this organization grows.

 

Rule #9: Magnify their success

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. 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. Banging pots and pans at 7:00 PM comes to mind.

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 collaborate with their colleagues. We all have a bit of screen fatigue. Not to mention those teammates who have been furloughed or laid off that we no longer interact with. Collaboration and teamwork have wide-ranging effects on an employee’s performance; those that are deploying team’s home for the long haul will have to reinvent their approach beyond supporting the employees with work from home (WFH) office set up. Hard work is socially contagious. It’s not just teamwork, but also intensity, which 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 intend to work. In other words, ‘good enough’ teamwork leaves a lot of performance and breakthroughs on the table. 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

Most employee engagement surveys include some question about making people’s opinion count. It’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t go far enough. 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. Many have been deployed to agile teams and had to innovate and rapidly change 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. Getting the chance to run things is a more powerful motivator than just getting to comment on how things are run.

Key themes:

  • My organization trusts me with important decisions, my ideas are taken seriously.
  • I get the chance to lead at my job.

 

Rule #12: Take it to extremes

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 stepped up. It’ said that times like these don’t form your personality; they cause your true personality to come to the surface.  The same can be said for the choice that we make in our free time.  We live in an age of extreme accomplishments – parachuting, bungee-jumping, and mud runs. Many employees do big things on the weekend and want to do big things—something to brag about—during the workweek. 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? We know through our research that inspired employees are more intensely committed and perform higher. And it is reciprocal, you get what you give. This is a leadership moment that can have a huge impact on the future of organizations. 

As we welcome our teams back, several rules come to the surface in Canada, specific to commitment and performance. “Don’t kill the meaning” rises to the top in light of everything we have been through. It’s not surprising that we need purpose and meaning our work now more than ever.

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.