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Employee engagement in the new world

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“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Steve Jobs

This is a concept that is not lost on businesses today.  Employee engagement is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide, with US businesses alone spending over $1.1bn a year on ‘engaging’ their workforce to give them an edge over their rivals. 

Forbes define employee engagement as, “the emotional commitment the employee has to the organisation and its goals.  This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company. They don't work just for a pay-check, or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organisation's goals.”

According to Towers Perrin research, businesses with engaged workers have 6% higher net profit margins, and Kenexa research asserts that engaged companies have five times higher shareholder returns over five years.

So, with businesses placing so much emphasis on employee engagement, what happens when those employees are ‘locked-down’?  Our enforced isolation has meant a seismic shift in how companies can interact with their employees.  A situation that no one was prepared for, which continues to change the business landscape from one day to the next. 

How do you engage a remote workforce?  A workforce that is blinking uncertainly into the light of a different world.  A workforce that has bigger, more immediate worries than meeting their next work deadline… 

We spoke to a number of local industry experts to ask what employee engagement looks like today.


Andy Bamford: Co-Founder and Director of Brand Point Zero

Bristol based marketing & comms agency that works with organisations to help define, articulate and embed cultural principles, and fully align all brand communications. 

The first and most important thing here is that employee engagement comes way behind employee safety and well-being. Any organisation, large or small that focuses on engagement, before ensuring that all their staff are safe and well at this current time are simply doing the wrong thing. Employee engagement will come as a direct result of the way organisations behave and communicate with their people. The first rule of any communication is to put yourself in the audience’s shoes. And to put it bluntly, they will be scared.  We have never experienced anything like this before and people will be worrying about their long-term security and their own mortality. To your audience these are all more important things than company profit, performance or productivity – and most definitely than silly hat Zoom calls.

So it’s time to rethink the rules on employee engagement. We need to show humanity and compassion. We need to be honest. And whilst many employers (both large and small) are also going through their own existential crisis, they need to be calm, clear and authoritative in all their communication. How organisations behave now, will not only influence how they navigate this current crisis, but also how they emerge and thrive in the future.

There are numerous examples of organisations doing it badly, you only need to think of Brittania Hotels.  Those that are doing it well, are not seeking column inches, or hollow praise in social media – they’re building deep, long-lasting relationships with their staff on the foundations of care, trust and honesty. And that is the epitome of what we used to call employee engagement.

Mark Beavan: Head of Agency at That Little Agency

Bristol based employer branding, marketing and digital development agency

What will be interesting will be the impact of this government-imposed remote working. How quickly businesses have adapted to support working from home. I know of an employer who within three weeks had over 4,000 colleagues up and working from home. Has this helped to accelerate the need to support and welcome remote working? Will managers who have often been reluctant to embrace a more flexible approach to work, end up being convinced that it is a viable way to work? Will potential candidates who previously overlooked certain employers be more willing to join knowing that now that they are supportive of a more flexible approach to working? I certainly hope so.

One thing I know for sure is that how a business treats their colleagues during this challenging time will define their brand for decades. They need to value their people. Keep them safe. Help them to help the business. Now, more than ever, their employer brand is their brand.

Tim Jeary: Director for Employee Engagement at Bowline Communications

Wiltshire based communications and engagement agency who specialise in motivating teams and inspiring customers

One of the biggest challenges faced by organisations right now is keeping employees engaged during these challenging times.

What if you could improve employee engagement by better understanding the brain?

One of the growing factors in employee engagement is neuroscience (the study of the nervous system).

The SCARF model is a great place to start.

The foundation for the SCARF model lies in our brain’s need to either minimise threat or maximise reward. The brain switches between these two modes in response to our environment, including our reactions to others. When you create a supportive and collaborative environment, the brain can process information more easily – leading to more effective change and the ability to make effective decisions. But if the brain perceives things as threats, then comfort, motivation and satisfaction significantly decrease.

SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness – five social triggers that can instigate both the ‘threat’ and ‘reward’ responses at work.

Whether a large or small business, every employee will be feeling the impact of the pandemic in each of these five areas. As leaders, we need to focus on ensuring our employees experience a reward response within each to establish higher levels of employee engagement.

Status – This involves our perception of a potential or real reduction in status (being less than or better than others or the sense of feeing valued by others).   As a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, our status could be under threat – job security, level of visibility, level of exposure and influence in decision making.

Certainty – This involves our ability to predict outcomes. Our brain is constantly trying to predict the near future. Even a small amount of uncertainty can generate a threat response. This domain is significantly impacted at the moment with uncertainty about our health, finances, job and what is happening in the world.

Autonomy – This is about the level of control and perception that we have choices and options. We’re being told by the Government what to do, where to work, how to exercise, where we can and can’t go. We have limited options. There is also lots of conflicting advice, which can make us feel out of control.

Relatedness – This is about our sense of belonging, collaboration and sharing of information. Many of us are self-isolating and working from home which is having an impact on our ability to interact with family, friends and colleagues.

Fairness – The focus here is transparency, trust and clear expectations. Am I being treated fairly and equitably? Inconsistent exchanges can generate a strong threat response. Being open with clear communication that encourages high levels of participation will create a reward response.

The level of threat or reward felt by an individual will be very different. As an organisation and as leaders we can impact positively in creating reward responses in the 5 triggers.

What are your top tips for maintaining strong employee engagement during this period?

To help support the development of a reward response to the SCARF triggers, a focus on the 4 pillars of employee engagement is very useful.

1. Strategic narrative

Senior leaders must remain visible in their communication with employees. Organisational objectives still need to be met, although they may need to adapt and evolve. Remember, where there is a void in communication, employees will fill this space for themselves – this is how rumours start.

Top tips:

  • In this uncertain time, employees will be seeking certainty. Where you are headed as a business needs to be restated
  • Think about all employee communications detailing changes in working practice and how internal processes have been adapted
  • Make recognition a weekly event using internal social media channels such as Yammer
  • Encourage leaders to write blogs on how the Coronavirus is impacting on them
  • Ensure senior leaders are highly visible via video and webcasts to all employees

2. Engaging managers

This is a challenging time for managers as many will be achieving results through remote working teams, so higher levels of trust and autonomy is needed.

Top tips:

  • Spend time with both individuals and the team to listen to concerns and seek to find answers
  • For many of us there is still work that needs to be delivered, so managers must provide clear objectives and expectations
  • Coach your team to find solutions and adapt your management style, as each member of your team will require different levels of support
  • Feedback and recognition are always important, so make time for weekly video calls with your teams to recognise each other

3. Employee voice

Keep a two-way open dialogue for all employees. Finding a solution to a challenge is often better achieved through the ideas and experiences of those around you.

Top tips:

  • Holding Q&A forums where employees can raise concerns and have them answered
  • Create peer-to-peer employee forums where issues and working conditions can be discussed. Yammer is a great tool to facilitate this
  • Gather evidence of success with any new working practices and promote proudly and loudly through internal communication channels

4. Values and behaviours

Despite the changes in working practices your, organisation’s values and behaviours should remain at the core. The integrity of your organisation and its brand both internally and externally is essential.

Top tips:

  • Share employee stories and examples of your values in practice and celebrate these through internal channels
  • As leaders, ensure that there is no say-do gap. If you are expecting employees to do something, you should be willing to do this yourself. Look at the Chief Medical Officer of Scotland
  • Be the role model of the behaviours you want to see

My view...

Personally, I think that now is a time for championing understanding above all else.  We’re all experiencing new pressures that impact upon our day-to-day and are slowly redefining a new norm.  Employers need to be understanding to the fact that they’re no longer the top priority.  Let’s be honest, pre Covid-19 business was the number one priority for many people but there’s nothing like a global pandemic to refocus the mind.  I think I can confidently speak for everyone when I say that priority number one is very definitely the health and happiness of our loved ones and ourselves.  A pause for thought and to be reminded of our own mortality is perhaps no bad thing.

Likewise, we as employees need to be understanding of our employers.  Business still needs to be done and many big decisions need to be made to ensure the survival of businesses worldwide.  Furloughing, for instance, can be worrying for employees and difficult for employers but if it means the business survives and jobs are preserved, that for me reflects a responsible business decision made for the good of everyone.  I think in this time of remote working where the business as an entity feels more remote, it’s these pivotal business decisions on which employee engagement hinges.  In life you find out most about someone when the shit hits the fan.  Did that friend stay by your side?  It’s the same with your company.  How businesses act now in this time of crisis will make or break your relationship, even if the cracks don’t appear straight away.

Whatever the future holds, there is one constant truth in business: your business is only as good as the people that you employ.  And in this new world, it’s clearer than ever that that’s what we all are: people.  Parents, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, friends, colleagues, pub quiz team mates.  We must continue to work together, communicate with one another and above all else be understanding of one another to ensure that each one of us is ‘engaged’ not just in work but in life, so that we come out of this stronger, both personally and professionally.