September 18, 2022 | by By Dr. Jia Wang

Engaging Employees in the Post-Pandemic Workplace

Engaged employees are passionate about going to work and feel energized by what they do. They go beyond expectations to provide quality service. They persevere in times of challenge and adapt to change quickly. They take initiatives in recommending areas for improvement. They extend themselves to help others. When engagement level at work is high, both the organization and the individual benefit.

However, the reality is far from this ideal state. Pre-pandemic, there was already serious concern about the low level of engagement at work as revealed by Gallup’s 2017 research on the state of the American workforce:

  • 33 percent of employees were actively engaged in their jobs;
  • 51 percent of employees were not engaged at work — they were just there;
  • 16 percent of employees were actively disengaged at work.

Post pandemic, the Great Resignation is not over. One in five workers plan to quit in 2022, according to one of the largest surveys of the global workforce. The survey also shows that while most workers are seeking higher salaries, more than two-thirds say they are seeking more fulfilment in the workplace. Navigating the new normal, leaders and managers are facing a new set of challenges that will have a direct impact on engagement in the workplace.

Job security. As we deal with the lingering effect of COVID-19, employees are craving psychological and physical safety in the workplace. Some employees may not be ready to come back to the face-to-face environment due to concern about the health of their families (especially their older parents and/or younger children). Nevertheless, they choose to come back to the physical space for fear of losing pay or promotion for time away.

Remote work. Post-pandemic, working from home or in the hybrid environment will continue to be a trend. While these new modes of working give employees more flexibility, there is a downside. For example, employees may feel less engaged in the virtual workplace; managers may feel losing control of their subordinates.

Learning and development. During the pandemic, many organizations pivoted to online work to ensure employee safety and business continuity. Conducting business-as-usual means continuing to focus on employees, not letting their learning and development needs fall by the wayside.

Work-life balance. When your team is working remotely or in the hybrid mode, and possibly even on different schedules, members can feel like that they are expected to be available all the time. As a result, the boundary between work and life can be blurred, affecting employee engagement in the long run.

Employee wellness. The pandemic forced all of us to rethink how we take care of ourselves and others. It’s never more important than now to focus on employees’ well-being — physically, emotionally, mentally, and psychologically. With the lingering effect of COVID, many of us are feeling fatigued or burnout.

As people across the United States and world continue to experience the high levels of stress and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, and as organizations continue to suffer the unexpected consequences of the Great Resignation and quiet quitting, engagement in the workplace has taken on new meanings. How effective leaders and managers engage their employees is key to organizational sustainability and success in the post-pandemic world.

Here are several engagement strategies to consider:

  • Define “communication hours.” An ‘always-on’ culture isn’t sustainable. Define clear “communication hours” (for example, 8am-6pm), so that members of your company or team know when they are expected to check and respond to work related messages. Outside of these hours, encourage employees to change their settings to “Do Not Disturb” and to send messages using the schedule feature of their email. In addition, help team leaders develop a plan for urgent or time-sensitive communication outside of the defined communication hours. For example, using texting as the communication tool in case of emergency. This way, team members can comfortably shut off other communication channels such as email or Slack.
  • Conduct regular check-ins. With constant change in the environment, work priorities can shift quickly. Regular check-in meetings provide an opportunity for everyone to get on the same page, brainstorm ideas, deconflict competing priorities, and establish action plans. Consider scheduling a 30-minute weekly virtual meeting with the leadership team and weekly supervisor check-ins. On the individual level, with more people reporting “Zoom Fatigue,” consider using the phone versus Zoom to connect with your team members.
  • Provide ongoing education. More than ever before, employees long for learning opportunities to stay relevant and competitive in today’s changing job market. As much of our work post pandemic is taking place in the virtual space, consider using a mix of micro learning, virtual sessions, and simulations as ways to leverage technology to provide the right real-time, all-the-time training and development programs to your employees.
  • Offer meaningful rewards. In the context of the Great Resignation, it is more important to recognize employees’ contributions to keep them engaged. Remember: money is not the only incentive for employees to do a good job; intangibles such as verbal recognition, respect, and growth opportunities also matter, often times, more than financial gains.
  • Show generosity where possible. Not every employee’s request can be honored, but relaxing some normal practices and policies may do a lot to ease anxiety. For instance, if an employee desires a flexible work arrangement and can do that effectively, let them do so on a temporary basis. A leader or manager’s willingness to accommodate employees’ needs can go a long way to reduce stress and boost engagement.
  • Make self-care a daily priority. As much as we all know in theory, that healthy diet, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and time to relax are important, we don’t always carve out time for them. This is because many of us consider caring for ourselves as unrelated to work, so we are likely to let our business priorities come first. But ample research shows that our decision-making dramatically suffers when we neglect to properly rest and recharge. It is important to know that investing in oneself isn’t being indulgent—it’s mission critical. The busier you are at work, the more you need to take care of yourself.
  • Make engagement personal. Each employee is motivated by different things, so engagement strategies should be customized to meet individual needs. You can make engagement ‘personal’ by asking each employee a simple question: What motivates you?

Employee engagement is no longer an option but a key business strategy to enhance your company’s attraction to current and future employees in the post-pandemic world. In challenging times, like now, the best that leaders can do for their employees is to be understanding, empathic, supportive, patient, and flexible. The more you put employees in the center of your business management, the more likely they will come out of the crisis stronger and more committed to tackle emerging challenges ahead. So, get serious about your engagement effort—be proactive and intentional in engaging your employees; do not wait until retention becomes a serious issue.

Dr. Jia Wang is a professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development at Texas A&M University. Her research focuses on international and national human resource development, organization crisis management, and learning within organizations.

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