5 tips to buoy employee engagement in a dynamic workplace

by Katie Bouwkamp

Employee engagement is one cornerstone of driving a successful business. The adage from Richard Branson, “If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your customers,” is arguably even more important in our COVID-19 pandemic-affected world as many businesses struggle to maintain revenue against economic headwinds.

But employees are facing headwinds, too, adjusting to a new situation that blends work life and home life — the messy, fussy, imperfect parts of both — like never before. Working from home presents its own challenges, including feelings of isolation, tension, and competing priorities with family members. Coupled with a pandemic that’s creating an uncertain future, this new dynamic workplace is a lot to manage. And it impacts productivity.

According to 451 Research’s Voice of the Enterprise: Digital Pulse, Coronavirus Flash Survey in March 2020, 62% of leaders surveyed admit to seeing a decrease in employee productivity, or are expecting a decrease to occur in the next three months.

As company leaders look to protect against business decline, here are five tips to support your teams and help them optimize their effectiveness.

1. Dial up your existing employee engagement efforts to serve as a guide.

A dark blue lighthouse appears on a medium blue background as a light blue ray points to the right

At Smartsheet, our approach to internal communications and employee engagement hasn’t shifted so much as it’s been dialed up, with a focus on CARE: clarity, agility, responsiveness, and empathy.

  • Clarity: Set up your team for success by clearly communicating expectations, business priorities, and what should be messaged to customers, investors, and partners.
  • Agility: Anticipate changes in the needs of employees. Ideally, you’re already polling employees regularly about their needs and satisfaction in the workplace and getting their feedback. But during a situation like a pandemic, it’s even more important to gather insights from employees — what they’re feeling and thinking about — to inform your internal communications strategy and provide meaningful communications.
  • Responsiveness: Provide frequent, transparent updates to keep employees informed. In times of uncertainty, employees don’t expect companies to have all the answers, but they do expect to be kept informed and updated on how the company is proactively responding. If communications suddenly go silent employees may assume the worst. Have a “center of gravity” where employees know where to find the latest updates and resources.
  • Empathy: Ditch the corporate speak and double-down on being authentic and putting your people first. Listen to your employees and facilitate two-way, meaningful dialogues instead of relying on top-down broadcasting. At Smartsheet, our Chief People and Culture Officer Kara Hamilton and other people and culture leadership team members host virtual Q&A sessions with all people managers. Doing something similar will give your team direct insight into how employees are feeling, the challenges they’re facing, and provides an opportunity to discuss concerns and updates.

Each of these elements are important for internal communications, but the need for them has never been higher. Similarly, the importance of collaboration in a dynamic workplace has also increased.

2. Collaborate across teams and functions to weather the storm, together.

A captain's hat appears next to a sailor's hat as a symbol of a team

Our COVID-19 response team includes team members from our people and culture team, workplace services (including IT and facilities), risk and compliance, and corporate communications. Our senior leadership team is also working in partnership with the response team.

This collaboration is necessary as businesses aim to protect their team members’ health and safety, drive consistency in communications, and understand implications and limitations of their response. Decisions, guidance, and next steps should not be determined in a vacuum.

Outside of our internal partners, we’ve also been relying on industry peers and reports. Every aspect of our response is rooted in industry insights and best practices, along with scientific data.

From day one of our crisis response, we connected with our industry peers to understand how other employers were responding and adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When dealing with a new situation mired by uncertainty, leaning on your peer network is invaluable. Leadership during a transition — especially one as dynamic and challenging as this pandemic — is strengthened by idea sharing and feedback. Third party validation, or recommendations to strengthen your plan, will only serve to help your key audience: employees.

3. Value output and results, not input and productivity, to reach your destination.

A map with an X marking the destination spot

COVID-19 reshaped the way we’re working, and that will have a ripple effect in the months and years to come. While employees are challenged to balance work against home life — caring for family members, mingling their schedules with their partner’s availability, and more — they’re feeling immense pressure to be productive in their jobs.

For some, the traditional working hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. aren’t possible; instead, they’re operating on a flexible schedule to meet their needs. Rather than focusing on when an employee is working, employers should instead value the results of each employee.

Leveraging the CARE model once again, it’s important to consider:

  • Clarity: More value will need to be placed on results and performance over facetime and working a traditional schedule. For this to be achieved, leadership will need to double-down on providing clarity about priorities, goals, and expectations so employees can be informed about where to focus their precious time.
  • Agility: The physical “workplace” will become obsolete, and new methods of working will be needed to address the needs of the market. We’ll see massive innovation in how work is done, especially in the areas of virtual communications and collaboration. Communications and leadership teams will need to consider adopting new technologies to meet this need, or optimizing existing technologies to ensure employees can remain effective, no matter where they’re working.
  • Responsiveness: Stronger internal communications are needed. In the absence of organic, physical connections, internal communications will become the thread that connects the future, distributed workforce. If you haven’t already, work with leadership to secure their buy-in to continue investing in the internal communications function and the tools needed to succeed.
  • Empathy: Work will become more humanized and work-life integration will be the new normal. There will also be the realization that we are all interconnected, and there will be bigger investment by organizations and employees in prioritizing purpose, values, and social good in order to align with the evolving workforce.

Allowing this flexibility will alleviate some of the stress for employees, which is needed during an uncertain time. And the uncertainty — of the economy, job stability, health — can place an outsized weight on employees’ overall well-being.

4. Focus on employee well-being, including mental health, to help protect your team.

A dark blue life vest with lighter blue alternating stripes

When it comes to benefits and employees’ well-being, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In this collective crisis, each person is experiencing their own reality, comprising a unique set of challenges and different coping strategies. Mental health is a large aspect of employees’ overall well-being, which affects their ability to be productive and cope with difficult situations.

Employers can address mental health by leading with transparency and developing a foundation of trust to provide some semblance of stability. Additionally, it’s imperative that your organization start — if you haven’t already — offering mental health services as part of the total rewards and benefits packages.

For example, at Smartsheet we offer BetterHelp, a virtual counseling service, in addition to tele-medicine services. These have proven to be valuable components of our overall benefits package as employees adjusted to this new way of working and uncertainty in our world.

It’s also important to find ways to build — and strengthen — meaningful connections with peers and colleagues. Encourage your people managers to have open dialogues with team members about how they’re doing holistically, not just in terms of their work performance but in their overall well-being.

5. Rely on your crisis plan or playbook to guide you.

A compass with a dark blue outline and light blue face

A crisis plan or playbook is a valuable asset to guide companies — providing a process, outlining roles and responsibilities, offering initial drafts of messaging, and more. But those existing plans can only go so far, which is why agility is so key during a time of crisis.

While we didn’t have a specific pandemic-related playbook in place, we anticipated disruption as a result of COVID-19. We quickly iterated on our existing crisis playbook to assemble a novel coronavirus-specific plan that was designed to adapt as the situation continued to evolve.

Our COVID-19 response team was working around the clock, sifting through new information and risk-related updates, and had to quickly adapt our approach to ensure the health and safety of our employees.

Having a plan already established — whether or not it’s specific to every crisis situation imaginable — will serve as a starting point and help businesses be agile, giving them a head start on responding, which can give employees peace of mind. And as we look to the future, we know we can’t plan for every possible outcome, but guiding principles give teams the ability to adapt quickly.

Weathering a storm is more than business, it’s personal

Employers have an opportunity to be the unifying force and main source for news and updates for employees during the COVID-19 crisis — or any situation — even more than media and government entities. In the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, respondents indicated that “my employer” was their most trusted source, beating out business in general (by 18 points) and government and media (by 27 points).

Given this, employers may even have a duty to serve as a reliable news source when information is changing by the minute. The challenge compounds as employers balance business needs atop this foundation of trust.

Further, eight out of 10 respondents in the same survey view their employers as having been better prepared for the virus than their country. And what’s more encouraging is that 62% of respondents indicated they trust their employers to respond to the coronavirus effectively and responsibly.

These stats illustrate the importance of internal communications and employee engagement — not only during a crisis, but every single day. The best advice I can offer to business leaders adjusting to this new, dynamic workforce is this:

Be of service to employees and customers.

For additional resources to help guide your COVID-19 response, visit our COVID-19 Resource Center. And based on requests from customers, our team developed a series of free template sets — supporting functions from IT to healthcare to project management — to help you navigate work in this new dynamic.