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Well-being is a critical factor in employee engagement

Amid the barrage of news during the beginning phases of the COVID-19 crisis was a storyline that could have been easily overlooked. Despite an unfamiliar and uncertain situation, employee experience was at an all-time high across the board.1 Dedicated employer support and communication during the initial transition to a work-from-home-environment left employees feeling empowered and engaged.

But as the pandemic drags on, can this heightened level of employee engagement be sustained over time? The answer is yes, but with a caveat.

If organizations are to keep pace with employee requirements for success, the approach needs to evolve from a focus on their basic needs to one that places an even greater emphasis on emotional, mental and professional well-being.

A seismic shift

Accompanying the shift in where we work was an evolution in how leaders interact and manage employees. Work from home opportunities have long been employed across industries, but never at this scale or with such little warning.

At the virus outbreak, social distancing safety precautions came swiftly, forcing organizations and employees to adjust to an unfamiliar remote workforce without much strategy. With some road bumps, we adapted and settled in, and evidence that employee engagement was on the rise began to emerge.

A Gallup poll showed that, nationwide, employee engagement jumped to an all-time high of 38 percent in May—a couple months into the new normal. That was followed by a drop to 31 percent during the social unrest of June, but rebounded to 40 percent in August.

At University of Phoenix, we saw a similar trend. Our employee engagement score was 77 prior to the pandemic and then quickly rose to 88 in early spring, and has since normalized back to 79 this month.

The data suggests that the ups and downs may be a certainty in an uncertain future. What we know for sure is that the future of employer-employee relationships has been dramatically altered.

Managing changes in employee engagement is nothing novel—it has been a topic in managerial and HR circles for some time—But COVID-19 accelerated its importance in ways many would not have predicted even six months ago.

There’s no going back

What the data also showed us is that something about the “new normal” is working out very well for many employees. Maybe it is the comfort of working at home or the result of fewer workplace distractions. Regardless of the reason, the sample size is still too small for us to assume that this trend will continue.

What we do know, though, is that this change is most likely here to stay to an extent. Employees have become accustomed to this new work environment and have learned that they can be successful. They may come to expect a semblance of this moving forward.

Managers and leaders need to stay focused on being proactive in their interactions with employees, whether they remain remote or have employees return to offices. The KPIs and performance reports still matter, but they will need to be balanced with forging human, emotional bonds between team members.

Four ways to engage employees

1. Regular check-ins

It’s critical that managers perform regular check-ins with their direct reports. These check-ins should not only focus on how things are going at work but also check-in on the employee’s general well-being. Truly listen, managers must exhibit empathy, especially with many employees now seeing the lines blur between their work and home lives.

2. Managers serve as connectors

A lot of work has been done over the past few decades to tear down departmental silos, but if your not careful they can begin to crop back up in this new virtual environment.

Managers must make a conscious effort to connect with their peers in adjacent departments and model this behavior to their employees. Otherwise, we risk missing out on collaborative opportunities and idea sharing that can lead to efficiencies and/or innovation.

3. Collaborate on clear expectations

Setting clear expectations is of heightened importance in a virtual world. Employees lose those organic opportunities to drive by their managers desk or office to simply ask a question or seek clarity. Managers should work with their employees to set mutually agreed upon goals, document those goals and share regular updates to ensure the most important work is being accomplished.

When you work collaboratively with a team member to set goals it helps them feel more bought into achieving the desired outcomes while also giving both parties the opportunity to seek clarity.

4. Recognize contributions

It’s important that employees feel like their work is making a difference and that they’re not a cog in a large machine. Purposeful recognition is key here. Acknowledging that team members have very diverse home lives with many responsibilities outside of work will help people feel appreciated, seen and understood.

In the end, managers must be willing to step out of their comfort zones, modernize old policies and form stronger relationships with their direct reports. With these four elements in place, employee engagement stands a good chance of remaining at an all-time high for the foreseeable future.