Maintaining Employee Engagement in Times of Crisis

By

Sandy Clarke

6th Apr 2020

5 min read

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A quick question for employers

How do we increase employee engagement during the current COVID-19  health crisis?

We mean besides that.

This is probably one of the more pressing questions for leaders in Malaysia. Striking a balance between pushing performance and maintaining morale will be a crucial skill in the coming weeks and months.

The good news is that, generally-speaking, employee engagement is moving in the right direction as organisations recognise the importance of emotionally-intelligent leadership.

The 2018 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Report by Aon showed a four-point rise from the previous year, with 63 per cent of Malaysians said to be engaged in their work, up from 59 per cent in 2017.

While progress is to be celebrated, the report also revealed that Malaysia has among the lowest engagement rates in the region, with neighbouring countries such as Indonesia (76 per cent), India and the Philippines (both 71 per cent) strides ahead.

In his book, How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World, Neil Irwin – senior economic correspondent at the New York Times – explores what it means to be successful today in the face of several shifts that move away from the traditional notions of ‘jobs’ and how organisations operate.

One of the arguments he offers is that people should work hard – but not too hard. In Malaysia, there exists the attitude in many businesses that to leave the office earlier than the boss means that you’re not working hard and are therefore less productive. And yet, research into the length of a working day strongly indicates that being in the office for longer hours doesn’t necessarily mean greater productivity.

Exploring Microsoft’s efforts to find out what behaviours led to success within the company, researchers found that, when employees put in longer working weeks (including nights and weekends), they became less engaged in their roles.

This makes sense. We have a finite reservoir of mental energy which, when constantly pushed to its boundaries, leads to a build-up of stress. As a result, we become more frustrated, our fatigue levels increase, creativity decreases, and our engagement lessens.

While working from home, the need for leaders to respect time boundaries becomes essential, as our home and work-life find themselves housed under the same roof. In psychological terms, this makes it harder to ‘switch-off’ from work, especially since we are instantly contactable through messaging apps and online meeting platforms. As a result, the risk of mental burnout increases.

Let’s remember to keep reasonable hours

Nowadays, although contracts might specify a 40-hour week, we all know that employees can be expected to work into the evenings and on weekends.

Traditionally, working longer hours made sense at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when factories needed to maximise their output through manual labour. But even then, workers campaigned in 1817 to shorten the working day from between 10-16 hours down to eight hours.

Nowadays, although contracts might specify a 40-hour week, we all know that employees can be expected to work into the evenings and on weekends. Although there’s no legal requirement to do so, the expectation from bosses is enough to ensure people work beyond their hours.

Especially in times of uncertainty, as we find ourselves adapting to changes following the novel coronavirus outbreak, people’s mental resources become stretched as they work to deal with anxiety, worry and stress, as well as juggling the demands of working at home with family life.

Of course, organisations still require their business needs to be met and for people to continue in their roles. Everybody is learning and adapting as we go along; however, employee engagement is bound to suffer if there’s an assumption that they should continually work beyond the hours they are contracted to meet.

Ultimately, this hurts the organisations as much as the employees themselves, with businesses losing out, on average, to the tune of millions of dollars each thanks to ‘presenteeism’, work-related stress, burnout, and illness among employees.

Make time for your team members

Another finding from Microsoft’s practices was that managers who led successful teams tended to hold regular one-to-one meetings with their direct reports. Additionally, employees who made contact with people from other departments tended to enjoy better careers within the company.

Leaders often talk about the importance of communication within the workplace – but how much do we really pay attention to connecting with others? We might say that leaders (and, indeed, employees) have busy schedules, and so proper communication is more of a luxury. And yet, leadership studies show that frequent and effective communication lies at the heart of successful companies.

When we have departments that don’t speak to each other, and leaders who don’t make time to chat with their team members, it’s not difficult to predict the outcome: a fragmented, under-performing organisation with a potentially toxic culture.

Make meetings matter

Speaking of communication, unproductive meetings are also a cause of decreased employee engagement and job satisfaction in the workplace. The purpose of meetings can include gathering ideas to achieve a particular objective or discuss ways to improve certain practices within a team or organisation. However, too much time is wasted on meetings that end up leading nowhere.

Part of this is due to the number of people attending each meeting. If you have three or four people brainstorming over a pre-arranged agenda, it’s more likely to produce a clear action plan, compared to meetings that might have several people in attendance without a proper structure in place.

When you have 30 people in the chat and they all leave their mics on

These are particularly important considerations for online meetings, as organisations increasingly turn to Skype, Google and Zoom to host departmental and company-wide meetings during the period of restricted movement.

To get the most out of these meetings, it’s vital that they have proper structures in place, especially if there are more than five people offering their thoughts and opinions. Respecting the time of the meeting will help ensure focus on key points and decision-making; otherwise a lot of time will be wasted and people may leave the meeting feeling unclear about what they’re expected to do or what objectives have been set.

In the end, employee engagement boils down to how much leaders enable people to use their time effectively, how much they interact with and value their employees, and whether they respect employees’ time outside of working hours. Cross-departmental relations are also crucial if an organisation wishes to thrive and grow as a united team that delivers its best to customers and stakeholders.

Another consideration as we work from home is whether employees are continuing to receive opportunities to learn and grow as they would under normal circumstances. In-house online training can help to ensure people keep up-to-date with their development, and there are plenty of resources to help employees upskill in terms of their digital learning through platforms such as Coursera and Leaderonomics Digital.

READ: Leveraging the Power of Digital Learning

Serve your employees, and your employees will serve you

In navigating these unprecedented times, employees will look to their leaders to support them as they adapt to unfamiliar circumstances, and that support can begin by respecting time boundaries when it comes to work, and also reassuring people of their value by continuing to be engaged and invested in their development.

As one of America’s great businesswomen, Anne Mulcahy, put it:

Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person – not just an employee – are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled. Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability.

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