The global coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide lockdowns have had a fundamental impact on our concepts of work. Even before the formal lockdowns came into effect many employers were requesting, or requiring, their staff to work from home.
Substantial changes in ways of working have emerged, through necessity, and often hastily conceived and implemented. Technology has been put to use far more extensively and virtual workplaces have become the new default for millions of professionals around the world. The need to consider company culture and workplace inclusion has arguably never been greater.
In this guide, we’ll explore the factors at play and set down some actionable employee engagement strategies. These act as recommendations for company executives, human resource leaders, and people managers to adopt to ensure that they continue to encourage workplace inclusion and workforce diversity.
Before we dive into these employee empowerment policies, let us examine the current work landscape and existing challenges in people management. (If you’d like to jump directly to the recommendations feel free to click here.
Employee Engagement: Remote Working, Diversity and Inclusion, and ChallengesHere’s a detailed look into the challenges faced by employers and employees when it comes to workforce diversity and workplace inclusion. Even as we quickly shift to the new normal of working – that will be characterized by mass home working – addressing these problems should take precedence before we decide to apply a solution. These hurdles may differ across organizations but research suggests that there is a pattern of common issues that plague the traditional model of the workplace. Let’s go through them one by one.
Existential Challenges in Employee Engagement and Enablement
In addition to considering how to change the traditional ways of working, many companies are facing existential challenges: fundamentally considering which existing customer demands would survive (e.g. home deliveries), which ones wouldn’t (small businesses shutting down), and which new demands would exist or could be created.
Many smaller enterprises are “pivoting” into new areas, even if only temporarily, to survive or stay relevant. Restaurants are moving to food home delivery or cloud kitchens, whereas car companies are producing ventilators and face masks. In a popular example, in March 2020, Italian luxury sports car manufacturer Lamborghini reconverted some departments of its Bologna-based production plant to produce surgical masks and shields.
Along with the potentially significant re-assessment of company strategy comes the inevitable staffing considerations. Functions or even entire systems will require fewer people – currently, there are millions of people on furlough, and significant layoffs have already been reported worldwide and across industries, recognizing that business and economic recovery will be long-term.
On the other hand, some businesses are requiring more staff – the obvious ones being healthcare, logistics, and essential services. Some, seeking to address these demands, are moving people around within their enterprises to meet emerging demands. Such movements either require reskilling, hiring new staff, or reprioritizing technology projects.
Is Remote Working Feasible in the Long Term?
This shift from the traditional work setup has led to a reassessment of what jobs can be done remotely as well as how to enable it. That has brought to the fore a plethora of considerations such as technical services, ways of working, and workplace culture.
Technical Considerations Include the Following Factors:
- Do remote working systems have enough capacity? (high-speed internet, VPN, video conferencing tools)
- Are these systems sufficiently secure? (device encryption, mobile device security, remote access infrastructure, and internet security)
- Are new technical solutions needed? (collaboration services, different ways of managing and coordinating work in the absence of face-to-face engagement, and virtual business meetings)
‘Ways of Working’ Considerations:
- Which essential business processes need to be re-engineered?
- Is everyone trained in using the company’s remote working systems?
- How will people’s performance be monitored and managed?
- Did the disaster management plan work (or even exist)? If so, how does it need to be re-assessed?
- How will customer and in-house services be delivered when everyone is working remotely?
- How to cope when there may be a disproportionately high number of staff off sick at the same time?
Workplace Culture Focus More on Healthy Employee Engagement
- What does workplace culture mean when the workplace is now predominantly remote?
- How do companies keep their employees connected as a community in the absence of face-to-face engagement – either day-to-day in the office or through events?
- What ways of communicating should be used? For example, virtual “water cooler chats”.
- How do companies fulfill their employer duties for employee wellbeing?
Everything Has Changed in the Workplace. At the Same Time, Nothing Has
To add to the complexity, all of this is happening in a state of huge uncertainty.
From an employer’s perspective, there are some urgent questions: When will “normal” work resume? When will we see “business as usual” return, and over what period? And for business executives, leaders, and people managers there’s the age-old challenge of how many decisions should be made now, and how many should wait for more certainty.
For many individuals, the situation is hugely destabilizing. Therefore, people managers should be conscious that anxiety levels will be elevated as a result of job security concerns, and whether interim job arrangements are viable long-term. There’ll also be many who have had their first taste of working from home and decide that they want to carry on – perhaps when their employers don’t.
Rupert McNeil, the UK Government Chief People Officer summarized this well in this civil service blog piece:
For example, we know that carers are reporting high levels of anxiety, especially around the vulnerability to coronavirus of those they care for. Disabled colleagues have been worried about getting the workplace adjustments they need at home. Muslim colleagues have questions about flexible working patterns, prayer rooms and observing Ramadan. LGB&TI networks are supporting individuals who are self-isolating within households where they are exposed to potential homophobia and transphobia. And gender networks have raised concerns about the impact on health and wellbeing of working flexibly and home-schooling.
Despite these challenges, businesses have to continue. Driving executives to plan for the short-, mid- and long-term courses of their companies. The tactics may change, but the business expectations of external stakeholders remain.
Workplace Inclusion – The Elephant in the Virtual Room
What hasn’t been discussed much is the opportunities and risks associated with ensuring that the new virtual workplace is fully inclusive. Assuming that existing programs of work on employee experience, workplace inclusion, equality, and protecting workforce equity will continue to be relevant and effective is a huge risk.
As observed by inclusion specialist Ruchika Tulshyan in her Harvard Business Review piece titled How to Be an Inclusive Leader Through a Crisis, it’s important to check in on the possibility for bias:
Unfortunately, being in crisis mode can cause even the most intentional and well-meaning leaders to fall into patterns of bias and exclusion. Research shows that when we’re stressed, we often default to heuristics and gut instincts, rather than making deliberate and goal-oriented decisions.
Different People Will be Affected in Different Ways
Each of our lives is different in a multitude of ways, which may lead to a more sophisticated, or nuanced, understanding of what workforce diversity and workplace inclusion mean for your company in this new context.
New factors include whether someone is particularly vulnerable to coronavirus infection, or if they have the facilities at home for remote working, or how childcare affects availability and the ability to develop work routines, and so on. It’s also worth considering factors such as LGBT+ identity: many people in the community are out at work but not at home whose lives have become incredibly pressured as a result of enforced working from home (in an unfamiliar setting, therefore) and periods of isolation. (If you are a part of the LGBT+ community, also consider participating in this survey.)
This is leading to the need for potentially significant adjustments – there will be many who had not thought of themselves as needing any “adjustments” but now do.
And, of course, a significant factor is the impact this will have on employees’ mental health. Not being around work colleagues may lead to the assumed state of being excluded, or an impact on personal energy levels, or the loss of ability to focus on tasks in the same way they do when in an office work environment.
Employers have a big role to play across all of these – an engaged, enabled, and empowered workforce is needed by all stakeholders, and that includes employees of all levels.
Employee Engagement Strategies: 7 Immediate Actions
Here are seven employee engagement strategies and actions company executives, people managers, and HR professionals should be considering to ensure equity during periods of mass home working:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate
- Revive your people support services
- Review management practices
- Use technology wisely
- Adopt restructuring
- Engage, empower, and enable your employee resource groups
- Embed the good stuff
Use this PDF version of the infographic to share with people managers and leadership of your company.
Here are the HR strategies in more detail with actionable tips, ideas, and useful resources.
1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Whatever allows your teams to consume information in ways, and at times that suit them, do it. Here are some critical to-dos:
- Keep communicating and engaging with your people
- Share company updates a regular basis
- Provide repositories of information and replays of internal webcasts; consider a company podcast stream
Consider digital versions of your regular in-person communication channels. For example, scheduled office hours where people managers are available for “drop-in” video calls as they would in the office or periodic online staff briefings.
Go beyond simple Zoom-like video conferencing and instead use interactive platforms that provide the richness of experience that one would have in person. I was at an event recently, hosted on the Adobe Connect platform that had a superb range of ways to engage, with breakout rooms, voting, and flipcharts. Another one used meetyoo to virtualize a whole conference experience.
At a deeper level of employee empowerment, don’t forget to enable rich peer-to-peer communication and acknowledge that some will find using company email hard for personally confidential discussions. In its survey of nearly a thousand employees, zenbusiness found that those who didn’t work in the same location as their company’s Human Resources department were more than twice as likely to say they didn’t trust the HR.
Such issues can be plugged by using a 360-degree solution like equativo to provide information and services to empower and enable your employees. It can also act as a platform for secure and confidential conversations with HR and even peer-to-peer such as for people managers wanting to ask for mutual help.
2. Revive Your People Support Services
The services you provide to support your staff – of all levels – need to be reviewed.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) should be fully briefed on the adaptations being made at the company. Reports should be analyzed deeply to identify any new trends. If you don’t have an EAP, consider getting one or preparing your own guidance of resources available to support people.
Create a coronavirus or working-from-home resource center – gather guidance and material from around the company, and use external services to fill any gaps, so that staff have a one-stop-platform for key information about remote working and how to care of themselves.
Consider areas to review against the employee lifecycle – this article on diversity and inclusion (D&I) – the employee lifecycle perspective is a good framework to use to structure the thinking on this.
Take a look at your staff incentives and “thank you” systems. Are the qualification criteria, approvals processes, and recognition options “digital ready”?
3. Review Management Practices
Leading and managing remote teams require many of the same skills as face-to-face, plus many new skills and approaches too. Develop guidance materials for how you want the company leadership and management ethos to be brought to life by people managers and sustained through periods of remote working.
Review the language and expectations of the corporate strategy and ensure that it is super-relevant for the new model of working. Reassess the needs and expectations of as well as the language used by your customers and ensure that they resonate in your internal language. Ensure that personal objectives are reviewed – timescales and output expectations will likely need to be revised.
In a remote working context, a different dynamic of trust and a different approach to work scheduling and attendance will mostly be required. Be clear with your staff what outputs are expected rather than focusing on “time on the clock”. Encourage flexibility and understanding for when meetings and discussions are to be held.
And don’t forget to see what your executives will need as well – they’re employees too and will likely require support and advice, even if they don’t feel comfortable calling out for it themselves. Nurturing a sense of equality among the workforce can mean creating a level-playing field but it should not be based on biases.
4. Use Technology Wisely
There’s been a rapid deployment of communication and collaboration technologies to enable remote working. The necessary need to speed up deployment may have understandably led to some factors not being considered.
Guidance should also be shared on how to best use technology. For example, ensuring that meetings are accessible by turning on closed captioning during calls and sending documents as well as collecting inputs in advance. During calls, the chairperson should ensure that all participants have the opportunity to contribute.
Be aware that some people may not be comfortable using technology for video calls. However, it’s generally accepted that having cameras switched on improves communications, so it should be encouraged. Having said that, it is also recognized that there’s an increased cognitive load for participants of conference calls – and this will affect different people in different ways.
For recorded videos, ensure that they all have subtitles or captions activated. A great tool to automatically add subtitles to a video is subly.
Alongside the formal email systems and collaboration systems (like Slack or Microsoft Teams), ensure that you’re also providing your people with confidential communication routes in place. Consider using equativo.
5. Adopt Restructuring, a Workplace Inclusion and Workforce Diversity Opportunity
Most companies are going to have to go through a process of reorienting their business to the changing economic climate and customer demands. Strategic people planning is an inevitable consequence. Often, this is a negative process involving layoffs and overburdening the remaining staff.
If you’re planning layoffs, take a look at this Harvard Business Review article, Layoffs That Don’t Break Your Company, in which researchers Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta note that “research clearly shows that bad layoffs and layoffs for the wrong reasons rarely help senior leaders accomplish their goals” and “survivors experienced a 41% decline in job satisfaction, a 36% decline in organizational commitment, and a 20% decline in job performance”.
Restructuring, however, also presents an opportunity but care is required. Instead, consider the opportunity to redefine roles where the element of employee retention doesn’t come up and/or is questioned.
For instance, explicitly setting the expectation of remote working being the norm can be a general redefinition as part of your employee engagement strategy. Moreover, recognizing that the deployment of new communication and collaboration tools enables timesharing of jobs previously only considered possible as full-time roles is also an effective way to ensure equity in the workplace.
The scheduling of jobs through a day may be possible. For example, considering “2 hours on, 1 hour off” as a cycle through a longer working day rather than the conservative “9 to 5”, to allow for household responsibilities.
Use data to identify opportunities as well as to avoid unfortunate outcomes. As models for new team structures are prepared, analyze the data to ensure that diversity is being encouraged, and to identify where bias may be negatively impacting on the choice of who is to let go. Biased decision-making (even if subconscious) by management could undo years of progress on workforce diversity.
6. Engage, Empower, and Enable Your Employee Engagement Groups
Employee resource groups (ERGs), also referred to as affinity groups or business resource groups, are often a fantastic resource to contribute to inclusive people-related decision making, as well as to consult with on business strategy and market-facing activities.
Involve them and work with them as you consider how to respond to changing customer demands, create new ways of working, and even restructure.
If you don’t have ERGs established already don’t let enforced remote working hold you back from starting them. For example, equativo can help you to encourage and enable confidential conversations amongst your people. Consult with staff frequently and with care to keep them engaged.
This article on strategic workforce diversity and workplace inclusion is a good resource on how to connect corporate strategy with D&I initiatives, including the impact of ERGs. It also provides an excellent strategic framework approach to structure the effort.
7. Embed the Good Stuff
Take the opportunity that the upheaval and implementation of changes across the business presents to identify what works well and embed them. There are plenty upsides to a remote working culture (although a few years old now, Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson is an easy read on the topic). Also see this article from 2015 titled ‘Why Remote Work Thrives in Some Companies and Fails in Others’ by corporate trainer Sean Graber for some quality comparisons.
Benefits of such a setup include:
- Improved productivity
- Shorter commutes
- Greater flexibility
Getting this right could be a differentiator across a wide range of factors – increased agility, rapid response to customer challenges, and maybe even a transformation into the perfect place to work.
In Conclusion – “Never let a good crisis go to waste”
While the human impact of coronavirus is appalling, professionals are required to ensure that they lead and manage their people through this pandemic effectively.
Through all of the change and upheaval, managing the people resources of the company and keeping them energized, engaged, and aligned with the company strategy becomes very more important. There’s a real opportunity to improve employee empowerment and experience, to become a model employer, and to nurture a more inclusive workplace with a more diverse workforce. That opportunity has to be consciously taken – and the above employee engagement strategies will help you achieve that.
Ensuring that all staff can communicate and that they all feel empowered and enabled is essential. Allowing them to confidentially connect with HR, executives, and each other is not possible with standard corporate communications and collaboration tools.
Above all, make sure everyone can communicate and engage when they need to. Give them the tools to be informed, empowered, and enabled. Give them equativo.
These are important topics that require to be considered from strategic, operational, and people-oriented perspectives. After all, it’s about your people and the way you engage with them and they engage with each other.
Get in touch to discuss how an equativo impact project will support your company and employee engagement and experience. Let’s chat.