It’s been a rough time for all of us since COVID-19 emerged and changed the work world forever. Just as employers thought they would be soon getting back to some semblance of normalcy, the Delta variant surfaced causing many to shutter or shift plans to call employees back to the workplace and attempts to go back to “business as usual.” Many have accepted the likely reality that business will never be back to usual — business leaders will need to learn to navigate, lead, and inspire in a workplace where some employees (and managers) will be on site and others will be working remotely.
“The post-pandemic office will look and feel very different than the old way of doing things,” says Timothy Golden, a professor in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer, and an expert on telecommuting, telework, and the relationship between technology and managerial behavior. “Many offices will be mixed mode and have employees who work in a hybrid manner, and this will add to the complexity of building and sustaining cohesive work environments.”
It’s an environment that is likely to continue to be stressful for many employees.
According to Gallup research, while negative emotions in the workplace had been on the rise for many years, they peaked in 2020. In fact, they report 57% of US and Canadian employees experience stress daily — 48% are worried, 26% are sad, and 22% feel angry.
In this environment, businesses are also bracing for a predicted “resignation tsunami” or “great resignation” as employees who have gotten a taste of the freedom and flexibility of working from home dig in their heels and vow to look for work elsewhere if employers require them to be back on-site. Employers need to keep this in mind as they begin to make plans for calling employees back to the office.
What can leaders do to navigate within this changing — and changed — environment? Here are a few employee engagement strategies you can put into action right now.
Build Alignment Within Executive Leadership Team
Employees need to hear consistent messages from their leaders. That starts at the top of the organization with alignment among all members of the executive leadership team. They then communicate down the corporate hierarchy ensuring consistency at all levels and across all departments and divisions.
This alignment has always been important for a strong team culture, of course, but becomes even more so in a dispersed work world where communication can be challenging. It’s important for employees to understand that they, their team members, and their managers are all moving in the same direction, with the same voice, to achieve the same goals.
Acknowledge the Uncertainty
Never has the environment been more uncertain for all of us as it has been since the pandemic emerged. There’s no reason to hide from that uncertainty. In fact, leaders can play an important role and set a good example by acknowledging the uncertainty that they and their employees feel.
In a hybrid world, leaders need to be proactive, says Golden. Emerging research he has been conducting is finding that "leaders in these environments need to be highly adept at reaching out to employees to solve problems before they become unwieldy.”
Employees don’t expect organizational leaders to have all the answers in this uncertain environment. They do, though, expect them to acknowledge the uncertainty and the stress it may be causing.
Ensure Alignment with Mission, Vision, and Values
Now is a good time to revisit your company’s mission, vision, and values to confirm that they are still a relevant and an accurate reflection of the way your company operates. It’s also a good time to take steps to hold senior leaders and everyone throughout the organization accountable to upholding these values.
That accountability is critical and starts at the board level, says McKinsey & Company.
Provide a Place of Community
A community doesn’t have to be a physical setting; we’ve learned that during the pandemic. While a dispersed work force has created some challenges, it’s also provided some new opportunities. Technology has been a great aid here and will continue to be so into the future. Tools like Inspirus® Connects, for example, provide a shared place for employees to come together to connect, interact, collaborate, and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.
Communicate in a Multigenerational Manner
We now have five generations in the workplace, each with varying levels of preferences for the wide range of communication tools that organizations now have available to them. Organizations need to move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to communication and connect with a multigenerational workforce in ways that resonate with each of these generational segments — it’s a trend we identified six months ago in our 2021 Trends & Forecasts report.
“Not all communication modes — email, video, phone, instant messaging, etc. — have the same capabilities or effect on the receiver of the communication,” Golden says. “Moreover, each communication mode must be judged relative to the needs of the task at hand.”
In addition, says Toolie Garner, CEO of Remote Leadership Success, a professional speaker, author, and consultant, when communicating, particularly in a hybrid environment, it’s important to have interactions that meet both on-site and remote needs. “It’s easy to unintentionally leave people out of important communications, so managers need to make sure everyone has equal access to the needed information to do their jobs.”
Hire With an Eye Toward Grooming Future Leaders
The front-line employees joining your workforce today could be a manager or senior leader of tomorrow. It’s important to hire with that potential in mind. Have clear insights into the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are a hallmark of effective leaders in your organization and look for those attributes as you hire new employees, regardless of the level of the position they’re applying for. Building bench strength should occur at all levels and areas of the organization.
In addition, as you’re bringing people into the organization, be proactive and mindful of ensuring a pipeline for diverse talent. The ability to build a strong workforce, and leadership team, that reflects the diversity of the communities you serve starts here.
Balance Head with Heart
As we pointed out in our 2021 Trends & Forecasts report, we are seeing more executives these days communicating with their workforce on a more emotional level. That’s a best practice that we hope will continue post-pandemic. As Maya Angelou is credited with saying: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The post-pandemic workforce will require more empathy than ever before. Effective leaders will learn to balance head with heart.
“The companies of the future that are going to win the talent war are going to be those who recognize that there is a work life divide — and treat people and their lives holistically and lead with a focus on 'what is best for our employees’ not only at work but overall,” says Jennifer Petriglieri, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. Companies that don’t, she says, “are going to bleed talent.”
As leaders focus on cultivating community and inspiring loyalty post-pandemic, taking the steps outlined here can help them address the uncertainty positively while building a team culture that will help them move forward no matter what the future may hold.