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How to engage workers during ‘the new normal’

Recognition, check-ins with managers, and asking employees how they are feeling are key.
By: | June 4, 2020 • 3 min read
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

There’s no question COVID-19 has upended the working world and prompted a number of changes: Work-from-home is the new normal. Employees are stressed and distracted. Workforces are compressed as employers struggling financially are forced to make layoffs. And employees are taking on extra work as a result.

“There are a lot of expectations for what [employees and employers] deliver. [Plus] we’ve never been more distracted—and reasonably so,” Amy Leschke-Kahle, vice president of performance acceleration for the Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP company, said Wednesday during the American Payroll Association’s Annual Congress event, held virtually. “So given all that, how do we create focus?”

Employee engagement and connection, she said, are key. “It’s our best chance at navigating these bumps—or mountains—in the road that we have today and we still have coming up. Connection is so important—how we support and maintain connection and culture at a distance.”

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Related: Edward Jones’ coronavirus strategy: Keeping employees (virtually) connected

So how can it be done successfully? A lot of it is about one-on-one check-ins, recognition, appreciation and genuine conversations.

“Engagement doesn’t happen in the org charts,” said Leschke-Kahle, who worked as an HR practitioner for years before joining the Marcus Buckingham Company. “Engagement happens most between the team leader and the team member.”

Frequent and brief one-on-one check-ins between team leaders and team members is key in general, she said, but more so during the pandemic. There is a way to do it successfully and ensure it’s not a “check-up,” which by contrast focuses on tasks and makes workers feel micromanaged. Check-ins have to be thoughtful, brief and recognize employees’ hard work. “These are one-on-one, strengths-based conversations about near-term future work.”

During the conversations, team members could take a few minutes to answer questions like: What did you love this week? What did you loathe? Did you feel like you brought value every day?

Importantly, leaders also should ask employees how they can help them, she said.

And to make sure the contact isn’t a time-suck, don’t have check-ins daily, she advised. Weekly is best, and keep them just a few minutes long. “It sounds like a lot, but it’s important. [You’re saying] ‘I see you for the best of you.’” And don’t worry about making them all in person—emails, text messages and instant messages work too.

“Historically we teach team leaders we need to have these big, long conversations,” she said. “But it’s about super-short, light touches.”

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It goes beyond just talking about work and priorities, though. Team leaders should show appreciation for each worker and also ask them how they are doing and feeling personally and professionally. Sometimes asking how employees are doing can yield more genuine responses if it’s over a message rather than a phone call, she advised. “Asking, ‘How are you feeling?’ is more important than it’s ever been,” she said. “Sometimes doing it in a digital fashion is better—people are more likely to respond to it if they’re typing something than saying it verbally.”

Related: How to connect remote employees—and have fun

Workers who feel like they get attention and appreciation from their employers are much more likely to feel engaged and productive at work, Leschke-Kahle said.

“It seems super-simple and common sense, and it is common sense—but it’s not common practice,” she said. “We don’t have to overcomplicate it.”

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.

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