Strategies for keeping employees engaged in the ever-evolving world of work.
By Simon Kent
The pandemic may be receding in some parts of the APAC region but the impact on the workplace is still high. Engaging with workers in this environment remains a challenge for HR, requiring them to constantly reassess their approach to communications and employee support. Elements of the ‘old normal’ may be emerging but these come with new challenges rather than a sigh of relief.
“The situation now is quite different from what it used to be in the pre-pandemic era,” says Vaibhav Jain, CEO of virtual events platform Hubilo based in India. Chief among those differences is the emerging hybrid workforce model where only certain staff is physically present in the office -and for specific reasons. “This new norm will be completely managerial-driven,” says Jain. “Hence, employers need to consult their HR managers on the best approach for their employees. Employers should look into their employees’ needs, understand how purposeful and productive the in-person working or hybrid working will be, and then plan accordingly.”
Managing the hybrid workforce requires strategic planning as well as a strong communication plan. For the foreseeable future, companies will still be contacting their workforce through technology first, says Jain. To do this effectively, they must take note of employee motivation drivers and preference. “Companies are beginning to rely on gamification, Q&As, and feedback loops to understand motivation and levels of engagement in their employees,” he says. However, technology communications come with a warning. Jain notes the need to manage “Zoom fatigue” by not overscheduling meetings, limiting participant numbers, and offering time away from all electronic communications to prevent burnout.
As Experian‘s HR director and country site leader for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Chai Ping Chua reports that engagement among her colleagues is still high, but this has been won through consistent, ongoing communications with the workforce throughout the entire pandemic.
“Luckily, we had high engagement with our workforce when the pandemic started,” she says. This was then continued online through the provision of diverse initiatives from social activities -like creating cookbooks and having mindfulness sessions -to support for employee’s physical and mental health. The company’s 24-hour helpline through the employee assistance program has offered a route to immediate support throughout the pandemic. This year the well-being initiative will be expanded further to include financial health and incorporating virtual theatre into the mix to alleviate pandemic-induced stress and fatigue.
Through the listening strategy -such as onboarding surveys and new joiner checkpoints -and monitoring pulse surveys and measuring the net promoter score among employees, Chua says the company has maintained levels of employee engagement throughout the last 12 months.
“The big learning for me is not to underestimate how much you can engage with employees in this environment,” says Chua. Key to this approach has been the concept of virtual empathy -being able to understand the needs and feelings of an employee despite only being able to communicate via the screen. Experian wants employees to feel safe and supported, and that can mean anything from being clear with them that there’s no need to dress formally when working from home, to being there to listen when someone’s having a difficult time. There has also been constant communication around the business. For example, as the national situation has changed in terms of government action and messages, the organisation has been ready to respond to tell its employees what this means for them.
“The pandemic across the APAC region, and globally for that matter, has led to employees having more time to think about their own purpose and mortality, which, understandably has made some employees more stressed and less engaged at work,” notes Alex Nicolaus, head of people and culture at Singapore-based Paysend, and author of “Startup Culture: Your Superpower for Sustainable Growth.” “We certainly did see reduced engagement at the beginning of the pandemic. Nobody likes change and employers weren’t prepared for home working because the pandemic was so unexpected.”
Nicolaus believes engaging the workforce was sometimes neglected or taken for granted when employees were working in the office. In the current environment, however, it has become a business imperative to focus on the issue.
“This new behaviour, as a result of the pandemic, has positively impacted many business leaders,” he says. “With support from HR, it has helped many leaders to be more attentive to employees’ emotional needs and unite them behind a common purpose. Consequently, I have seen more companies encourage and talk about servant leadership, care about their employees’ well-being and prioritise their personal growth and happiness in their jobs.”
Despite the challenges, Nicolaus may be right that the current situation presents an opportunity. A chance for employers to reconnect with their employees and decide exactly what kind of working arrangement creates the most engagement.