In the new world of work, three drivers of employee engagement have emerged: connection, well-being, and feedback.
By Marta Chmielowicz
The obstacles of 2020 tested the business world in unimaginable ways, reshaping the way people live, work, and relate to each other—potentially for the better. According to Qualtrics’ 2021 Employee Experience Trends Report, employee engagement has actually increased since the pandemic began, from 53% in November 2019 to 66% in November 2020.
The research shows that one key factor has emerged as the strongest driver of engagement: a sense of belonging. And companies are doing well; 73% of employees feel like they belong at their organizations. How can HR leaders maintain this momentum and deliver a positive employee experience as the world adjusts to a post-COVID reality?
In the remote work environment, creating opportunities for connection across the workforce has been a challenge for all HR leaders. Companies responded by embracing video, collaboration tools, and virtual team building events as a way to strengthen culture.
“Here at Epicor, in addition to tools like Microsoft Teams to drive efficiency and collaboration, we have increased the use of Yammer to keep people connected on a personal level in order to foster a tighter global community,” says Jignasha Amin Grooms, CHRO of the organization. “We’ve encouraged people to share bits of their personal lives: their pets, their recent hikes, their favorite hobbies, etc. And we encourage teams to gather virtually on the platform of their choice. One of our executives even hosted a virtual Harry Potter ‘dinner mystery party’ last month—costumes encouraged!”
But now, as employees begin to return to the office and a hybrid model becomes more pervasive, leveraging technology to ensure on-site and remote employees feel connected will be an even greater priority.
Michael Williams, associate professor of information systems at the Pepperdine University Graziadio Business School, says that while the engagement and collaboration tools organizations choose can be simple, they need to be driven from the top. “You don’t have to be on the most innovative, new platform—what matters is an organizational commitment that goes from the senior leadership to the newest employees. Being consistent on those collaborative platforms is critical. It’s important to address the social distance that naturally arises when we are working remotely and get the whole organization to adopt and utilize these tools in ways that are consistent with your culture.”
Online lending company BlueVine is maintaining engagement by adopting video conferencing technology in all office spaces so that employees can meet with hybrid teams from anywhere. “As we take on a hybrid model workforce, we’re planning to leverage technology as much as we can to keep teams connected since not all employees will be in the office at the same time,” says Chief People Officer Gianna Driver.
The company is also relying on technology with employee recognition capabilities to create meaningful one-on-one engagements between employees while offering a visible platform for managers and leaders to congratulate team members on their accomplishments.
“To ensure employees who choose to work remotely aren’t at a disadvantage of communication compared to employees who come into the office, we’re implementing internal management tools to keep everyone feeling connected and informed,” explains Driver. “For example, we use an employee engagement platform called Lattice which allows us to celebrate and praise people in ways that would have been challenging pre-COVID.”
Epicor has also embraced the value of a recognition program, implementing a Staff Appreciation and Recognition (STAR) program based on its core values of teamwork, excellence, service, passion, innovation, and integrity. The program allows for peer-to-peer recognition through e-cards as well as top-down recognition through quarterly global award winners, Grooms says.
“During this pandemic climate and as we look toward a more permanent remote work future, it’s key to ensure employees feel appreciated for the work they’re doing,” says Jeff Cates, CEO of Achievers. “We can no longer stop by someone’s desk and give them a high five or take them out to lunch for a job well done, and this has likely resulted in 40% of workers feeling under-appreciated for their contributions during the pandemic. Instead, these traditions must now be emulated via tools and technology, so it’s important for employers to provide a variety of methods that allow for easy recognition online.”
Support Employees’ Whole Selves
COVID-19 accelerated the future of work as employers adjusted to a new normal overnight. In a moment of severe disruption, well-being became a core focus for most organizations, with flexibility, health, and work-life balance emerging as key parts of the employee experience. According to Qualtrics’ research, employers were generally successful at supporting their employees’ holistic wellness; 67% of employees rated their wellbeing favorably, including 87% of VP-level executives and 60% of individual contributors.
Now that employees have felt this level of support from their organizations, they will be unwilling to give it up anytime soon. “Employees very quickly saw how agile and flexible their employers could be when situations like a global pandemic forced their hand. The expectation is for that agility and flexibility to continue,” says Jeff Gelinas, president of recognition and engagement at Engage2Excel.
In fact, Cates says that employers will have to go even further to ensure their people maintain a healthy work-life balance when working remotely. “Despite being home most of the time, employees are working early morning and late nights, and skipping lunch breaks out of fear that their managers and employers don’t trust their productivity,” he explains. “This is not the way to keep employees engaged and will likely lead to turnover as a quarter of employees reported work-life balance was the reason they wanted to find a new job this year.”
In this tumulus time, BlueVine has introduced a number of initiatives to support its employees’ whole selves, whether it’s financial, educational, or health related. For example, the company offers:
- financial literacy resources and financial planning workshops;
- mental health resources and benefits;
- a new 401k match benefit;
- care packages for remote employees;
- guided meditation sessions; and
- virtual events to strengthen employee connections.
“We also started a ‘BlueVine Buddy’ program that matches employees with one another, providing an opportunity to build friendships and combat loneliness while working from home,” says Driver. “With so many tragic events happening around the world, we want to ensure our employees feel supported. In order to prioritize the wellness of our employees, mental health resources and financial planning benefits will continue to be something we offer this year and in years to come.”
Now that the pandemic is coming to a close, organizations will need to consider what parts of their employee engagement strategies they will carry with them into the future. According to Mark Royal, senior director and engagement specialist at Korn Ferry, flexibility will remain a dominant theme, as employees expect a hybrid model that allows them to alternate between remote and in-office work.
“Employees like that remote work allows them to focus on individual tasks and have more control over their schedules, but too much alone time can be isolating,” he explains. “Being with co-workers provides personal and work-related support, facilitates communication, and can spark new ideas, so a bit of both is good. Right now, the focus is on keeping employees safe as they return, but in the long-term, flexibility will be here to stay. The difficult part for employers is how to operationalize the flexibility to determine who comes in and when.”
Furthermore, Gelinas says that the emphasis on well-being and personalization will have implications for the way HR leaders view employees’ entire talent lifecycles. Rather than treating the career experience like a series of disjointed HR functions, leaders will need to view it more holistically, delivering a personalized, seamless career journey.
“HR often has a way of bucketing HR functions, but the reality is that it’s one continuous experience for an individual, and employees expect a seamless experience that makes it easy to do their work, connect with their colleagues, and balance work and life. Digital fatigue and burnout are real concerns for employees, and as a result, many HR departments are looking at all their systems and embarking on digital transformation initiatives,” he explains.
Technology is evolving to support this shift, says Josh Bersin, global analyst and founder and dean of the Josh Bersin Academy, moving from “systems” to “design tools” that let HR leaders automate cumbersome processes, integrate disparate platforms, and design more fluid employee journeys.
“Onboarding, employee transition, office scheduling, career guidance, and open enrollment are all ‘experiences’ that need to be simplified and automated,” he says, adding that many partners, including ServiceNow, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Workday, and Hibob, offer such design tools. “The main common features they all have are design journeys, various workflow design tools, and surveys and learning delivered in the flow of work.”
For example, Grooms says that Epicor is looking to enhance its talent journey by launching a new onboarding program that will deliver a more cohesive experience, strengthen company culture, and drive an inclusive and consistent approach for new employees.
“In that same sentiment, we are also expanding learning opportunities for our employees globally,” she says. “To retain talent in a competitive market, companies are going to have to improve their career and personal development offerings. We hope that by supplying our employees with more access to learning opportunities, we can help them grow and develop and help Epicor stay at the top of the market we serve.”
As the proportion of contingent talent in the labor force grows and organizations shift to new workforce models, Gelinas emphasizes that employee-centric career journeys that aren’t limited to traditional full-time employees will be critical to maintaining talent agility and a competitive advantage in a post-COVID world.
Seek Out the Voice of the Employee
As organizations navigate the ever-changing business landscape, HR leaders will need to rely on employee feedback to create an environment that makes workers feel heard.
“There’s no simple answer for creating a positive employee experience—it will be different at every company and for every employee, so the critical factor is listening to what your specific employees need,” says Cates. “For some, this may be different benefits or more flexibility, and for others it may be more recognition or different culture offerings. The only way to really create a positive experience is to provide employees with the opportunity to give feedback and then make meaningful changes based on that feedback.”
However, this is an area where employers have room to grow; while Qualtrics reports that 92% of employees believe it’s important that their company listens to their feedback, only 7% say their company acts on their feedback really well.
“In general, it’s become much easier for consumers to get and give feedback—in everything from rating a rideshare experience to service at a restaurant. That has spilled into the workplace as employees are coming with higher expectations on being heard based on what they experience as consumers,” says Royal.
Mobile-enabled listening technologies and pulse surveys have emerged the improve the speed, frequency, and ease of getting feedback from employees. Cates says that leveraging voice of employee technology that gathers real-time feedback rather than relying on an annual survey has become crucial to understanding the needs of today’s workforce.
“One of the benefits of voice of employee technology in HR is its ability to create safe spaces where employees can speak candidly. When you look at the data, 77% of employees reported being more comfortable with sharing candid feedback in the form of a survey rather than directly with their manager. This isn’t to say that managers shouldn’t be encouraged to check-in with employees regularly, but rather, these conversations should be supplemented with technology so that the organization can track trends on both the micro and macro level across the company, departments, and location,” he explains.
According to Gelinas, progressive profiling that allows organizations to build intelligence about a user over time through repeat interactions is also gaining ground. This allows leaders to gather information gradually without bombarding the employee with surveys and requests.
Once leaders understand their employees’ needs, they can make real change that keeps employees engaged and connected with the company. This can have a profound impact as organizations look to guide their return-to-office strategies, helping leaders understand and mitigate employee concerns before they step foot in the door.
“Feedback enabled by technology can help determine if and how employees would like to return to the office—and if a hybrid model combining virtual and office-based work would be preferred,” says Royal. “Many companies are worried that as the pandemic eases, there will be a spike in turnover. Listening now and acting upon the needs of employees will give them a reason to stay.”
Williams recommends that organizations leverage pulse surveys and collect data to understand pain points with the transition back to office-based work as well as the successful elements of remote work. He says that organizations can use data that’s already in their systems to understand employee behaviors, including things like what time of day employees are most active and when drop-offs in productivity occur.
“One of the things that we want to do in the future is hold on to the best parts of this experience,” he says. “That’s where pulse surveys and simple data collection will come in handy. If we analyze our employee data and find that people have been starting their days later than what we had as our office hours, we shouldn’t just ignore that. We want to analyze that and provide options and dialogue around that. Let’s discuss it with folks so they know we’re taking it to heart and maintaining the benefit of flexibility.”
For best results, Bersin recommends that HR leaders segment the data across groups like deskless workers, white collar workers, support teams, consulting teams, managers, and leaders to uncover valuable insights that can help drive strategy.
“Each of these groups has different requirements, including some needing highly mobile experiences that work without a computer. It’s vital that HR teams work with IT to understand these segments and then integrate HR, workplace, scheduling, safety, and other applications into a total experience,” he says.
By listening to employee feedback, adopting a holistic approach to the employee lifecycle that keeps well-being top of mind, and maintaining connection across a hybrid workforce, employers can deliver an employee experience that distinguishes them from the competition.