There are some things we can count on every fall: the temperature will change, the days will shorten, and the leaves will turn colour. This year, we can also expect the unpredictable: When will there be a second wave and how will we respond? Will back-to-school go according to plan? Will our workplaces ask us to return? How will our day-to-day be impacted by new public health guidelines?
Employees are asking a number of questions to their employers; and the best among them aren’t waiting to be asked. So, as leaders in your organization, how do you help keep employees engaged when there is so much change and uncertainty? There are a few things that work well in finding out what your employees need and how to respond.
Survey your staff
Find out what’s on your employees’ mind before heading back to the office—or even if they are continuing to work remotely. Ask how they want to be informed. Maybe they need more information or need fewer video conference calls. Employees will tell you how things have gone for them in the past six months, how connected they have felt with their team and organization, and what can be done differently to support their connectivity, productivity, and engagement. This is valuable information that will inform your plans and responses. It also includes them in the process. They want their voices and opinions heard and to see themselves reflected in the approach. You need to understand the mindset of your employees and your organization.
It’s important to know what worked and what didn’t. Did staff have the right equipment? Did the technology work? How did you engage with customers? Were you visible enough? How was feedback delivered to staff? Recognizing the important actions and behaviours that helped get the team through these past few months will be the things to build upon as you move your strategy forward. This information can be gathered in a debrief session with other leaders, review of employee feedback from town halls or surveys, etc. During this regroup, it’s a good time to also look at the performance review process. How have staff been given performance feedback? Are the goals that we set before the pandemic still the same? When you have a clear picture of the successes and failures, engage staff and ask them how to build upon what worked so you can build stronger ties in the months ahead and ask them for input on their performance goals going forward.
Plan and communicate
Your survey responses, team debriefs, and public health information will inform your strategy. Even with uncertainty, have a plan about what the return to work or continued remote working looks like; be honest about what you know or don’t know and commit to keeping people up to date as return dates near, after they get into the office, or if public health information changes. You can never over communicate during periods of change. Employees returning to work will have to navigate new workspaces and rules, so the more you communicate and do it consistently, the more comfortable and informed staff will feel. This is a good time to up your performance feedback game. Do more check-ins, monthly for example, instead of leaving performance feedback to mid-year or year-end conversations. You are a coach—deliver feedback in real time just like as if you were on the field or court. You don’t have to do this on your own. Hire external experts or ensure your communications staff are working very closely with you, at the table where the decisions are being made, so they can make the best possible recommendations on how to share information across the business and more personally with employees. The business is going through a change, but each individual is also going through it. Keeping people at the centre of these plans will be the best guide in doing the right thing for your business.
This is not a time to be shy or not utilize technology to support leadership efforts. It’s a time about being caring, committed, and communicative. Participate in the calls, schedule more 1-on-1 meetings or check-ins with the team. Pop into various team meetings by design or unexpectedly. Do a safe walkabout the office, while following public health guidelines. It might feel like overdoing it, but that’s likely the first indication that you’re doing just about enough. People want to see leaders, learn from them, have their questions answered and feel like their voices are heard in the process. Yes, you’ll have to adapt your leadership style virtually. It’s already happened. It just may need some tweaking as you head into the back half of the year in response to survey information or staff feedback.
Have empathy and understanding
We’ve never seen a global situation where personal and professional lives have been so intertwined for so long. It’s been challenging for people in different ways. The approach to take is one of empathy and understanding. There are emotions and opinions present that employees may not know how to address. This includes thoughts and feelings around productivity. Focusing less on the traditional hours of work and more on meeting deadlines and expectations within the confines of the employee’s reality goes a long way in alleviating the pressure and stress some might be feeling. Reinforcing that approach across the team helps, too. We mentioned previously that the business has changed, but the people in your business are changing too. How they’ve worked for the past six months, adjusted to home life, grew concerned about the second wave, and managed the impact of the pandemic is shifting again. Being mindful of this will help with your approach to conversations and the ways you connect with people.
Culture and engagement don’t only exist within the confines of four walls. It’s part of who and what you are as an organization. The important thing to keep in mind is that you’re not reinventing your leadership approach; you are modifying it to reflect an evolution in our workforce. The utilization of technology, more direct and regular feedback from staff, and ensuring you have a plan to guide you along the way are foundational, but more vital and flexible now. The frequency with which you’re visible as a leader and how you approach conversations are also rooted in the recognition of how you got to this point and how you’ll get through the next few months together—as a team.
——— Anne McInerney is a former Associate Vice-President at NATIONAL Public Relations
——— Ronalda Walsh is a former Associate Vice-President at NATIONAL Public Relations