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In Practice

How to Engage Your Virtual Workforce

Engaged employees tend to perform better, remain with their employers longer and enable organizations to innovate and maintain competitiveness. Most existing engagement programs rely on face-to-face interactions and perks in the office to get people fired up, so how does engaging employees look in the post-COVID-19 era? 

One of the key questions for leaders is how they can effectively communicate with employees to energize the employee experience. The way leaders communicate with their workforce can give employee engagement a much-needed boost, particularly when part or all of the workforce is working remotely.

First Step: Understand the Workforce

Leaders need to develop a deep understanding of their workforce — who they are, what motivates them, what challenges they face and what they value. Effective employee listening strategies are a critical first step. 

Most organizations recognize that their workforce will become increasingly diverse. The trend toward new hybrid workforce models — including gig workers, independent contractors and remote and on-site permanent employees — was already observable pre-COVID-19. The age spread of the workforce has also been increasing significantly: Many companies now have up to four generations (baby boomer, Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z) working side by side. Each group differs in their expectations, motivations and how they prefer to be communicated with. 

The pandemic has also accelerated the importance of empathy as a leadership strategy. As COVID-19 pushed people into working from home, employers were forced to see people more holistically and acknowledge that their employees are also parents, partners and caregivers to their loved ones. Zoom calls had managers peering into the real-life situations of employees all over the world. Organizations have started to look for ways to support important aspects of employees’ lives by offering flexibility and addressing caregivers’ needs. There is a strong imperative for change: At present, most leaders do not know the number of caregivers in their organizations.

Leaders are also starting to pay more attention to purposeful employment. Younger members of the workforce are voicing their growing concern over economic, sociopolitical, and environmental injustices: The newer generations expect that employers share these concerns and play an active role in addressing them. For example, a recent paper on ESG trends shows how contributing toward social good can make a company more attractive to talent. In response, leading companies are looking to improve outcomes for multiple stakeholders, not just shareholders.

Openness Goes a Long Way

Openness is an important strategy for building organizational trust — employees want to be able to trust their leaders and, in turn, feel trusted. This sense of mutual trust has become even more necessary in a remote work setting. 

More importantly, obscure and conflicting messages from leadership carry severe reputational risks. Employees expect transparent and truthful communication from the company leadership, especially during difficult times, such as during times of political or economic crises or organizational restructuring. Failure to meet this expectation risks exposures and backlashes — particularly with the advent of social media — which can leave crippling effects that may take companies years to recover from, if at all. One executive in our study noted: “Employees are making judgments about their employers based on what companies did or didn’t do during the crisis. Brands will be especially impacted. Some will come through this with a worse reputation.”

Place Care for Employees At the Center of Communications

Employers need to foster an organizational culture of care: There is no business without a healthy workforce. Unfortunately, two out of three employees already felt at risk of burnout even before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only worsened the situation. 

The message of care must be consistently at the center of employee communication — and even more so during times of crisis.

Leading organizations are taking steps to support the mental and physical health and well-being of their workforce. For example, many companies are accelerating the use of Employee Assistance Programs, developing employee health-monitoring apps, upgrading employee benefits, offering child care allowance or vaccination programs. 

The message of care must be consistently at the center of employee communication — and even more so during times of crisis. The absence of care and empathy for employees from leadership will likely lead to productivity declines, behavior lapses and lower retention rates.

Be Mindful of Cultural Difference

An engagement strategy may work well in one culture but may be ineffective in another. Accounting for cultural differences can help multi-national corporations avoid costly mistakes resulting from misunderstandings that stem from ineffective organizational communication and underestimating local social norms.

For example, one executive described difficulties in applying the employee engagement strategy developed in their Asian headquarters to major offices in Europe. In another instance, even when both the parent and the acquired company were based in Europe, significant differences in cultural practices and mindsets between the two led to unintended friction.

Therefore, leaders need to strike a balance between aligning communication and engagement initiatives across different office locations while taking care to respect local values.

Leverage Technology the Right Way to Enhance Communication

Digital tools and applications can speed up two-way engagement processes, cultivate workforce understanding, and encourage organizational communication. For example, many companies are conducting virtual “Ask Me Anything” sessions hosted by senior leaders, virtual town halls and virtual focus-group discussions that allow employees to ask questions anonymously if they choose. 

However, companies should watch out for over-emphasizing “tech” and not enough “touch.” Information collected via digital communication channels needs to be analyzed with a human mindset to shed light on employee voices and needs: A superficial scan of single data points or top-line results can lead to erroneous conclusions. Second, in rolling out digital communication strategies, companies should address the risks of data security and anonymity. Failing to abide by appropriate protocols may result in irreversible damage to organizational trust.

COVID-19 has unquestionably made seismic changes to the workplace, but there is a silver lining. As one C-level executive in our study noted: “People tend to ‘club’ together more closely under stressful situations. … We’ll exit the tunnel with a higher level of engagement than before COVID-19 started.” 

The pandemic brings an opportunity for companies to expedite their flexible work models, experiment with digital tools and realize engagement prospects that they didn’t think possible before. Organizations that take advantage of the headwind to renew and refresh how they engage with employees will reap dividends from a recharged and committed workforce.

Lewis Garrad

Partner and Career Business Leader at Mercer Singapore

Lewis is Partner and business leader for Mercer’s Singapore Career business. Voted a top 101 Global Future of Work Influencer, he is regular contributor to publications such as the Harvard Business Review and Talent Quarterly and speaker in the areas of people science, HR data, employee engagement and leadership. In his commercial work, he leads a team of economist, social scientists, engineers and consultants to help clients and customers implement data-driven reward, talent, leadership and employee engagement programs to improve organizational performance.

Lily Phan

Research Manager at Marsh McLennan Advantage

Lily Phan is a research manager at Marsh McLennan Advantage. She manages and works on multiple projects across different themes: Workforce for the Future, Emerging Risks, Transformative Technologies, and Healthy Societies. Most recent projects include the Global Risks Report 2020 (in partnership with the World Economic Forum), and the MMC Cyber Handbook 2020.

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