By Roland Innes, MD at Dyna Training
Although there is a tendency to think of the “Great Resignation” of 2021 as an American phenomenon, global search trends suggest that people from all over the world were looking to leave their jobs. 2021 was the start of a record number of individuals downing tools, shutting laptops, handing in their notice or simply quitting on the spot. While the calendar year might have changed, employee sentiment hasn’t and organisations that fail to take visible steps to engage employees are likely to feel the effects of increased resignations. Before the pandemic, employee engagement was nice to have – now it is an essential retention tool, particularly as we return to the workplace after a two-year work-from-home absence.
It’s time to unpause life. Inspiring and exceptional performance results through genuine workplace employee engagement isn’t a fairytale. It’s a very real, very attainable state to achieve within an organisation under the right conditions. While living through a pandemic and working from home has been less than ideal for creating the right conditions for employee engagement, this is no longer something businesses can afford to leave on pause. Survival is undoubtedly still a priority as we look for ways to recover and rebuild, but survival is pointless if employees are disengaged, non-productive or simply resign. What do employers need to know right now in order to get a grip on employee engagement, retention and performance?
When people within an organisation are engaging with their teams and are connected to the organisation’s bigger purpose, there is a potential for productivity magic. However, while most people have been preoccupied with surviving a pandemic, most people have felt it necessary to pause all face-to-face engagements in the business world, with social distancing restrictions placing further chokeholds on the real world cultural and managerial interactions required to contribute to employee engagement. We’ve been living under the assumption that when things go ‘back to normal’, we can refocus on engaging employees. This is a false assumption and a waste of time.
Reality check for employers
Right up there on the list of false assumptions is the misconception that people want to return to the office. According to Forbes.com, employers who think workers want to return to the office as much as they do should consider taking a reality check before it is too late. Executives who work remotely are nearly three times more likely than employees to prefer a comeback to fulltime office life, while 76% of employees do not want to return to the office full time. Furthermore, 76% of employees are wanting flexibility in terms of where they work, and 93% want flexibility in when they work. Simply expecting workers to come back to the office full time ready and engaged after two years of working from home, is unrealistic and quite frankly, a recipe for disaster. Employees who are unengaged are unproductive, unmotivated and more likely to do the bare minimum to scrape by until they can jump ship for a better opportunity.
What are the right conditions for employee engagement?
People can be engaged when they perceive a situation to be fair. With fairness, comes camaraderie and the ability to obtain a sense of achievement through their work. The assumption that people are going to want to perform being back in the physical workplace is not a fair one.
Do they want to be there? Unlikely. The petrol price keeps going up, traffic is going back to normal and the loss of time to the twice-daily commute is hardly fair. There are now additional costs for childcare, and all those other tasks that parents were able to perform, working from home. Not only from a rising cost of living perspective, but there’s also the debate around the vaccination matter. Those who have been vaccinated must come back to the office, while those who have not been vaccinated will in most cases be made to work from home where there is no justifiable vaccine mandate. Ultimately, all of these factors can quickly feel unfair to people, which is a massive barrier to engagement. Here, employers will need to take a firm reality check in assessing the real need for people to come back to the office. This will require communication with people, in order to assess their needs and provide a level of flexibility to all that properly meets their need for fairness. Through proper communication, it becomes a shared outcome.
Transparency, communication and flexibility
This communication needs to be driven through the appropriate channels – whether it’s an anonymous survey, or a suggestions box, there needs to be a procedure in place to address issues of perceived fairness. These issues need to be championed by competent line managers, who are ideally positioned and equipped to gauge the mood of the employees and then make recommendations on what needs to change in order to create the right conditions for engagement. In addition to fairness, it’s necessary to create a sense of camaraderie within the organisation. This means creating situations where the focus is fun, the work is stimulating and people are having their say and making a difference. This is not impossible to achieve remotely, it just requires more planning and effort.
Driven from the top down
It is here that organisation leaders can make all the difference in driving fairness, camaraderie and a sense of achievement in order to facilitate genuine employee engagement. Connected employees are less inclined to resign or look for other opportunities, but these connections require change at an organisational level, a rethink of all employee health and wellness strategies to deal with the challenging times that lie ahead still. Line managers are critical frontline responders in employee engagement, as they are the ones with the most direct contact. It’s critical that line managers are adequately trained and prepared to deal with this level of employee engagement, whether it’s troubleshooting or optimising. Just as critical as training is putting in place the back-end processes to support the engagement work being done by line managers. Change from the top down is required to correct issues of perceived unfairness, and such change must be visible and transparent if it is to be effective and prevent a wave of resignations from disengaged employees.