How to keep employees engaged during turbulent times


Employee engagement is always important for your business success, but when economic times are tough, it becomes truly non-negotiable.

According to Gartner, employee engagement has a bigger impact on business outcomes during tough times than during good times. When markets are down, it found, companies in the top quartile for employee engagement enjoy 23% more profits overall than those in the bottom quartile, while businesses in the 99th centile are 5 times more successful than those in the 1st centile.

The unprecedented challenges of 2020 are reflected in charts showing employee engagement. It’s been rising steadily for years, but 2020 shows an unusual series of spikes and troughs. The percentage of employees who describe themselves as “engaged” jumped to 38% in May, probably due to solidarity in the face of the pandemic, but plummeted to 31% in June following the George Floyd protests. After another hike in July, it was back at pre-COVID levels of 36% by September.

The drops in engagement levels were highest among workers in managerial and leadership positions, which is serious because managers set the tone for the rest of the company.


With the economic, political, and social landscape rocking beneath your feet, what can business leaders do to preserve employee morale and enthusiasm within your company?

1.   Set clear expectations

Confused employees who aren’t sure what’s expected of them or how to achieve it are not going to feel engaged, and circumstances are conspiring to ramp up confusion.

The almost-overnight switch to remote work left many people uncertain about the hours they were expected to work and how to complete projects when working from home. Now we’re facing an unsynchronised and partial return to the office, which could be reversed at any time. Many employees are still anxious about returning to work in person or taking public transport.

You can remove this stress and uncertainty by making it clear when and why employees can (or should) work from home at this point. Be specific about which meetings are essential, when you expect employees to be at their computer or answering work calls, how workflows have changed, etc.

2.   Remove frustration over work processes

Frustration over convoluted workflows, confusing project briefings, and repeated interruptions to find vital resources all undermine employee engagement, and unfamiliar remote working practices aren’t helping.

Even in the office, the average worker is interrupted 13.9 times a day by tangential tasks or the need to find information, which breaks their concentration, reduces productivity, and undermines engagement.

Working from home only increases the number of disruptions, so do all you can to mitigate them. Use project management software to lay out each employee’s responsibilities, clarify deadlines, and store all relevant resources in a single accessible location. Employees are begging for it; 71% of workers say they need a single destination to understand and manage their work. You might have been able to skate by without it when everyone was in the same location, but under WFH conditions it’s the tool your employees need to do their jobs.

3.   Care for your employees

We’re all stressed, anxious, and fearful, so it makes a big difference when you actively show that you care about the mental, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing of your employees.

Gestures of solidarity, like CEOs who’ve cut their own pay so that all their employees would receive a full paycheck during lockdown, contribute hugely to the feeling that you’re all in this together.

If employees are coming into the office, make sure they all know that you’ll provide paid days off for them to isolate, convalesce, or care for sick family members whenever necessary. Open up the conversation about mental health and anxiety, and share resources for therapy and self-care that help your employees feel supported.

4.   Enable social opportunities

Informal in-office socialising and organised bonding events are what turn your employees into a cohesive team instead of a group of disparate workers, but the WFH culture has dissolved all the normal bonding opportunities.

It’s important to replace them with virtual events, especially if you’re hiring and need to onboard new talent into the company culture. Try sending everyone a cocktail kit and an invitation to a virtual happy hour, booking group online games like virtual escape rooms, or planning fun internet Kahoots quizzes.

5.   Emphasise the role each employee plays in the company

Employees who feel that their work is important to the organisation, see themselves as part of something bigger, and feel their work matters to the overall business, show higher levels of engagement.

When working at home alone without any of the usual office bustle, it’s easy to lose that sense of belonging, so reinforce it by reminding employees that their work make a difference. Share reports that demonstrate how their work is still contributing to company success, or if your business is struggling, how it’s keeping the show on the road.

6.   Give your employees something to be proud of

Employees want their employers to match their values and make them feel proud about belonging to the organisation, especially right now when the media is highlighting companies that are giving back to their communities or helping with the COVID-19 effort.

Boost morale by going public about all the ways that your business is helping to deal with the pandemic, support the disadvantaged who have been hit disproportionately hard, or take part in justice movements. Don’t brag about it, but do create posts that employees can share on social media to show your altruism and activism. Even better, look for ways for employees to take part in these good works themselves.

Don’t let “unprecedented times” kill employee engagement

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed economic turmoil and physical fear, pushing stress and anxiety levels through the roof. It’s no surprise that this spills over to employee engagement, but when you give employees the tools they need to do their jobs easily and bond socially, make your expectations clear, show employees the part they still play in your organisation, step up to care for them, and give them a company they can be proud of, you’ll be able to maintain and even improve employee engagement so your business will survive and thrive.