As businesses begin the long journey out of COVID-19 lockdown, a strong theme emerging is the challenge of keeping employees engaged in what is likely to be a very different work environment compared to the one we were used to before the pandemic.

Bottle it

In my last post, I mentioned the challenge of ‘bottling the spirit’ that has, for many organisations, seen a leap in employee discretionary effort and engagement as businesses collectively rise to the challenge of remote working, repurposing business models, adapting products and services, and making sure they’re in a position to see out the pandemic with their business and balance sheet intact.

Employee engagement – or more simply, how much an employee cares about their work and their organisation – is a ‘must have’ for any business and many organisations will have seen those engagement levels rise as the workforce pulls together. But, as the lockdown relaxes, many employees will be facing a return to the workplace surrounded by uncertainty.

How safe will public transport be for the commute? How will social distancing work back in the workplace? Does hot desking still apply? Will we be expected to travel to meet clients? A fearful and uncertain workforce is the enemy of employee engagement.

Don’t lose it

Despite the difficulties, employers will have to come up with an employment model that is attractive to their employees or they’ll risk eroding employee engagement, and even risk losing employees altogether – not to mention the productivity benefits to be gained by having a highly engaged workforce.

Social psychologist Douglas McGregor’s Theory Y says that employees are naturally inclined to put effort into their work and can self-direct in pursuit of the organisation’s objectives, so higher levels of employee engagement shouldn’t be a stretch provided businesses go about it in the right way. Which means organisations need to fundamentally redesign themselves around their employees’ needs.

Start with the employee and work backwards

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says his secret for business success is to start with the customer and work backwards. I’d add employees to that starting point. Businesses and their leaders should be asking now; “what do their employees need to give their best?” It won’t be easy: cash constraints and an economy in an expected recession won’t leave much room for manoeuvre but the cost to the business of not zeroing in on employee engagement could be much greater.