The Return-to-Office Limbo: Why is Employee Engagement Important?

Stuart Sinclair - November 4, 2021

For a long time now, employees have had to deal with a great deal of uncertainty concerning their workplace. Even when a widespread return to work seemed in view, offices remained largely empty. Continued delays and indecision are leaving office workers stuck in return-to-office limbo. The big return date still seems increasingly vague.

In the meantime, how do we best handle that all-important unifying element of employee engagement? During times of uncertainty, organisations - understandably - knuckle down into ‘survival mode’ and focus on a narrow tunnel of priorities at the expense of other vital elements. The importance of employee engagement can be overlooked, particularly when managing urgent organisational issues, such as employee safety.

There is evidence to support the importance of employee engagement during periods of difficulty and subsequent recovery. Research by Akhmetshin et al. reveals that employees are a key resource in successfully getting through a crisis. The researchers also found that digital technologies play an increasingly significant role in supporting organisations’ communications strategies. It seems that employee engagement could be the key to surviving this ongoing period of uncertainty with both employee motivation and profits margins intact.

 

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The Psychological Contract: The Importance of Staff Engagement

So why is employee engagement important during challenging times? The way companies engage with their employees has a significant impact on the psychological contract between employees and employers. Breaches of that contract can result in a decrease in employee engagement and motivation. With the continual shifting of goalposts and the return to normality so seemingly distant, it’s no surprise that many employees feel the psychological contract is under threat.

When employees have to endure a lot of pressure, as they have done during the pandemic, they become scared, feel isolated and worry about their families. As organisations move towards a gradual return to the office, people’s thoughts will shift to coping with the changes made to operational practices, hoping that what their employer has introduced is safe and wondering if everyone will keep their jobs in the future. The continuing uncertainty only exacerbates this concern. The reason why employee engagement is so important at times like these is that it can help to settle these issues in the minds of the workforce.

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The one element that affects the psychological contract more than anything else is communication. An article by the Local Government Association states that internal communications are vital during change, and should be owned by everyone. It also suggests that employees no longer wait patiently during times of transition for ‘messages from on high’; they use their own internal networks to get information from those likely to know more and collaborate through social media.

Wouldn’t it be better to capture those lines of communication through a user-friendly employee engagement app rather than having them occur outside the organisation’s sphere of knowledge? Rather than encourage the spread of gossip and misinformation, you are putting yourself back in the driving seat. In addition, by encouraging the employee voice, you’ll be capturing the mood of the office and capturing ideas and suggestions that may help manage the situation more smoothly.

Employee Engagement Importance: The New Rules?

If the way that employees think about their work has changed, what does that mean for the effectiveness of current employee engagement strategies?

It may be time for organisations to go back to basics. Whenever there has been substantial change, organisations tend to adapt their tactics to achieve the same results in different ways. Engage For Success states that there are four key employees engagement priorities during periods of change: good communication, trust, transparency, and empowerment. These are all fundamental elements that feed into the psychological contract between the employee and employer. Employee engagement is important because it supports and grows the positive aspects of the employee-employer relationship.

Employee engagement initiatives need to be reviewed following transitions such as those caused by the pandemic. Some questions to ask include:

  • Is the organisation communicating with its employees regularly? Are its communications meaningful, rather than just platitudes?
  • Is the organisation showing its trustworthiness by ensuring that employees feel safe while ways of working change around them?
  • Is the organisation honest enough to say that it doesn’t have an answer but is working hard to find a solution? Does it show trust in its employees by asking them to solve problems alongside them?
  • What is the impact of leadership on employee engagement during periods of change and recovery? Why is employee engagement important for organisations in their sector, and what can they do better?

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Why Employee Engagement is Important: 5 Best Practices to Follow

There are several employee engagement best practices that can reinforce the psychological contract an organisation has with its employees during a period of recovery or ongoing uncertainty. With employees still waiting for the ‘all-clear’ to be given, organisations need to focus on the best way to reassure them throughout this waiting period. These five best practices will help to address those doubts and fears:

1. Focus on wellbeing

If employees are more worried, managers need to spend more time with their staff to give them information and reassurance. While face to face meetings are not always possible, managers can do all of this virtually through the use of a flexible and adaptable employee engagement app. An online welfare chat can be just as effective as a meeting held in the office. When staff feel their concerns are being heard and addressed, you’ll see an instant improvement in employee engagement and retention.

2. Set the tone for the future

It is essential to let employees know how the organisation is charting its course to recover from the crisis. Where employees are spread out over different locations, senior managers can use online messaging, videos and podcasts to keep employees informed. It is also important to find ways of inviting employees to participate in the organisation’s new course - and how they can help. By ensuring all employees are kept in the loop and made aware of the bigger picture, you’ll create that all-important sense of belonging.

3. Keep saying ‘thank you’

Those two words can go a long way with staff. Whether they have been working from home or in their usual places of work, employees have endured a lot and adapted in ways that their employers probably didn’t think would happen. Thanking employees and valuing them for their input is vital during periods of change and uncertainty. Employee engagement software is a simple way to create a positive culture of recognition and appreciation. Built-in channels will help employees to celebrate success and understand company values.

4. Don’t forget the managers

Of course, managers also need support in times of uncertainty. According to a People Management article on staff wellbeing, organisations must help those line managers who are having difficult conversations with their teams and constantly working under pressure. Managers also need to have welfare chats to offload; they can only understand the question ‘why is employee engagement important to us?’ if they have the resilience and resources to implement the initiatives created by senior management to increase employee engagement.

5. Monitor the mood

Never just assume everything is running smoothly behind the scenes. It’s vital to keep a check on the ongoing health of your organisation, especially when you have a dispersed workforce. Without an in-depth analysis of engagement levels, you’re just shooting in the dark when it comes to your strategy. Employee apps offer a quick and easy way to keep an eye on things, whether you send out an in-depth employee engagement survey, or run a quick poll. Pulse modules help you schedule regular check-ups, and pre-set reports will give you all the answers you need to adjust and adapt as required.

Importance of Employee Engagement in Cost Reduction

Getting employee engagement wrong at any time, never mind during a period of uncertainty, is costly. Forbes reports that disengaged employees can cost organisations up to 34% of their annual salary. The importance of employee engagement in an organisation, implemented at a strategic level, cannot be underestimated because it can have a dramatic effect on the financial wellbeing of a company.

Why is employee engagement so important during periods of transition and ambiguity? It protects resources, improves wellbeing and maintains resilience. But it also needs to be a two-way process. Understanding the priorities of employees during change is why it’s so important to facilitate robust feedback channels. This allows organisations to tailor their activities in such a way that they minimise the risks of disengagement and maximise the effective use of all of their resources.

It’s hard to predict when this return-to-office limbo will come to an end. What’s becoming clear is that the present uncertainty could continue for a long time to come. All we can do is focus on keeping our employees motivated and productive while we play the long game. And in the meantime, the importance of employee engagement has never been more evident.

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