Employee Engagement, COVID-19, and Working-From-Home

Road slow shutter

COVID-19 has led (or required) most employers to initiate Work From Home (“WFH”) policies. For companies that did not have WFH policies or a remote work culture in place, this has led to a steep learning curve of both new tool stacks – here is a list of 32 free tools – as well as team behaviours and patterns for remote work – here are Slack’s guides to remote work.

With a shift to WFH, communication is key. Communications expert Dana Harvey covers 5 important virtual communication skills to increase productivity and morale for yourself and your virtual teams in an excellent blog post. One of the points Dana makes is to “get personal.” It is imperative for leadership to recognize that employees (i.e. humans 😊 ) as “social creatures who crave a feeling of connection” can “feel isolated and disconnected” while working remotely. Dana’s suggestion to “strengthen relationships and build rapport” through carving out time for “virtual coffee chats” in lieu of water cooler chats is a good one. Even spending a few minutes at the start of each meeting going around the group and asking about “what’s going on in your colleagues’ lives” and/or asking “team members to share a personal highlight of their day” helps create emotional bonds between the team. 

At Dignii, in addition to these informal check-ins and conversations, we advocate asking employees to share about their experiences on a regular basis through short, simple and scientific surveys. There are two types of surveys that we encourage our clients to run at this time: 1) a check-in survey, and 2) an engagement survey. The check-in survey asks open-ended questions such as:

  • What went well this week?
  • What are the challenges you faced this week?
  • Do you have the resources you require to meet the team goals?

It is important that the check-in surveys do not replace one-on-ones. If a company has a culture of regular one-on-ones between supervisors and team members, these should continue virtually. However, a check-in survey can augment one-on-ones, especially if the feedback is being reviewed by a senior executive (in addition to the supervisor) or if the survey is run anonymously where an employee can share openly about concerns they may have during this difficult time. It is often hard for an employee to talk about anxiety with their supervisor – especially if the anxiety is around whether they will have a job or not next month or whether the company will remain in business. 

Feedback surveys can also include open-ended questions to solicit ideas from employees on how to deal with the unique challenges facing each company due to COVID-19. Employees, especially those on the front lines of dealing with customers, suppliers, and channel partners have the most up-to-date information on the external forces affecting a company. They also spend considerable time, energy, and effort anticipating what happens next and how to deal with the same. A tip: to capture this, ask questions such as: “What should our priorities be as a team / company?” Where required reflect changing priorities in updated team goals and objectives.

The second type of survey we encourage companies to run at this time is a short, standardized engagement survey such as the UWES. Measuring engagement on a scientific and consistent basis is important throughout the year, precisely for times like these, when a company is going through a terrible “low” (or incredible “high” such as closing a major client or funding round).

If the only surveys being run are open-ended, there is no quantitative measure of engagement, only qualitative (if at all). Asking the same engagement questions regularly, which ask employees to score behaviours such as energy levels, mental resilience, task absorption, and pride in one’s work on a scale, means that there is quantitative engagement data which can be compared to “baseline” engagement data from when it is business as usual. If a company is just starting out with engagement surveys such as UWES – the leading engagement survey that Dignii uses – there is normative data reflecting average engagement scores for industry sectors and/or countries available for comparison. For example, it would not be unusual to see engagement scores initially dip as anxiety around COVID-19 impact on personal and professional lives is top-of-mind. However, for companies that genuinely care about their employees and reflect this in their behaviours and communications engagement scores over the next months could rise to higher than before. 

Again, it is important to recognize that the two types of surveys are complementary to receive a full and accurate picture of how employees are doing. COVID-19 can make or break teams; as companies adapt to remote work requirements, we urge companies to add the right survey tools into their employee communications and feedback processes. These survey tools can help companies stay connected to their employees and while gathering data on how they are feeling and how engaged they are.

Finally, we leave you with a link to an article on how not to keep tabs on employees. As Daniel Pink noted in his book “Drive”, one of the intrinsic drivers of engagement is “autonomy.” In my opinion, this is the wrong approach and will lead to increased disengagement, especially when employees find out that they are not being treated like adults. If we (rightly) expect employees to do their job without micromanagement while in the office, we should expect that same while they work from home.

Stay safe everybody. We can get through this together. Feel free to leave comments on how your company is adapting to work-from-home, connecting and checking-in with employees, and keeping the team positive and engaged.

The Link Between Inclusion & Engagement

People staircase

In Dignii’s last blog post, Elisabeth, the Co-founder of Dignii, talked about extending the discussion around Diversity & Inclusion in the workplace to include “elevating the dignity of the individual”  – which is Dignii’s purpose! – by respecting and valuing each employee fully for who they are. Elisabeth expounds that this requires embracing diversity in all its shapes and forms and recognizing the myriad intersections that represent the sum total of each of us, who we are physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and based on our life experience. 

This week I’m writing about the link between employee engagement – Dignii’s core product focus – and Diversity & Inclusion.

To me, the intuitive link is clear: from my experience as an employee, it is when I feel respected and valued at work that I am the most engaged. My best experience of engagement was when the owners of a consultancy trusted me to handle their biggest client; I was incredibly motivated and put in 50 to 60 hour weeks fully absorbed in my work.

The opposite is also very familiar: there were instances of jobs where I lost sight of how my role contributed to the mission, goals, and objectives of the organization and essentially felt left out and not valued. The result was that even my normally good work ethic was ground down and I gradually burned out and left. Unfortunately, we all have similar stories.

Let’s move from the personal intuitive understanding of employee engagement to examine the science behind it.

What is Employee Engagement? A Positive Occupational Health Psychology Perspective 

According to Professor Schaufeli*, one of the World’s leading authorities on employee engagement, employee engagement is: “a positive, fulfilling, work related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption; [whereby vigor refers to] high levels of energy and mental resilience; [dedication refers to] being strongly involved in one’s work [and] experiencing a sense of significance; [and absorption refers to] being fully concentrated and happily engrossed in one’s work.” (Schaufeli, Salanova, González-Romá, and Bakker, 2002: 74)

Professor Schaufeli developed this definition of engagement based on engagement being defined as the opposite of burnout in certain psychological models. For example, according to the Massachusetts General Hospital Handbook of General Hospital Psychiatry (6th Edition): “Burnout is a pathologic syndrome in which prolonged occupational stress leads to emotional and physical depletion and ultimately to the development of maladaptive behaviors (e.g., cynicism, depersonalization, hostility, detachment).” We can see that “depletion” is the opposite of “vigor”, and that “depersonalization, hostility, detachment” are the opposite of dedication. 

For a more nuanced understanding of engagement vs. burnout and engagement vs. satisfaction, it is instructive to refer back to the foundational Circumplex Model of human emotion by James Russell which maps human emotions on the dimensions of “valence” (pleasure/pleasantness) and “arousal” (activation/energy).

3: Typical circumplex model. Adapted from Feldman Barrett & Russell (1998).

Reviewing the top right quadrant which represent states of high valence and high activation: “work engagement” occurs when employees are experiencing a state of “excitement” and “elation”. The direct opposite of “work engagement” is “burnout,” which occurs when employees feel “depressed” and “lethargic” (bottom left quadrant; states of low valence and low activation). 

Interestingly, the history of engagement surveys has tended to measure more the “valence/satisfaction” dimension than the “activation/energy”. Gallup was instrumental in bringing engagement to the forefront of workplace discussions but their initial surveys were more a one dimensional measure of satisfaction. The danger of measuring only the valence dimension is that you cannot distinguish between engaged employees (top right) and employees who are satisfied but much less constructive in their workplace than they could be (bottom right).  Unfortunately, many organizations are not providing the right resources to the employee relative to the demands of the job leading to stress and burnout instead of engagement.

Now that we have an intuitive and academic definition of employee engagement let’s make the link between inclusion and engagement.

*Dignii is a licensed vendor of the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale survey, developed by Professor Schaufeli.

The Link Between Employee Engagement and Inclusion 

One framework to apply is to think of ‘inclusion’ as valuing others, and ‘engagement’ as involving others. However, in my opinion, this is somewhat reductive. A more comprehensive definition of inclusion by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is “the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.” This definition of inclusion comprises both valuing others (treat individuals fairly and with respect) and involving others (employees have equal access to opportunities and can contribute fully). To me, the broader definition of inclusion includes a precondition of engagement, which is ensuring employees can contribute fully, since contributing fully necessarily involves “vigor”, “dedication”, and “absorption”.

Engagement is a state of emotional well being that is a result of inclusion in action at the workplace. Employees need to feel trusted, and to trust in their organization, before they feel connected as a whole. Employees feel trusted when they are given a high degree of autonomy, which is one of the three intrinsic motivators of engaged employees alongside mastery, and purpose, according to Daniel Pink.

When framed this way, the overlapping drivers of engagement and inclusion are clear to see, and it is not surprising to find studies that confirm a high correlation between the two states. A study by The Winters Group found .78 correlation between inclusion and engagement. An earlier study by Gallup in 2005, found that 60% percent of respondents with the highest scores on diversity and inclusion questions were engaged whereas only 11% of those with the lowest scores in diversity and inclusion items were engaged.

Therefore, feeling trusted and valued (employee inclusion) is a necessary precondition for employee engagement. An engaged employee is

“a person who shows up to work each day as their best self by passionately adding value, and proactively seeking to achieve their company’s mission. Engaged employees demonstrate this through their interactions with coworkers, their attitude, and of course, their work.”

Finally, I share some additional resource on work engagement and inclusion:

The History of Work Engagement by Professor Schaufeli

How Diversity and Inclusion Drive Employee Engagement

Compilation of Diversity & Inclusion “Business Case” Research Data