In challenging times, engagement and enablement become even more important – but they’re also more difficult to sustain. Thinking back to another crisis, we turned to our 2009 research with leaders from the World’s Most Admired Companies and what the global financial crisis taught them about employee engagement. The chief takeaway? When you start out with strong employee engagement, you’re already in a position of strength, with an opportunity to grow positive employee sentiment. In fact, 69 percent told us that employee engagement was higher after the GFC than before.

It makes sense that if engagement is already strong, then your people are better placed to weather the crisis. But this doesn’t mean the outlook is entirely without hope if engagement was low prior to the coronavirus outbreak. All leaders need to act with empathy and understanding as they work to bring their people and their organisations through the pandemic. The actions of leaders today will make or break organisations as the crisis abates and the recovery begins.

Here are ten ways that leaders can engage their people through the ups and downs of this corona-coaster, whether building on existing wells of engagement or rehabilitating frayed trust.

1. Candid and consistent communication

It seems trite, but leaders really can’t overcommunicate right now. That said, careful thought still needs to go into what is said. The pace of change means people are on high alert and they need their leaders to communicate honestly and with empathy. 

2. Prioritise health and safety, always

Strong engagement relies on a two-way exchange: employees will be motivated to do more if they feel respected and valued by the organisation. Never has this been more pertinent than in a global health crisis. Tailor your approaches to meet the differing needs of employees and meet them where they are both physically and emotionally.

3. Embrace the good and the bad of technology

Digital technology is literally making work and connection possible for many people at this time. But we also need to be realistic: technology is, as we all know, fallible. Make the most of technology’s promise and try to treat inevitable glitches with good humour.

4. Respect employees’ personal challenges

Everyone is dealing with challenges at the moment, and many employees will struggle in silence. By proactively emphasising benefits, like employee assistance programs, employers can help their employees manage their mental load. 

5. Reframe time management

Working from home can enable greater productivity, but it can also bring new challenges, particularly for working parents. Openly discussing what this means for time management can help lessen the strain. It may mean chunking time to enable blocks of work and blocks of personal time, and rearranging or even cancelling meetings.

6. Bring focus

 With so many concerns, both personal and professional, to juggle at the moment, leaders need to help their people hone in on what’s critical and what can wait. Leaders must communicate a strong vision to clearly establish priorities and then agree explicitly with their people what needs to happen.

7. Acknowledge diversity of experience

We’re all experiencing the same crisis, but we’re all experiencing it individually. No one can make assumptions about another person’s experience, especially as what’s true for one person today may not be true tomorrow. Acknowledging this difference is respectful and helps employees feel valued.

8. Reconsider reward

Leaders need their people to be at their best through challenging times, while employees still want to be recognised for their efforts. But there’s also the reality of sudden financial constraints. Adjust expectations of what success looks like and create new pathways to excellence, maintaining clear communication on how the organisation will fairly manage reward.

9. Tackle the lack of informal interaction

Informal office connections can often spark innovation and right now they’ve gone missing. Find new times and new spaces to reignite informal communication virtually, perhaps scheduling ‘lunch hour’ over Zoom or scaling back formal meetings to give some unscheduled time back to employees.

10. Give people a voice

This is perhaps the most important point of all. The other nine steps will come to nought if people don’t have a real opportunity to express what they think, feel and experience. Much of this work is done behind the scenes, as leaders at all levels of the organisation engage in dialogue with their people and offer meaningful channels for them to feel heard and see their thoughts and experiences reflected in the real work of the organisation.

Learn more about what leaders can do in our webinar series: Accelerating Through the Turn.

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About the contributor

Dr. Mana Lohatepanont is a Managing Director with Korn Ferry Advisory, responsible for emerging ASEAN markets. Currently, he manages Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam offices. With more than 25 years of advisory and HR experience, Dr. Mana works with senior executives and board members to enhance organisational and people effectiveness. He leads engagements in organisation design, talent strategy, workforce planning, executive reward, and leadership development and advises many types of client organisations: large conglomerates, small and medium enterprises, privately held, publicly-listed, state-linked enterprises and government agencies. His interest is in technology, oil and gas and banking sectors.

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