The true test of any organisational culture or leader lies in how your people perform through challenging times. In business-as-usual periods, employee engagement focuses on how empowered, motivated and positive employees feel about their work – whether they have the right systems and structures in place to be productive, and do their best work. But now, it is not business-as-usual. At this moment in time, there are additional emotional and wellbeing factors at play. Organisations that can get employee engagement right today will have a better chance of ensuring business continuity in the short-term – and retaining their talent once the crisis has passed.

“It’s all about emergency response, initially,” advises Jingqi Li, Korn Ferry Employee Engagement expert in Shanghai. “This is the time your employees are going to have a lot of questions, so simple, clear communication is critical.” She says organisations in China were quick to set up emergency response teams – typically involving senior leadership, HR, finance, Environment, Health, and Safety (EH&S), government affairs and communications. They looked outward, to customers, suppliers, government authorities and investors, gathering the insight required to enable better decision making. And they looked inward to check, monitor and record every single case of the illness – in staff and their families.

Chris Mayler, Senior Client Director based in Australia, says communicating this duty of care is paramount. “This will be a challenge for many organisations if they don’t have robust feedback channels in place. Make sure new company policies are clear and transparent around how to conduct meetings and limiting travel as much as possible. People want clear guidelines – they need to know the organisation is taking precautions to safeguard their wellbeing.”

Once the crisis has passed, this engagement effort is likely to pay off through faster recovery. Jingqi Li says this was certainly the case with SARS. Teams with higher employee engagement were able to get operations back to full capacity sooner. “Employee engagement makes the magic happen,” she says.

However, unlike SARS or even the Global Financial Crisis, most workers have never been isolated for long stretches of time – and the transition back to a ‘new normal’ may be more challenging. So what can organisations do now to help their people cope with so much unprecedented change, and feel empowered to go above and beyond their formal duties if required?

Focus on the future

Leaders need to be visible and convey confidence to employees, along with a positive outlook for the organisation’s future. Responding quickly to guarantee employment security, as much as possible, will go a long way in this.

Constantly push yourself to look ahead and reframe your understanding of the different scenarios. Anticipate opportunities that could arise, now or in the longer term. Demand can pick up quite swiftly and you need to be ready, so re-focus business priorities for when the time is right.

Act on feedback

Engagement is a two-way conversation. Make sure employees can voice their concerns and questions in a way that suits them, and recognise different people will have different needs. Have several lines of communication open, from pulse surveys to town halls, and show you are acting quickly on employee feedback. 

It’s important to respect the wishes of your employees – some may want to work from home or self-isolate. Putting their wellbeing first will in turn create a stronger community. You may also need to consider family support, or mental health programs to help people manage stress and anxiety.

Embrace new ways of working

Many organisations have had to quickly implement new flexible working arrangements and policies as part of their business continuity plans. For millions of employees globally, this will be the first time they are expected to work from home – and potentially for extended periods of time. Make sure they’re equipped with the right tools to stay engaged and collaborate. Re-think any resistance to tools like video conferencing as this may be the only way to ‘see’ clients or staff in the short term. Use social media, like WeChat or Whatsapp, to maintain contact with all employees and keep teams connected. 

If these new ways of working – more flexibly or virtually – are proving positive for employees and business outcomes, you may also need to re-think structures and policies for the long term.

Use this time wisely

If operational needs have slowed down productivity, this could be the ideal opportunity to strengthen capabilities through training. Korn Ferry research indicates lack of career development is one of the main reasons talent will leave an organisation. Jingqi Li says many organisations in China are now running virtual learning programs to build technical and social skills.Leaders are also using this time to identify ‘shining stars’ amongst its talent, and give them new opportunities in positions where they can make a real difference. 

Reflect on engagement during the recovery

As China now begins to enter its recovery phase, Li is seeing organisations looking to measure their engagement effort and communication response. Engagement surveys pre- and post-crisis can give you a valuable benchmark and help you prepare for the next crisis. “I believe this will be a watershed moment for many organisations, in how they engage with employees,” says Chris Mayler. And if they do get this critical task right, they’ll have a better chance of coming through the year stronger and more resilient, with motivated employees who have risen to the challenge.

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About the contributor

Chris Mayler is a Senior Client Director for Korn Ferry Advisory, Australia. For the last 15 years, Chris helped organisations maximise the potential of their workforce to drive business performance.

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