In a time of economic uncertainty, when pay cuts loom around the corner and the stability of most jobs is in question, employee engagement becomes considerably more difficult than it used to be. People Matters asked Mark Royal, Head of Employee Engagement at Korn Ferry, for his thoughts on what employers are doing to give their workforce peace of mind and what they can do better. Here are the highlights of what he shared.
What are some things you see employers doing to improve engagement during this uncertain period?
One of the common organizational responses we're seeing is an increase in communication, mostly through leaders. Our employee surveys show that leaders are communicating more frequently, more personally, and more visibly at all levels, which has been well received by employees. What's more, these communications are intentionally two-way. It's partly about getting key messages out, but it's also increasingly about understanding employee experiences as they wrestle with organizational and personal uncertainties—talk less and listen more, which has been well-received.
A second response has been more structured, continuous listening in the form of more frequent pulse surveys, more capture of information. And the kind of information being sought has changed over the course of the crisis. When the crisis first broke, a lot of the listening that organizations were doing was focused on well-being—are people safe, are they staying healthy. Then as the pandemic pressed on, organizations increasingly began to look at how people are working—how they are connecting to others, how supported they feel, how they see the organization's response to the situation.
What are some of the main pain points organizations need to address during this period?
One pain point is actually with communications. While organizations have done a lot amid the current crisis to be more transparent and frequent with communications, that's still challenging because in times of uncertainty, employee demand for information goes up. The thirst for information may be such that it's hard for organizations to manage. Sometimes, organizations may not have all the answers that employees are looking for, or leaders and managers may not feel comfortable speaking out because they themselves don't have full certainty.
Another typical pinch point is related to confidence in the organization's leadership and direction. This particularly comes up when what employees hear is not consistent from all levels of leadership—when they hear one thing from senior leadership and another from their immediate managers and supervisors. So keeping tight alignment around what's happening and why, and reinforcing that consistently at all levels of leadership, becomes important.
A third pain point comes back to rewards. As organizations go through difficult change, they're asking more of employees, but they're also constrained in their ability to reward those extra efforts. During the current crisis, for instance, we've seen many organizations laying off or furloughing staff, implementing salary reductions, asking employees to do and deliver more under difficult circumstances at a time when they may feel under-rewarded for their efforts.
A fourth challenge is around getting work done at a time when organizations are needing to operate more efficiently. The kinds of changes that come with cost-cutting, restructuring, and downsizing often make it more difficult just to get the work done.
Then there are other challenges around risk-taking—in difficulty time organizations often ask employees to take bold actions and incur more risks, but employees would rather play it safe. There are also concerns around the ability of the organization to attract and retain needed talent.
With so many pain points, is the increase in communication and listening alone sufficient to address these challenges? Can organizations do more to keep themselves attractive to their employees?
When you consider the components of high performing work environments, an aspect of that is engagement. And engagement is about the commitment people bring to the organization, their motivation to do and deliver more. And one of the things we've seen consistently in our research through different types of crises and challenges is that engagement can be a real resource for organizations in times of change, a source of resilience. Many of the leaders we interviewed following the global financial crisis, when asked what they learned about employee engagement in that context, would say it's a key resource for navigating change. You need that reservoir of goodwill for motivated people to carry the organization through tough times.
However, there are limits. Any organization can succeed for short periods of time through the energy of motivated people, but that tends not to be sustainable.
We need to think in terms of not just engagement, but enablement. If engagement is all about the desire to perform, enablement is all about the positioning of people for success.
Could you go a bit further into what enablement involves?
To sustain performance, organizations need to position motivated people to get work done in sustainable ways over time, and while some of that could be structural, a lot of it requires attention and focus. For example, as the organization goes through change in terms of its size and how work is getting done, the need increases to effectively clarify people's key accountabilities—what we call their "must win battles". Have organizations clarified the scope of people's decision making responsibilities? Have they given them specific freedom to act such that they can comfortably make decisions and take actions without fear of overstepping boundaries that haven't been specified for them?
Another example is in getting work done. It's easy for organizations, when faced with headcount reductions, to reallocate the work. It's more challenging, but equally important, to think about how that work gets done—the interdependencies and accountabilities and clarifying those relationships for people such that they can work efficiently and obtain the resources they need.
Who should be driving employee enablement?
Engagement comes from the top down, but enablement comes from the bottom up.
It comes from the attention and focus of individual managers who are conscious of the steps they can take as individual leaders to better position their teams for success. In fact, a lot of enablement is best done by line managers, who are the last mile of communication between the individual and the organization. They play a key role in helping people make sense of what's happening, because they are accessible to employees, and also because they tend to be trusted. They are the people who understand individuals, their work responsibilities, and the work that the team is doing.
Many of the components of engagement tend to come from the top down—creating clarity on direction, giving people confidence that the organization is responding to changing market needs. That's where confidence in leadership derives from, where people get a sense that the reward philosophy is clear and creates a sense of equity.
But enablement begins from the bottom up, and it really stems from individual managers who are, at a time like this, recognizing what steps they need to take to keep their teams on track.