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Employee engagement ideas for the era of empathy

Our world and working relationships have changed in 2020 as we’ve struggled through a global crisis together. With many people now working from home, we’ve gotten a peek into each other’s personal lives like never before. We see our teammates’ children, pets, and homes in our video calls; we hear about each other’s anxieties and personal struggles. Even the habitual “how are you?” is getting honest, thoughtful answers these days.

It’s a new, more human world. Leaders must embrace an even more personal and empathetic approach to employee engagement—what inspires people today is not necessarily what motivated them just a few months ago.

The employee engagement ideas outlined here will help folks feel valued and involved now, and in the months to come as we continue to navigate this era of empathy.

Be more mindful in your communications

Working remotely has made us all more aware of how important effective written communication is. With all teams being distributed teams, we’re putting more of our thoughts in emails, memos, and internal chat platforms. And the words carry more weight than ever.

In this new era of empathy, it’s important to show understanding in your messaging. Acknowledge the tremendous stress that people might be under, and remind them about flexible hours or PTO options to take care of themselves. Use words and phrases that emphasize choice, keeping in mind that people want to feel freer and more in control of their lives.

Also try to use language that builds belonging by encouraging people to rally around shared company values. Think about the most resonant pillars of your employee value proposition, and incorporate them into your communications. For example, if “collaboration” is one of your company’s defining characteristics, center your messaging on teamwork.

Read and reread what you write to get a better sense of how it comes across. Even better to have a colleague review. Ask yourself if you’re striking the right tone, or whether your words could be received the wrong way.

Make sure that individuals feel seen

Recognition is a statistically proven way to boost individual employee engagement and is even more important now that people are working in isolation. Ensuring that every employee feels acknowledged will remain essential as we all move forward with a renewed appreciation for human connection.

Send personal messages to employees thanking them for actions they’ve taken. Adopt a casual tone to keep the messages from feeling forced while still being sincere and specific in your notes.

Encourage employees to submit public praise for one another, too. Coworkers should call out each other’s wins, such as successful efforts to save a challenging client, as well as more personal attributes they appreciate, like an individual’s sense of humor. Get the ball rolling with a “gratitude round robin” at the start of weekly meetings. Have everyone take a turn thanking a colleague for something they’ve done to let them know it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Celebrate what employees achieve outside of work as well. Virtual talent shows can give people a chance to share accomplishments from their home life—the art, crafting, cooking, or music they’re mastering in their spare time. You can also find ways to support employees facing challenges in their personal lives. For example, some companies are using virtual story times and fun activity books to keep kids occupied and help out busy working parents.

Focus on positive motivators

There are positive and negative motivators for working, and healthy employee engagement depends on which ones are the most prevalent.

Two of the biggest negative motivators are emotional and economic pressure. A lot of people are feeling both as they worry about their jobs, their health, and their financial security. And when negative motivators are what’s driving employees to work, they tend to perform worse and feel less engaged. Their stress levels are high and their minds are elsewhere. Leaders need to directly address these issues and provide employees with as much reassurance as possible. That means providing regular communications that are clear and honest about the situation while remaining mindful of people’s emotional states.

Among the strongest positive motivators are a sense of play and a sense of purpose. Capitalize on people’s innate desire to “play” by cultivating a culture of innovation. Employees who are empowered to experiment are more motivated than those who don’t feel empowered, and in a uniquely challenging time, there’s extra incentive to try some new creative approaches. You can also boost employees’ sense of purpose by articulating a compelling vision of the future, even amid uncertainty.

Create a space for people to be together

If working from home becomes a lasting legacy of the pandemic, companies will need to become even more adept at fostering camaraderie in a distributed workforce. In the absence of break rooms and cafeterias, try virtual coffee chats, happy hours, and lunch-and-learns to connect. For those who miss friendly (in-person) competition, use Zoom to host trivia games and scavenger hunts for common household items. At Textio, we have stayed active with morning group yoga and are currently doing a run/walk challenge to benefit a local charity. And as the novelty of working in sweatpants wears off, we’ve even got a kick out of getting dressed up for our calls on “Formal Fridays.”

While some of these activities are productive or healthy, the more important thing is that they’re fun. In a future that includes more telecommuting, the need for a virtual hangout space will become more pronounced.

Let employees know you care about their well-being

A global study found that as a result of the pandemic, 75% of people feel more isolated, 67% are more stressed, and 57% are more anxious. Despite the widespread emotional duress, close to 40% of respondents said their company has not bothered to ask how they’re holding up.

In addition to making efforts to combat loneliness, employers should more generally check in on mental health. Research shows that it’s okay to ask employees, “Are you okay?” The same study showed that nearly 60% of employees were comfortable with their manager proactively asking them about their mental health, and 40% actively want their manager to bring up the topic.

To show you care, you could start meetings by asking people how they’re doing, and don’t be afraid to send a quick “here if you need anything” note to someone you suspect is going through a hard time.

Companies should also clearly communicate the mental health resources available to all employees. People whose employers proactively told them how to access mental health resources were 60% more likely to say their company cared about their well-being. If your insurance plan covers things like teletherapy, make sure everyone knows it’s an option.

Once the current crisis has faded, continue to keep employees informed about the wellness and mental health benefits you offer, and ensure they’re easy to access.

Bring a more human perspective to employee engagement ideas

Increasing employee engagement can feel challenging right now—not only because we’re doing it from afar, but also because everyone is quite preoccupied. But our shared concerns also give us something to bond over, and this universal traumatic event has allowed us all to experience empathy like never before. It seems like it’ll have a lasting effect on humanity.

Employee engagement ideas in the era of empathy need to go beyond happy hours and professional-development courses. From this point on, companies will need to focus on ways of caring for, valuing, and positively inspiring employees who require a more human touch.

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