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What a difference a year makes – who could have foreseen 18 months ago that we would end up where we are now?

Five things we should all be talking about right now:

Whilst the personal cost of the Covid pandemic has been great for many in a multitude of ways, it has also completely changed the face of work. Some sectors such as hospitality have been really badly hit with people often being unable to work due to the nature of their jobs. Other sectors were less impacted as their employees could continue to work full-time from home during lockdown with only a proportion of those returning to the office after that. These measures were essential to allow businesses to continue functioning whilst keeping their people safe but at what cost to employee engagement?

Homeworking had been on a slow but steady upward trajectory in recent years and often people cite the fact that they will be more productive when they make the choice to work from home. So that was surely potentially good news for organisations this year (once any IT issues had been resolved). However, the key word in that sentence was ‘choice’ – recent research carried out by Gartner* found that organisations where employees were given a choice over where, when and how they work found that 55% of their employees were high performers as opposed to 36% when that choice was removed and they had to work in the office.

These findings were corroborated by a study in Harvard Business Review** which found that when people had no choice where they worked (whether that was in the office or the home) that their drop in motivation to work was the equivalent of moving from one of the best cultures in their industry to one of the most miserable. They also found that the drop in motivation was even greater than that for people who normally choose to work in an office and are then forced to work remotely which is what we have seen happening this year.

Factor in the fact that the annual cost of disengaged employees is estimated to be $550bn*** and you can see that whilst they can’t do anything to alter the need to work from home, organisations do need to take the impact of remote working on employee engagement seriously.

The research has given us some pointers – for example, Gartner* found that when employers developed stronger and deeper relationships with their employees, there was a 23% increase in the number of employees reporting better mental health and a 17% increase in the number of employees reporting better physical health. Overall, employers who supported their employees more holistically (i.e. personally as well as professionally) saw a 21% increase in high performers.

All this indicates a clear desire to bring the humanity back to workplace relationships – something that it is easy to skip or feel is missing when interacting solely through a computer screen. However, years of experience has shown us that this very achievable to do, even remotely – time and again, organisations that used our 5 Conversations programme have seen a real benefits to their organisation in terms of trust, engagement and performance. These are five conversations that all managers should be having as a matter of course with their employees but are now more important than ever. They are:

  1. Establishing a trusting relationshipThis is about creating the space to really get to know someone, not just as an employee but as a person. We are not talking about sharing deepest secrets but finding out about who they are, what they do, why they do it etc. and being genuinely interested and curious about them. The better the quality of conversations that you have, the more trust builds within a relationship.
  2. Agreeing mutual expectationsManagers should be having conversations that explore and agree mutual expectations which cover not just what output you expect from someone but why what they do matters to your organisation. It is also their opportunity to tell you what support they may want or need from you and others which is empowering for them.

    You may feel that you have this already covered from life pre-Covid but a survey**** that looked at people who have only been working remotely full-time since the start of the pandemic, found that almost half of employees (45%) reported feeling more disconnected from their organisation’s mission since going remote. With this will come a corresponding downturn in performance and so this is an important conversation to revisit.

  3. Showing genuine appreciationAnother element of reconnecting someone with the organisation is to make them feel valued through genuine appreciation of their contribution to work. This is not just about acknowledging a job well done (although that is always appreciated) but actually having a conversation with someone to look at how they are being successful and how their unique strengths and talents are contributing to their success. You should then take that to the next level to look at where else they could apply these strengths either in their own work or elsewhere within the organisation to improve performance further.
  4. Challenging unhelpful behaviourBehavioural or performance problems won’t have miraculously disappeared when working remotely and, in some cases, may actually have worsened once the tempering effect of the sense others may witness it is removed. It is undoubtedly a difficult conversation to have but it is important for managers to tackle this in a constructive and respectful manner, both for the sake of the individual concerned and for the rest of the team.

    Failure to do so in a timely manner has an impact not just directly on the person on the receiving end of the unhelpful behaviour but also on the rest of the team who will doubtless still be aware of what is going on, even when working remotely. Inaction is likely to cause resentment, will undermine team morale at a time when a lot of people are already feeling a bit wobbly and will ultimately damage team performance.

  5. Building for the futureThis pandemic has made people’s lives feel temporarily physically very small and constrained but that doesn’t mean that all their dreams and aspirations have suddenly disappeared. It will eventually end and life will carry on. Having a conversation now about their career plans for the coming years will give your employees that much needed sense of the future and an awareness that they have some control over their destiny, a feeling which is probably much lacking elsewhere in their lives at the moment. It also gives them the sense that as an organisation you are interested in them and invested in where they go next which can only secure their engagement now and your talent pipeline in the future.

As is clear, the Covid pandemic and the sudden move to remote working for some organisations has taken its toll on employee engagement and therefore business performance. Even in organisations that haven’t been negatively impacted, it is important to keep a focus on the humanity in the organisation and support your people to have the conversations that really matter to drive engagement and results. Our signature programme, 5 Conversations, guides participants through why, when and how to have five critical conversations with the people they manage and work with. Speak to us today to find out more about how we can help you and your organisation.

* Gartner (2020). 2020 ReimagineHR Employee Survey
** McGregor, L. & Doshi, N. (2020). How to keep your team motivated, remotely. Harvard Business Review, April 09 2020
*** Forbes (2019). Worker Trends For 2020: Engagement, Disengagement And Over-Engagement
**** Emplify (2020). The Current State of Remote Work: Trends and Insights from a Changing Landscape