How to Stop COVID-19 Becoming an Employee Engagement Crisis

Posted in Best Practice Research Thoughts & Culture

Top-performing businesses have made great progress improving employee engagement over the past decade. Don’t let COVID-19 turn back the clock.

Employee engagement’s been a major focus for businesses for a good decade. Even back in 2012, for instance, Deloitte found 83% of executives ranked engaged and motivated employees as the top factor driving company success.

And the tide has been slowly turning since Gallup’s horrific 2013 finding that only 13% of global employees were engaged at work. By 2019, employees worldwide were typically more engaged than they’d ever been – like in the US, where employee engagement hit a new high of 35%. 

(There’s more progress needed, of course, but that’s an increase of around ten million US employees in the decade Gallup’s been measuring).

But now, COVID-19 threatens to undermine our progress.

Unless businesses take the right actions now, employee engagement could plummet to catastrophic levels – with productivity, morale and turnover problems following close behind.

Let’s unravel the threat and talk about some tactics to pre-emptively address the problem. So your post COVID-19 engagement scores skyrocket, instead of nosedive.


Why COVID-19 threatens employee engagement

Let’s dig into the drivers of employee engagement. Gallup’s Q12 Index gives one of the best-known outlines by defining twelve core questions:

The Gallup Q12 Index

Through rigorous research, Gallup identified 12 core elements – the Q12 – that link powerfully key business outcomes. These 12 statements emerged as those that best predict employee and workgroup performance.

The Twelve Questions are:

  1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  2. Do you have the materials and equipment to do your work right?
  3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
  7. At work, do your opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
  9. Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do you have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
  12. In the last year, have you had opportunities to learn and grow?

Dale Carnegie's emotional model is also pretty well-known, suggesting engaged employees share five core emotions: 

  • Valued
  • Confident
  • Inspired
  • Enthusiastic
  • Empowered

The point is, there are countless takes but the same ideas crop up consistently. Engaged employees feel valued and empowered to do their jobs. They’re proud to work with your business and committed to your mission.

But COVID-19 undermines many of these engagement factors. 

The business might’ve previously faced events that threaten engagement on a small scale – like managerial personality clashes or regional commuting problems.

But this threat looms over the entire workforce – so safeguarding engagement is mission-critical for businesses right now. 

Here are seven tactics.

1 – Prioritize health and safety

The legal and moral bare minimum. Employees won’t feel valued if they don’t feel you care about their health and safety. And expect severe reputation damage if you’re seen to prioritize profits over your people’s health – as well as fines and legal action, of course.

You’ll need to update your risk assessments and introduce measures to mitigate the new risks COVID-19 poses. (Check out the government WHS guidance here.)

That could include installing new kit like protection barriers and handwashing stations, changing rotas to decrease office capacity, changing your office layout to increase distance and/or providing PPE.

It’ll also include mental health and wellbeing provisions, to help ease employees back into the post COVID-19 world. Some of your workforce might’ve lost people; might’ve been isolated for months; might’ve seen relationships breakdown with the pressure of lockdown. They need your support; now’s not the time to scrimp.


2 – Update your flexible working policies

Our recent research on the impact of COVID-19 found 54% of employees want to work remotely – either full-time or part-time – in the future. And 63% of the C-Suite said the same.

That’s why we predicted the pandemic will prove a major global tipping point for remote working. (Read all our predictions here.)

If you’re not already set-up for remote working, now’s the time to get policies and processes in place. To support your people in the short-term – some employees mightn’t feel safe returning to work or might be under personal pressure that makes remote working better – and for the future, when flexible working becomes the rule not the exception.

3 – Get managers to up their game

We’ve written about the role of managers a lot recently. That’s because our research showed many employees felt their managers were unavailable and unempathetic.

Managers are critical to employee engagement, especially during a crisis.

Read more: Ten questions great managers are asking their teams right now

Managers must:

  • Make time to understand their team’s individual concerns and pressures; not make assumptions.
  • Schedule frequent performance conversations, to help employees understand what’s expected and feel supported during this period of uncertainty.
  • Act as a conduit to senior leadership, keeping the lines of communication flowing in both directions.
  • Work harder than ever to keep the team together, to stop remote working and flexible working disintegrating team culture.
  • Pre-empt and prevent burnout, ensuring employees are looking after themselves and aren’t overburdened.

4 – Increase organizational transparency

Belief and trust in the senior leadership team are fundamental to employee engagement. Engaged employees connect with the business’ purpose and mission and understand their own role in the bigger picture.

That comes with clear and transparent communication – something many businesses are bad at.

Read more: These 6 hurdles are destroying your remote communication – here’s how to fix them. 

A crisis exacerbates employees’ need for clarity and transparency and makes delivering those things harder than ever. Not a great combo.

Our recent COVID-19 research backed that up, showing a major emotional disconnect between senior leaders – 25% felt hopeful but only 4% of employees felt the same. That’s likely a transparency issue, where information about the company’s decisions, roadmap and finances isn’t being filtered down.

To stop COVID-19 damaging employee engagement, business leaders and managers must ensure information flows freely through the business – or rumours and doubt will.

Don’t succumb to the temptation to keep your cards close to your chest because you’re not happy with them. Employees don’t expect you to have all the answers, but they do expect you to keep them in the loop.

5 – Involve employees in decision making

This is a time of change for most businesses. And change can be near-impossible to implement – some 60% of change management projects fail, costing billions in lost resources and productivity.

A better answer is inclusive decision-making, Harvard Business Review suggest.

That is, involving the workforce in decisions upfront rather than dictating downwards once the decision’s made. Inviting feedback, input and debate to create solutions collaboratively.

That way, the business will be more likely to achieve the needed change – and more likely to keep employees engaged throughout the process:

Of course, not every idea is popular – and there is often a lot of debate that ensues. But generally people just want the opportunity to voice their opinion. They expect to be heard – but not always to be heeded. Even if they didn't like the decision that's ultimately made, they will have had the chance to make peace with it now rather than six months, or six years down the road. That's how you remove barriers and naysayers from the execution process. (Source: HBR)


6 – Refocus on upskilling and career development

Training and career development are crucial to employee engagement, and to productivity – the double whammy. And your business has probably already been doing a good job.

But COVID-19’s likely to create new skills gaps, as the business finds new ways of working together and delivering value to customers.

Read more: Beyond COVID-19: 6 predictions for the future of work 

Employees who previously felt confident they could perform a great job may now feel ill-equipped and anxious. Employees who felt confident they were building skills to progress their career may now feel their career path has been torn up and they’re drifting.

Don’t let those anxieties and uncertainties go unchecked, or they’ll damage employee engagement fast. Now’s the time to refocus on L&D.

7 – Invest in new tools to support your workforce

Engaged employees feel they’re equipped with the right tools to do their job. And right now, the tools they need might’ve changed. Like…

  • HR teams who’re suddenly onboarding remotely
  • Recruitment teams who’re interviewing remotely
  • Dispersed teams who need better collaboration tools
  • Managers who need support with remote leadership
  • Colleagues who’re feeling lonely and need help connecting

If you haven’t already, check out Enboarder’s Remote Work Experience platform for high-performing remote teams. We know your budget’s probably unusually tight right now so we’re offering it at cost, so you can give your people the support they need. Because the stakes are too high not to.


The last decade’s been all about improving employee engagement. And many businesses have made excellent progress – and enjoyed excellent returns, like increased productivity, better financial performance, decreased turnover and decreased recruitment costs. 

COVID-19 threatens to undermine all that, if you let it. So don’t.  

Enboarder are employee engagement masterminds, empowering HR teams to build and deliver experiences your employees love (including remotely). Learn more about how we can help.  

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