Employee Engagement & Psychological Safety in the Post-Pandemic Workplace

If you knew 60% of your workforce would quit tomorrow, what would you do? While seemingly alarmist, this statistic reflects what we’re seeing in study after study as we emerge from the pandemic. Sixty percent of employees who worked from home during the pandemic indicated they would quit immediately if their organizations do not implement some element of virtual work.

This is the challenge HR and business leaders are now facing as they look to bring their teams back to the office after nearly a year and a half of virtual work arrangements. Yet there is a positive opportunity in this moment that many of the alarmist headlines are overlooking. In this new era of work, how does this need for hybrid work arrangements enable us to reimagine the employee experience while still delivering outstanding results for our customers and clients?

Let’s start with the end in mind. What exactly is employee engagement? Note that we didn’t say “employee entertainment”. This isn’t about having air hockey in the breakrooms, holding yoga classes on-site, or splurging on top performer trips to exotic locales (remember those?!). According to the “Best Places to Work” criteria, “Employee engagement is the strength of the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward the work they do, their teams, and their organization.” Simple and straightforward, right? Then why does it feel like employee engagement is so hard to get at? Because it’s hard work!

Employee engagement requires vulnerability and continually investing time, energy, and resources into having meaningful conversations with employees. It also requires carefully measuring the outcomes of your engagement efforts. One of the key drivers for this is an employee’s psychological safety, or the extent to which employees feel they can take risks and express themselves in the workplace without fear of repercussions.

Psychological safety at work is the one dimension of employee engagement you can focus on no matter if your employees are in the office, completely virtual, or somewhere in between. Organizations with high psychological safety tend to have more innovation and knowledge sharing. Their employees also engage in productive conflict, openly share their ideas, and generally feel more comfortable with one another.

Research shows us that organizations that do this well clearly articulate their efforts in two key areas: Shared Norms and Relationships. Bringing employees together to articulate shared communication and performance norms in a hybrid or completely virtual environment is critical to continuing to deliver outstanding results for your customers. Allowing employees to co-create these norms is also essential to gaining long-term organizational buy-in.

Some of the key questions we’ve helped our clients address during this norming process include:

  • How will we communicate with each other without losing access to business-critical information and exchanges when some of us are in-office and others are at home?
  • Should we adopt standard work hours? And if so, what’s the expectation for response times to customers and other employees with our hybrid workplace?
  • What is our dress code in a work-from-home environment?
  • What is the expectation for employees to have their cameras on when using video conferencing?

The post-pandemic environment is ripe for trying new things in different ways, and forward-thinking leaders are embracing new ways of working with a sense of curiosity. What then does this mean for HR and business leaders? When an employee has supportive relationships that promote experimentation, psychological safety is the outcome, allowing people to perform tasks in different ways without imposing negative consequences.

To build psychological safety and reimagine engagement in your organization, we recommend 3 steps:

  1. Understand employee engagement at your organization
  2. Reimagine your HR practices to promote employee engagement
  3. Measure, Measure, Measure!

Start with the question, “What is it that creates the mental and emotional connections for employees at our organization?” Perhaps they find deep meaning in your work or in meeting the needs of the customers you serve. Others may value working collaboratively with others. Some may relish the autonomy to pursue their work on their own. Find out what makes your employees and organization tick.

If you aren’t already regularly communicating with your employees about their engagement, now is the perfect time to start! If you are, you may need to reconsider their feedback given how things have changed. The standard employee satisfaction survey question “Are you excited about coming to work?” for example, now has two different meanings in a hybrid work environment. Your employees may dislike coming into a physical office but remain excited about the work itself. Look for opportunities to clarify how hybrid and virtual work could impact your engagement results.

There are also many HR practices that can contribute to employee engagement and are ripe for reimagining.

  • Recruitment: In the knowledge worker era, you can attract and retain the best talent by offering flexible work arrangements. Working from home, however, isn’t considered a “perk” anymore, but instead a reflection of an organization that understands the roles that naturally lend themselves to different working conditions.
  • Onboarding: It’s essential to reimagine how you will welcome new team members to the organization in a hybrid or completely virtual environment. Look for ways to help them navigate the organization and build healthy relationships with their colleagues even if they aren’t physically present onsite.
  • Leadership Development: Equipping managers and supervisors with the right tools to lead in a virtual environment requires a different set of skills than a traditional office setting. Many have done an admirable job “winging it” through the pandemic, but the return to office moment presents an opportunity to be intentional about the growth and development of these valuable leaders.
  • Performance Management: Performance management is complimentary to employee engagement as it ensures employees are focused on operational excellence and doing the right things. Be sure your model rewards the right behaviors and reinforce the quality of work output rather than quantity of hours spent “at work”.

Finally, we’ve all heard the saying “What gets measured gets managed.” Engagement is no different, so design and implement systems to regularly monitor your levels of engagement. Carefully develop assessments that focus on employee commitment, motivation, sense of purpose, and passion for work. That’s how you’ll know that the ways you’ve reimagined your HR practices are working!

Are you struggling to develop your return-to-work strategy for your organization? Need some help creating or perhaps re-evaluating your employee engagement practices as you embrace new ways of working? Give us a call at 310.589.4600 or email us to discuss how best to enhance employee engagement and psychological safety in your organization. You can also visit the Talent Management page of our website to learn more about how we enable our clients to win the war for talent. We’re committed to helping you continue delivering outstanding value to your customers while also ensuring your employees are meaningfully engaged!

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