We keep talking about "the return to work" like it's this massive simultaneous reopening of all the offices and workplaces across the country. We keep talking about it like it's as simple as unlocking the door and sticking the kettle on.
We're not all in this together.
Controversial, I hear you say. Well, not when you think about how you have experienced the last 4 months compared to your friends and family. You might have been having a great time working from home and cuddling your dog for 4 months, or you might have been furloughed and climbing the walls with home schooling! You might even have been working on the front line non stop, dreaming of a time where you might be able to take a day off.
The same goes for businesses. Not all businesses have been agile enough to pivot their business into hand sanitiser manufacturing. Some have just about scraped through and others are really struggling.
We need to have a real, genuine understanding of the different experiences people have had before we even try to engage people in our business.
The Key to Engagement
I'm going to let you in on a lesson that every manager, leader and HR professional should know. A chap called Maslow came up with this hierarchy of needs upon which most engagement systems are based.
Engagement is a pyramid, with fully engaged and committed employees at the very top. Like the pyramids of Giza, you can't get to the top until you've built the foundation (unless you're invested in the alien theory on that one).
First and foremost, people need the basics like food, water, oxygen, sleep etc. Have you experienced a food shortage or lack of sleep recently?
Next up is safety. People need to feel personally safe, they want to feel that their job is secure and they want to be sure their health is not at risk. Have you worried about any of these things lately? Yup, thought so. And while you were concerned about your health/job/mortgage, were you thinking about how connected and invested you were to your work? If you're a business owner, probably fairly connected. But what about your staff? Do you think they were worried about your bottom line while trying to feed and educate their children?
As employers, leaders and trailblazers, we need to understand that everyone we are leading is at a different point in their journey up the pyramid and therefore at a different level of engagement.
Cool story, so what do I do?
First job on the list is to understand where your staff are right now in terms of how they are feeling. What are they worried about? What's been happening while they've been furloughed or working from home? Where are they on the pyramid?
Once you have that understanding, you will then be able to come up with practical solutions to help them reach the next step. Most people will be worried about their health as they come back to the work place, so what can you do to show them that you're making their safety a priority?
Secondly, you need to build trust and transparency. What that means is, you need to create an environment where people feel confident to speak up about things they are worried about or poor social distancing practices and actually listen to them.
You need to allow people to be themselves. This is a weird and worrying time for all of us and the last thing you need is to be worrying about saying or doing the wrong thing. Give people the space to be themselves, but with respect. That's not free rein to start spouting off at people for going to the pub at the weekend. I mean allowing people to have their opinions and their differences, respectfully. The respect and trust needs to be mutual. Your staff need to be able to trust that their concerns will be heard and acted upon where appropriate.
You've got to have their back and they need to feel like you have their back.
Next up, be aware of people's mental health. There are going to be a lot of feelings flying around at the moment.
People who have worked throughout lock down will probably feel resentful of those who have been furloughed. Those who have been furloughed might feel guilty that all the work has been left to their colleagues. Those who are going back to the office might feel jealous of those who are still working remotely. Remote workers might feel like everyone thinks they're not working as hard as those in the office.
So keep checking in with people, listen and understand. I know it feels like staff want you to know all the answers, we are all winging this a bit.
In line with what we've just talked about; people's different experiences of the pandemic, different emotions and reactions, let's think about the consequences of these things.
This cycle can have positive or negative outcomes, but the principle is the same. How a person feels influences how they act which influences how they are perceived which influences how they are treated which influences how they feel, and so on.
Imagine you feel extra anxious about going back to the office. You start acting a little snappy, maybe you're not as talkative as usual, maybe you can't concentrate on work. People then perceive you as being moody, someone to be avoided, someone who's useless at their job and therefore treat you as such. How would you feel?
But what if your manager took you aside for a good chat, made an effort to understand what you're going through and suggested ways to support you. How would that make you feel?
All you need is two simple conversation starters: "how are you?" and "I've noticed... and I'd like to understand how I can help."
I just want to touch on why it's important to notice early signs and nip things in the bud.
Issues normally start off as very small things that don't normally feel like a big deal. But if those issues go unmanaged, they grow and fester until they implode, at which point you're being railroaded towards claims, tribunals and all sorts of words that make us business owners cringe.
If you can deal with an issue before it grows to the point of imploding, you have a higher chance of resolving it. If you leave it until it has imploded, there's normally no return and no resolution available and it starts to get expensive.
Pay attention to behavioural changes and attempt to resolve things early doors.
My Two Pennies
I know that was a lot of information for you to take in so let's summarise it here.
LISTEN. Create an environment where people feel safe to express their concerns and opinions, then listen. Don't try to fix it straight away, don't get defensive, just listen.
ENCOURAGE. Encourage people to speak up and report poor hygiene/social distancing practices. Encourage people to take ownership of their wellbeing. Encourage people to have difficult conversations with respect and honesty.
ASSESS RISK. When someone confides in you, assess what risks are posed to the business and the individual. Do you need help in addressing the issue? Do you need to escalate it upwards?
REASSURE. In uncertain times, people want a little reassurance that you have their back. You can't promise the world right now, so don't. Just look after your staff.
EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCE. How often do you think about customer experience? The same principles apply to your employees! You know what your customers want and you aim to deliver on that with every interaction. Do you know what your employees expect of you? If not, ask them. Then you can work towards delivering the sort of experience your staff want from you.
There is no one solution to engagement because it's based on people's feelings, which are so subjective. If you can develop a culture where listening, trust and transparency are a daily occurrence, you will see a change in employee engagement.
That's all for now folks...