Business Leadership Today

How To Maintain Employee Engagement in Difficult Times (8 Steps)


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

When it comes to keeping employees engaged and inspired, leaders provide guidance that helps their teams work toward the organization’s goals and stay passionate about their work. 

This is a difficult enough task under normal circumstances, but it can be even more challenging during difficult times when there may be issues within the company or unforeseen events occurring with widespread, life-changing effects and wide-reaching implications.

But, as we know, even in difficult times, organizations and their employees have to soldier on in pursuit of success. In order to do this, organizations need to find ways to keep morale up and maintain high levels of employee engagement. 

Employees often need more support than usual from senior leadership when times are tough, but it isn’t always easy for leaders unaccustomed to leading in difficult times to know the best ways to meet their employees’ needs.

Right now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing this scenario play out in almost every industry. So, how can leaders even begin to address the issue of employee engagement in such difficult, uncertain times?

To maintain employee engagement in difficult times, leaders need to be adaptable to meet employees’ shifting needs by fostering a caring culture. 

In this article, we will look at the top eight ways leaders can keep their employees engaged and thriving in difficult times:

  1. Be Flexible Whenever Possible
  2. Give Them the Gift of Autonomy
  3. Establish a Feedback Loop
  4. Recognize the Work They Do
  5. Encourage Them To Grow
  6. Make Their Work Meaningful
  7. Foster a Good Work-Life Balance
  8. Make Their Well-Being a Priority

Engagement Explained

In brief, employee engagement is an employee’s emotional commitment to their work, the organization they work for, and its goals. It describes the bond an employee builds with their specific job and the organization.

High engagement in an organization indicates that employees care about their work, are dedicated to the organization, and their attitudes and behaviors are aligned with the organization’s core values. 

Employee engagement drives organizational success and is essential for increasing retention, attracting top talent, fostering loyalty, boosting customer satisfaction, improving organizational performance, and providing stakeholder value. 

Engagement is a critical metric for organizations because it can have a tremendous impact on so many aspects of a business and can significantly affect its overall profitability.

Engagement in Difficult Times

While employee engagement is always a concern for leadership, it becomes even more important, and challenging, during difficult times

It is particularly challenging for leaders to focus on engaging employees when the business is in a precarious position or an event, such as a global pandemic, increases the stress on employees on a large scale. 

According to author and Business Leadership Today contributor Dr. Linda Holbeche, when it comes to crafting and leading engagement initiatives during tough times, leaders need to forge strong bonds with employees, continually motivate them in the pursuit of success, and foster transparency and positive actions:

“Executives need to show very visible leadership, build trust, and create energy around mission and vision. They must take the long view, keep faith with employees, and make sure employees know they are trying hard to keep them. 

Leaders should balance current reality and optimism, providing a longer-term perspective, giving people confidence about the future, and creating a climate for change.” 

The Engagement Slump

According to recent research by Gallup, the percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. dropped in 2021 for the first year in over a decade. 

This unfortunate trend continued into early 2022, with only 32% of full- and part-time employees engaged and 17% actively disengaged—an increase of one percentage point from the previous year.

Low engagement can have a truly devastating effect on a company’s profitability because it is tied to an employee’s performance, productivity, absences, safety on the job, retention, and customer satisfaction. 

It can also impact a company’s ability to innovate and improve processes, which makes it less adaptable as times change.

The Great Resignation

The pandemic has brought about very difficult conditions for many employees. Organizations have had to totally rethink how they do business and how to keep employees engaged outside an on-site office setting. 

It is clear that many workers’ priorities have changed during the pandemic, and, as a result, the engagement landscape has changed. 

Lower engagement and higher disengagement have played a part in “The Great Resignation” phenomenon, with workers leaving their jobs in record numbers. Both younger, less tenured employees and older, more tenured employees are quitting their jobs in growing numbers. 

These workers are seeking more competitive compensation, more meaningful jobs, and organizations with cultures that offer more flexibility and a better work-life balance.

Caring Culture

Culture, like leadership, plays a prominent role in driving employee engagement. This is why having a caring, values-based culture is one of the best ways to maintain high levels of employee engagement.

Demonstrating care for employees and helping them feel that the work they are doing is essential for the success of the organization will create a positive employee experience that boosts engagement.

Businesses with strong, positive cultures have highly engaged and loyal employees who deliver excellent work and take superior care of customers. Organizations with a dysfunctional culture often drive away employees and customers.

Making employees feel valued is key to keeping them engaged. When employees don’t feel valued by upper management, they will not be as loyal to an organization that views them as expendable, and they will likely leave.

Difficult times often prove to be the best times to demonstrate care for your employees.  By supporting them when they need it most, leaders build goodwill and trust with employees. 

Here are eight ways a leader can demonstrate care for employees to boost engagement in difficult times:

1. Be Flexible Whenever Possible

Flexibility is now high on the list of intangible benefits employees seek. 

The pandemic gave rise to remote and hybrid work environments. It was assumed early on in the pandemic that this would be temporary. As the pandemic seems to be winding down, some employers are starting to call employees back into the office.

However, many employees who have been able to do their jobs from home for the last two years don’t see why they should have to give that up, along with their improved work-life balance. 

Allowing employees to work from home if possible gives them the flexibility to take better care of their families and personal needs—employees are better able to do this when they aren’t having to spend hours every week making those long commutes to an office to do work they can do just as easily from home.

This flexibility provides a better work-life balance, although it’s important to avoid letting work time bleed over into personal life time, and can help cut down on the stress that comes with long commutes and toxic office environments.

2. Give Them the Gift of Autonomy

Employees crave autonomy. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink lists autonomy—the desire to direct our own lives—as one of the three most important motivators, along with mastery and purpose, for employees.

Autonomy has been identified as a major factor in the job-seeking habits of workers, with 42% of millennials indicating they would choose a job that allows them to work independently on projects of their choice. 

Autonomy has become increasingly important for workers in remote and hybrid work environments. One of the best aspects of autonomy is the trust-building potential it brings to an employee’s experience, even when that experience is happening in a remote setting.

Think about autonomy in this scenario as the opposite of micromanagement. When leaders trust employees enough to give them the tools they need to work with autonomy and trust them to do their work well, it actually motivates them to perform well. 

3. Establish a Feedback Loop

Good communication between employees and management is an essential component of engagement and becomes even more important in difficult times when employees may feel a sense of helplessness.

Establishing a system of feedback in your organization is a good way to hone those communication skills and involve employees in strategizing and problem-solving.

In organizations that emphasize feedback as an important part of their culture, employees receive regular, helpful feedback from direct supervisors and are empowered and encouraged to provide meaningful feedback to co-workers and leadership. 

One of the ways good communication and feedback help engagement is by building trust between leadership and employees, creating a safe, trust-based, more transparent environment where employees feel that their opinions help drive decision-making.

This feedback loop lays the groundwork for a sustainable high-performance environment where employees have an improvement mindset and think about creative and innovative ways to help the company succeed, even in difficult times. 

4. Recognize the Work They Do

Recognition should always be part of the feedback leaders provide to employees. 

Recognition is such a powerful tool for building engagement because it meets a core human need for both the employee and the manager. Recognizing employees for their accomplishments shows them not only that leadership is paying attention, but that they also value the work employees do.

For recognition to be most effective, it should be given often, and it should be specific so employees know the work they do in their roles is seen and appreciated. 

In difficult times, employees often find themselves having to go above and beyond constantly because of staff or other resource shortages. Always recognize and show extra appreciation for the extra work employees are doing to keep the organization afloat. 

5. Encourage Them to Grow

Research compiled by LinkedIn has shown that employees who spend time learning on the job are: 

  • 47% less likely to be stressed
  • 39% more likely to feel productive and successful
  • 23% more able to take on additional responsibilities
  • 21% more likely to feel confident and happy

Employees need to feel that they are growing professionally and developing their skills and intellectual capabilities for engagement. Fostering personal growth opportunities helps employees achieve their personal goals and leads to greater satisfaction, dedication, and engagement. 

Creating an atmosphere that champions learning and development helps employees grow and develop new knowledge and skills that will help them engage and excel in their jobs.

During difficult times, learning and development opportunities can fall by the wayside either because of a lack of resources or not enough time in an employee’s schedule to pursue learning opportunities. It’s important to continue to provide development opportunities to employees, even in difficult times. 

6. Make Their Work Meaningful

Meaningful work is essential for employee engagement because it gives employees a sense of purpose. They will feel passionate about the work they do and perform their jobs with greater enthusiasm when they find it meaningful.

When employees feel a shared sense of purpose with their co-workers and a strong commitment to an organization’s mission, vision, and values, it doesn’t just improve engagement. It improves morale, performance, trust, and overall job satisfaction.

It’s also a major driver of retention, and it plays an increasingly important role in recruitment efforts. 

A recent study revealed the following statistics:

  • 70% of employees say they would not work for an organization without a strong purpose
  • 60% would take a pay cut to work at a purpose-driven company
  • 90% of employees who work at organizations with a strong sense of purpose say they’re more inspired, motivated, and loyal

Having a sense of purpose and finding meaning in their work can help employees look beyond their daily job duties and see how their work impacts the organization, their co-workers, and the community they serve. 

7. Foster a Good Work-Life Balance

When the lines between a person’s work life and their home life blur, this creates more anxiety for workers and makes it difficult for them to engage with their work. 

Having a good work-life balance improves employee engagement and, as a result,  employee well-being. When employees are struggling to maintain a balance between their work and their personal lives, it can lead to disengagement.

A positive, supportive work environment that creates a positive employee experience helps people stay more engaged in both their jobs and their personal lives. 

Leaders can help ensure their employees achieve a good work-life balance by dealing with potentially toxic situations in a timely manner, not requiring workers to put in long hours on a regular basis, and limiting communications to work hours only so employees have a chance to fully disconnect from their jobs when they aren’t at work. 

8. Make Their Well-Being a Priority

Employers always expect (or hope for) a superior performance from employees. When employers expect superior employee performance in difficult times, employers need to be aware of and attuned to their staff’s well-being.

Employees aren’t going to perform well or remain engaged when their well-being is suffering, and they feel excessive anxiety and stress. 

Whether it is stress in their personal lives, the stress of working in a toxic environment, or the stress that builds during difficult times, such as a global pandemic, stress can significantly impact an employee’s well-being.

Employees can’t engage in an environment that has a negative impact on their physical or mental well-being. 

Beyond ensuring the work environment is positive, leaders should foster well-being for employees, make it a top priority, and be unwilling to sacrifice the well-being of employees for short-term financial gain.

The search for better compensation will always drive much of the voluntary turnover we see in organizations, but there are other drivers that are becoming more prominent in the wake of the pandemic. 

Along with a competitive salary that at least keeps pace with cost of living increases and good medical coverage, today’s job seekers are looking for other kinds of perks in their job search. Consider the tangible and intangible benefits that employees value. 

Staying in touch with what your workers need to thrive and be engaged with their jobs can help guide compensation-setting. Since intangible benefits are becoming increasingly important to job seekers, those benefits should be incorporated into competitive compensation packages. 

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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