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What’s the ‘missing link’ in pandemic employee engagement?

Digital tools have aided in recreating office communication, but is one key element still missing?

Before the coronavirus pandemic, a Qualtrics global study of workers in early 2020 found that only around 53% of workers felt engaged in the workplace. It’s a worrying statistic for HR, considering another data point in the same study highlighted that engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave their companies than their less engaged counterparts.

Despite this engagement shortfall, it appeared that employers just weren’t making inroads into engagement. 94% of younger workers wanted their company to do more to improve their engagement whilst 75% of outgoing staff noted a lack of engagement as a key driving factor in their choice.

That innovation is still there because we’ve managed not just the time in the day, but also the cultural aspect

The pandemic

Then, in March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that for the foreseeable future workers would be requested to operate remotely, and HR – a function that, according to the stats, wasn’t doing enough to promote engagement and communication – had no choice but to completely reassess and rethink its strategy from the ground up. Digital became the primary modus operandi and to the surprise of many considering the damage to mental and physical wellbeing brought about by the pandemic, engagement actually improved. A McKinsey study of over 800 workers conducted in June of 2020 found that 80% believe that their employer proactively improved their engagement by inputting an essential digital structure in this time.

Yet whilst these digital tools offered solutions to many of HR’s engagement conundrums, several major HR leaders noted that something is still missing from the range of options available to staff when not in the office. Whilst instant messaging platforms allow for streams of constant conversation to take place, and video messaging platforms facilitate meetings, the missing element seemed to be what some call the ‘water cooler moments’.


Innovation & collaboration

“It’s hard, when you have a strong company culture, to give up those moments that used to be so important to engaging and collaboration,” Harry Thuillier, Founder and Director at Oppo Bros, recently told myGrapevine magazine. “Obviously all companies are doing the best they can, and we’re close to recreating that in-person experience, but some things are harder than others, and often these also acted as brain-storming sessions. People use those inconsequential moments to innovate and collaborate” he added.

Thuillier’s sentiment is shared by the majority of the workforce; a Utility Bidder survey of 1,000 UK office workers found that six in 10 noted missing these small micro-interactions. A further 45% stated that these moments, which may centre on making tea, or simply stretching your legs and striking up a conversation, added much-needed structure to their day that no longer exists.

The key, as far as I’m concerned, is simply to start an honest dialogue with staff


Social space

Whilst Lin-Chi Nguyen, Head of People at food brand THIS, agrees that providing space to engage with workers, collaborate and also socialise has gotten harder as a result of coronavirus, her company believes that they have found a solution. THIS analysed the way that people interacted in the office and opted to introduce set time in its daily schedule explicitly to account for this. “We settled on having a social meeting every day for half an hour, just a place to hang out. The founders join, and we just chat about life, what we’ve watched on Netflix etc. These are so important for our culture,” she says.

In the case of THIS, the strategy of allotting time each day to facilitate greater engagement not only serves to help those adapting to a digital-first approach, but also solidifies to what extend the company prioritises engagement within its culture. The brand isn’t searching for a digital tool to overcome the issue, instead its ensuring that its people feel empowered to reach out and talk, regardless of being remote. And, Nguyen says it’s working.

“Those social meetings do help with that void, and we talk a lot outside of those meetings. We’re a cross functional company and we encourage everyone to have their say. We have mind-mapping sessions – informal and spontaneous ones, and innovation does come from that. That innovation is still there because we’ve managed not just the time in the day, but also the cultural aspect,” she shares.

It’s hard, when you have a strong company culture, to give up those moments that used to be so important to engaging and collaboration

Banter & chats

Yet, whilst Nguyen’s approach works well for her own company, Ilona Popczk, SVP of HR at Green Man Gaming, believes that it’s simply too early to tell what the real widespread ramifications of remote working on ensuring that engagement is a well-rounded employee experience will be. “There is a need for human interaction. In lockdown 3.0, people started to feel that very much. I had many conversations with peers and colleagues and the feeling is that some sort of connection, whether it be office banter or a chat next to the coffee machine, is needed,” she says.

Yet Popczk does offer one piece of core advice for those searching for a solution to this issue. She believes the only way to ensure that companies truly stay connected regardless of a working model or other such factors, is to ask. “All companies are different and we’re in the early stages of this process but the key, as far as I’m concerned, is simply to start an honest dialogue with staff. Ask them what they want, ask them what is missing. If you’re doing that and acting upon it, you cannot go wrong,” she concludes.