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The PeopleCap Playbook

Timely insights and actionable people strategies for leaders.

Challenges to Employee Engagement: Summer 2020 Edition


The summer of 2020 has thrown us all for a loop. What were once short-term crisis solutions – virtual and socially distant work environments – look like they are here to stay for a while. In late March, companies reported excitedly that, by and large, employees embraced the sudden shift and engagement and productivity did not seem to suffer. That was five months ago. Fatigue is setting in and, in many companies, employee engagement is waning. It is time, for companies to move out of crisis mode and get on with executing their strategic plans. To do that, they’ll contend with several challenges to employee engagement.

According to Dr. Lisa H. Nishii, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Human Resource Studies at Cornell’s School of Industrial Labor Relations, there are 3 key elements of employee engagement:

  • Psychological Safety: having the freedom and safety to engage
  • Psychological Meaning: having a reason to engage
  • Psychological Availability: having the capacity to engage

Each of these elements has been under assault this summer and requires employers to find new methods of improving engagement in the current climate.

Psychological Safety. Our employees’ psychological safety has been challenged in recent months – or even the last few years – as our country’s political polarization seems to have increased. This summer, we saw tensions increase dramatically in the wake of the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests. The fervent rhetoric and tense protests highlighted the need for major reforms in policing and created a renewed sense of urgency for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion efforts in our workplaces. The relentless news cycle really challenged the psychological safety of people of color, and it could be argued, white people too. For many, it was unsafe to voice an opinion. If you have seen employees more guarded in their conversations, this could be why. If you manage a diverse team, it’s a good time to check in with your employees of color one on one and ask them how they are doing and what you can do to help. Let your white employees know that feeling uncomfortable during this time is part of the learning process. Suggest resources to help improve their awareness of unconscious bias. The goal is to help your team members to feel like they can bring their entire selves to work without judgment or retaliation.

Psychological Meaning. Psychological meaning refers to an employee’s emotional connection to their work. When employees feel they are adding value – and especially for a good cause – they are more likely to be actively engaged. As many employers have moved to virtual models or have limited interactions in person, an employee’s feeling of connectedness to your mission may wain. For example, a hospital administrator may find meaning in seeing patients, but be denied that during COVID. Another might find meaning in providing great in-person customer service and miss those in-person interactions. As people have been more isolated during COVID, they may begin to lose that sense of purpose. Look for ways to remind employees about “the Why.”

Psychological Availability. Finally, and perhaps most critically, psychological availability has been under attack since March. We sometimes use the term “mental load” to describe all that a person has on their mind. In the midst of COVID employees have many new, unprecedented concerns taking up their mindshare – their health and that of their families, childcare, economic uncertainty, social justice issues, and on and on. We can’t underestimate the impact that these added stressors have on employees and their ability to engage freely in work. As a leader, it’s important to understand each person’s stressors and offer accommodations where you can. Sometimes, just being a willing and empathetic ear is all it takes.

Odds are you are seeing some – if not all – of these challenges with your team. Let us help you improve employee engagement and get back to realizing your company’s full potential.