Pandemic Poses Path to Boost Employee Engagement

The coronavirus crisis has temporarily boosted employee engagement, giving companies and managers a chance to implement changes that could make those increases permanent.

Employee engagement has increased since the start of the pandemic, according to the analytics and advisory firm Gallup, even as negative emotions also have risen. One potential reason could be stronger and more-empathetic connections between managers and employees. Companies have an opportunity to continue making changes that could result in long-term employee engagement increases, such as shifting managers from bosses to coaches.

Stay-at-home orders caused many banks to move to remote work environments for their employees, which altered the way managers relate with and oversee their reports, says Andrew Robertson, a managing consultant in retail banking and financial services at Gallup. Those shifts occurred as the firm began to see lower reported levels of well-being and higher levels of emotions like stress and anxiety in its surveys.

Work has really shifted, so the dynamic of … command-and-control literally can’t work right now,” Robertson says. “A boss would be over-the-shoulder task managing or micromanaging. Employees are acutely aware that is no longer applicable.”

The firm has also seen an increase in the percentage of employees who wish to continue working from home in some capacity, as well as an openness from managers and executives to allow that. But adding a work-from-home arrangement can complicate management once employees go off-site. In response, some managers seem to be electing a more empathetic, personal and coach-like approach when it comes to connecting and managing remote workers.

Managers are key to a team’s success, especially in moments of pressure and crisis. Their ability to connect and lead their reports has huge implications for banks seeking top performance. But they can also be a major liability when it comes to preserving, enriching and engaging a bank’s workforce.

Gallup’s research indicates that 70% of a team’s engagement can be attributed to their manager. Bad managers are costly: The firm found that one out of every two people leave a job as a direct response to a manager.

“If you want to boil employee engagement down, it’s essentially the manager,” says Paul Berg, financial services thought leader at Gallup. “Most people are having a mediocre-to-poor experience with their manager.”

But Gallup has found that employee engagement has moved higher during the pandemic, from 34% to 38% — its highest level since it began tracking in 2000. That’s a critical opportunity for banks. Higher employee engagement can translate into higher customer advocacy, productivity and profitability, and lower turnover, absenteeism, safety and theft.

Some of the reasons behind the move include that companies quickly rolled out definitive and detailed plans that kept employees informed of how their jobs would need to change. Managers were empowered to support employees as they moved to remote work, and employees may be especially grateful to have a job right now.

But another reason may be that employees and their managers may be having more meaningful and more frequent conversations — a dynamic that can drive engagement. Managers are figuring out ways to keep their teams connected to their work and to each other, acknowledging their colleagues’ stress and trying to keep morale high.

This creates a natural opening for banks to continue cultivating this increased engagement by training managers to become coaches and not bosses. But not just any type of coach.

Berg says companies that adopt a coaching mentality for managers tend to focus on specific objectives, which winds up being “completely ineffective.” The secret to good coaching is focusing on an employee’s strengths. Just as the best coaches help their players identify and leverage their strengths as part of a team, the best managers “focus on what’s right with a person,” Berg says.

Shifting to a coach mindset may come more naturally for some managers right now, given that remote work has changed the types of conversations they have with employees. Robertson says effective managers during the pandemic are the ones who get to know their employees and their situations in order to help them accomplish what they need to, and can have more-meaningful conversation about their work as a result. He believes the role of managers as a glue connecting workers to their banks has become more, not less, important during the pandemic.

“There have been moments [during the pandemic] where we’ve really understood that these human connections are important at work, and that we’re actually able to accomplish so much together when we make those thoughtful human connections,” he says.