How Will COVID-19 Affect Employee Engagement?

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Quarantine is no longer just a sci-fi thriller staple. It’s now a full-blown reality as COVID-19 — a virus with no known cure and a startling transmission rate — continues to pervade the world.

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Strict Isolation Policies

In response, communities worldwide are enforcing strict isolation policies, with China and Italy being the first to enact major quarantines. Following suit, Spain banned citizens from leaving home unless they require food or supplies, and France has shuttered most of its shops and restaurants. In the U.S., major cities in Washington, California, and New York — where the coronavirus has run rampant — are taking serious lockdown measures. Now, the virus has forced officials to start considering the same in all 50 states.

Rightfully, small businesses and major corporations alike are heeding the call for social distancing, too, as they scramble to draft work from home policies that allow employees to be protected, yet productive.

More businesses are implementing remote work policies after realizing their moral obligation to keep employees safe and prevent the spread of the virus. So what implications does this shift have? It’s important to question whether humans are equipped to handle prolonged isolation and, further, how it affects the way we approach work.

Does working from home indefinitely influence a company’s collective headspace and its overall employee engagement in turn?

With Quarantine in Place, Engagement Might Wane

Before we can explore whether team engagement will suffer in light of this health crisis, we must examine what drives it in the first place. Our research and experience show that these are some of the main engagement drivers:

  • Employees can proudly identify with an organization and its broader purpose.
  • Employees feel valued.
  • Workers have opportunities to learn new skills.
  • Employees understand a company’s goals and how they contribute.
  • Employees have a strong sense of community.

When we examine these factors, it’s not hard to see how employee engagement could decrease the longer a company is fully remote. Factors such as learning new skills or understanding a company’s goals are at risk when a team can’t be around its leadership. But it’s the last bulleted item that stands to suffer the most as the world’s workers stay inside. That strong sense of community — which keeps a team happy, productive, and supported — could begin to unravel as COVID-19 forces the workforce into isolation.

Erosion Of The Sense Of Community

There are two factors at play here. The first is fairly obvious: Not being around co-workers in an office setting can naturally erode a sense of community over time. The second? It turns out that being isolated for too long can be hard on the psyche, triggering anything from anger to confusion to variations of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the unfortunate truth is that staying home is crucial to containing the pandemic’s spread. In fact, a recent NPR report highlights how working remotely will “flatten the curve,” which ultimately prevents health systems from being overwhelmed and unable to care for those in need. Social distancing, according to the widely shared “curve” graph, will greatly minimize this burden.

As more companies start working from couches instead of desks, it’s imperative that leaders keep a sense of community intact. Here are three good ways to start:

  1. Establish a dedicated source of truth for company updates. Although tech tools such as Slack and Zoom help maintain communication among remote teams, they can’t serve as the main hub for all company news. Depending on Slack messages and emails isn’t foolproof, and communication through these channels can get lost. An internal communications platform or modern intranet, on the other hand, acts as an organization’s internal “newsroom.” Such platforms promote equal access and transparency to all employees regarding all information. They can maintain frequent updates, address or quell rumors and fears, and act as a sounding board for company priorities and decisions.
  2. Continue promoting company culture, even in a remote world. If you reread our list of engagement drivers above, these are all career components employees still deserve — even from the comfort of their own homes. Consider how you’ll go about sharing company successes, congratulating employees, providing growth opportunities, or simply connecting them to other departments and locations. Again, a single source of truth (our internal newsroom, as it were) can go a long way here. Enable an intranet, and you’ll keep employees engaged.
  3. Beat the communication drum relentlessly. It’s likely that much of your now-remote workforce will feel like they’re alone on an island from time to time. Thus, constant communication is a must, and investing in an internal communications system makes sense. Once you’ve established one, set up an editorial calendar that helps maintain a steady flow of information and updates. And not all content living in your system has to highlight things such as crisis updates or company performance; you can sprinkle in some personal anecdotes — think how you’re spending your own time as a remote worker (i.e., how you’re staying sane). All of this shows your team that keeping them informed in a transparent way matters to you.

It’s hard to say how long our world will stay turned on its head, which means consistency is key as your team navigates this new work from home world. Community in such uncertain times is especially important — make sure your company still feels that way from their couches.

About the Author

Dhiraj Sharma is a serial entrepreneur and technology enthusiast who’s passionate about promoting purpose and meaning in the workplace. Dhiraj is the founder and CEO of Simpplr, a modern employee intranet software provider that helps companies engage their workforce by transforming employee communication.

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