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Why clear and open communication is the only way now

Business leaders in 2021 must shift their focus to having honest and clear conversations with employees about how the company they work for is faring during the pandemic, if they want to truly keep them engaged while working from home long term.

That’s the view of Mark Gregory and Alex Lewis, authors of new book The Engagement Habit, which outlines 12 clear habits to reinforce engagement and trust among workforces.

In these troubled times, the pair also believe leaders must now fundamentally change the way they work to ensure employees can balance professional life without making compromises at home. They should actively be encouraging staff to take care of their mental and physical health – realigning workplace cultures to ensure that this happens.

Mark and Alex suggest leaders who positively role model these behaviours to the hierarchies of their organisation will ensure they are emulated further down the chain, leading to productivity remaining high and positive engagement within the company increasing.

They believe that this will be crucial to post-pandemic success , especially after a torrid 12-month period in which most companies have been forced to change and adapt products, services and solutions, with pastoral care often overlooked in the rush to keep a business afloat.

Mark said: “Every business needs to have direct conversations with their employee, rather than only communicating to them. Just because they are not physically sitting in front of you anymore, doesn’t change how you must cultivate a relationship with them.

“Personally with my employees, I’ve doubled our efforts and now call them every day. I don’t call to talk to them about the business, I call them to check-in and ensure that they are OK or have had a break or a walk etc.

“We talk about ‘you knowing your people and your people knowing you’. I know about their specific family circumstances and that keeps them connected with the businesses because they see we genuinely care about them as individuals as well as employees.”

Adding it is now even more critical that leaders take into account how they care for those employees who will inevitably be made redundant, Mark – who was an engineer at Toyota in the UK and Japan before working in operations management roles for Ford across Europe – explained: “When we are out of this pandemic, and have gone through the inevitable job losses, the main way to ensure high engagement is for those still there to see how the people exiting have been genuinely cared for.

“The worst thing you can think as a leader is that the people still there will be completely engaged simply because they still have a job.

“Also some leaders think if they don’t tell employees anything about the company’s situation, shielding them from bad news about reduced sales or profits, that’s protecting them. But it’s not, it is just leaders protecting themselves from difficult conversations.”

In The Engagement Habit, Mark and Alex use their experience to offer advice and tips to three groups – The Business Leader/CEO, The Corporate Centre/HR Leader and The People Manager. They explain how breaking ingrained habits and creating positive new ones is the only way to turnaround or transform any company – suggesting this is easier than most believe. However, for it to be successful, every level of a hierarchy must be engaged by a defined strategy set from the top down.

Alex, a founder member of the UK Government Employee Engagement Taskforce, said: “We have spent a lot of our careers screaming on the inside. Mark and I have observed that posturing, planning and endless talk rarely leads people able to do their best work. Engagement is a fundamental necessity that drives transformation throughout your organisation.

“Especially at this current time of uncertainty due to Coronavirus, we desperately hope the world of work is not still full of people having to build business cases that will convince others of the need for engagement, or writing and publishing policies that they believe will, on their own, change behaviour”

And at a time when the fear of being out of work is becoming so pervasive for so many, Mark added clarity alongside leadership is critical. He explained: “Leaders must stop giving fantasy oxygen. In the absence of fact, people join the dots and create fantasy. If I have very little information, I may take various snippets and end up making something up – believing I am about to be made redundant or the business is downsizing. Our fantasies in work tend to be negative.

“So right now it is even more vital to make sure everyone has heard and understood what you are saying to them. Ask them what you said to ensure they understand it. That is how you generate high trust habits that fuel the engagement between you.”

Mark and Alex’s Five Top Tips for Continued Engagement During Lockdown and Beyond

1) Consistently role modelling behaviours transmits an unspoken message, which implies a standard of acceptable behaviour. Culture is created by consistent habits, and by practicing those habits with intensity and frequency so that they become the norm, with full commitment and belief. In this pandemic, demonstrating how you care for your people, and know their issues personally, will lead to all employees caring for each other.

2) The CEO is the Culture Catalyst. Fair or not, the CEO role has a disproportionate impact. It is the lightning rod for everything good, or more typically, everything bad that happens in the organisation. To begin changing the culture, CEOs must first accept responsibility for how it is created and become aware of the cues they are transmitting. It is the leader’s job to be clear about the generally non-negotiable destination, especially in such turbulent times, and to allow their teams to create the route to that destination.

3) Never underestimate the value of making time for your people. We all have an innate desire to be heard, so it’s a great idea to block-out engagement time. It makes you more productive as you’ll know exactly what’s happening in your organisation. This is especially important right now when employees are working from home and can feel isolated from the main business. But have two-way conversations with them, don’t simply communicate.

4) Connect with the different influencing groups in the company. The employees, their peers and their superiors. You may spend a lot of time talking to a line manager or a boss but forget to prioritise everyone lower down in the company. Also don’t tell people how to do things, encourage them to work out how to do it for themselves. If they build the solution, it will be theirs and they will protect it and adapt it because they are engaged in it.

5) Right now, everyone is trying their best. So if failing is discouraged, or punishable by losing your job, employees won’t venture to try new things because of the fear of the consequences – especially when so many roles may be at risk. Praise people for a valiant attempt, or for something they did not believe they could have done. Take time to show people how their work is contributing to the business – it shows the individual is cared for.

The Engagement Habit by Mark Gregory and Alex Lewis is available to purchase on Amazon now, priced £13.99 in paperback and £6.99 on kindle.

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