6 Tips to Increase Employee Engagement in Times of Change

What’s keeping you up at night when it comes to your people and your culture?

If you’re like many HR leaders right now, you’re doubling down on efforts to keep engagement high, all while planning a safe return to work for employees who have experienced a year of unprecedented disruption. In a recent survey, Workhuman found 60% of U.S. workers feel there’s been a shift in culture since the start of the pandemic, including less human connection and lower morale.

“Burnout is running rampant,” says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor of business administration at Harvard University. “To emerge successful postpandemic with top talent intact requires more attention to the human side and reaffirmation of mission and values. Perhaps companies will adopt recognition-rich recommitment rituals (akin to renewal of wedding vows), instead of goodbye parties when it’s too late.” Indeed, catering to the human side of work is essential as the market braces for a battle for talent amid a two-year high in job openings.

Fortunately, there are proven ways to increase employee engagement and protect against costly turnover.

What is engagement?

“When we’re talking about engagement, we’re not just talking about satisfaction,” says Dr. Meisha-ann Martin, director of people analytics at Workhuman. “We’re talking about people personally connecting to their work and being enthusiastic and energetic around it. Engagement is the outcome of the different aspects of the overall employee experience.”

Increasing employee engagement through a more positive employee experience, as Dr. Martin suggests, reaps benefits when it comes to culture and hard business metrics.

Through decades of research, Gallup has found business units in the top quartile of employee engagement significantly outperform those in the bottom quartile. For example, they experience:

  • 81% lower absenteeism
  • 64% fewer safety incidents
  • 18% less turnover
  • 23% higher profitability

How do you increase engagement?

You only have so much time and energy to dedicate to engagement, so where is it best spent? Industrial-organisational psychologists and experts in HR consulting at Workhuman and IBM have done the heavy lifting for you. Think of these as guideposts on your road map to creating a more engaged, human workplace. They are outlined in more detail below, with helpful tips to get started in each area. Through an exhaustive study of more than 23,000 employees across 45 countries, the Employee Experience Index outlines six focus areas:

  1. Build organisational trust.
  2. Nourish co-worker relationships.
  3. Focus on the meaning behind the work.
  4. Build recognition and feedback into the workflow.
  5. Ensure employees’ voices are heard.
  6. Strive for work-life harmony.

ONE: Build organisational trust.

The Great Place to Work Institute considers trust the foundation of a great workplace. Employees increasingly expect to trust their organisations to be responsible and act with integrity in dealing with all manner of stakeholders, including employees themselves. According to the Employee Experience Index, when employees agree their organisation acts with integrity, 83% report a more positive employee experience.

MOMENTS OF CONNECTION Workhuman® Live speaker and author Tim Leberecht offers some specific advice for leaders to build trust with their teams: Get emotional. “The marriage researcher John M. Gottman has long contended that small moments of attachment and intimacy are vital to a healthy relationship,” writes Leberecht. “This is true in business, too. More than purpose or perks, employees value heartfelt moments of connection that meet their needs as social beings.”

Even though the pandemic has disrupted some traditional, inperson moments of connection in the workplace, you can leverage technology such as Workhuman Cloud® to build community around holidays, birthdays, life events, and more special occasions.

TWO: Nourish co-worker relationships.

A crisis can clarify essential truths that leaders might have lost in the fast-paced routine of business as usual. Foremost among these is the fact that every employee has some basic human needs which, when they are suddenly taken away, reveal their importance. Companies are built on relationship infrastructure. When that weakens, their culture starts to decay.

ENCOURAGING EMPLOYEE RESOURCE GROUPS Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of “Dying for a Paycheck,” agrees that social support is key to employee engagement. “Almost anything that brings people into contact in a pleasant and meaningful context – from holidays to community service to events that celebrate employee tenure or shared successes such as product launches – helps build a sense of common identity and strengthens social bonds,” he writes.

Until in-person events resume, focus on providing resources for and encouraging participation in employee resource groups (ERGs). Workhuman, for example, has several thriving ERGs that meet regularly, including Parents at Workhuman, DE&I at Workhuman and Live Green at Workhuman.

THREE: Focus on the meaning behind the work.

Meaning is different from purpose. Purpose is shared; meaning is personal. Employees can share the same purpose but feel differently about their roles. For example, a hospital’s purpose could be stated as, “To provide compassionate care to our community.” An emergency room nurse there might find his greatest sense of meaning by making quick decisions in acutely stressful situations. A patient advocate might find her greatest meaning in helping a family afford care. A recruiter’s great pride could be finding community-oriented employees.


In a SHRM Foundation report, author and professor Christine Porath suggests providing all employees the opportunity to meet end users. She writes, “Leaders at Medtronic, a medical device company, provide meaning to employees who have no day-today contact with customers by inviting customers to annual meetings to provide testimonies about how a device saved or improved the patient’s life.”

A Social Recognition programme linked to company values or strategic initiatives can also provide frequent reminders of how day-to-day work is directly connected to company goals.

FOUR: Build recognition and feedback into the workflow.

“You need to make appreciation and recognition a part of how you do things,” writes Jason Lauritsen, an employee engagement consultant. “The other key is to teach people how to show appreciation … The more people see and experience genuine appreciation, the more likely they are to pay it forward.” Making appreciation and recognition part of the everyday workflow requires a change in mindset. Managers and leaders should not wait until an annual review to provide praise and feedback. This should happen in the moment, as work happens.


Peer-to-peer recognition is an essential driver of employee engagement. Merck partnered with Workhuman to launch its first global peer-to-peer programme, called INSPIRE. Excitement around INSPIRE led to a 12-point increase on the recognition question in Merck’s employee engagement survey.

“Workhuman’s platform allowed us to improve every aspect of the recognition process, making it easier for employees to both give points and recognize each other, as well as redeem for gift cards and merchandise in every country,” explains Michaela Leo, director of compensation at Merck.

FIVE: Ensure employees’ voices are heard.

What does it mean to empower your people? As Mary Faulkner, principal at IA, writes, it means “to give power or authority to” and “to enable or permit.” Many organisations claim to empower employees, yet their actions say something completely different. “The issue isn’t that organisations aren’t SAYING the right things. The issue is that organisations aren’t DOING the right things,” she writes. “Employees who are told they are empowered to innovate are shot down when they bring their ideas to their leadership. Leaders who are told they are empowered to reward their employees are told they need to be more aware of ‘what it looks like’ when a team goes out to lunch on a Friday.”

Data from the Employee Experience Index confirms just how important true empowerment is for engagement. When employees feel their ideas and suggestions matter, they’re more than 2x as likely to report a positive employee experience (83% vs. 34%).


Mary offers four simple steps to make sure employees are empowered.

  • Give up some control to the people who actually do the work.
  • Define the boundaries of what is and is not OK.
  • Create a feedback loop. Moodtracker is a free survey tool you can use – but make sure you communicate to employees how you are acting on survey results.
  • Reward the right behaviors. For example, one of LinkedIn’s company values is “Take Intelligent Risks.” Through its recognition programme with Workhuman, employees are recognized for behaviors that demonstrate this value every day.

SIX: Strive for work-life harmony. It’s no secret that this pandemic has thrown many of us off balance when it comes to managing work, family responsibilities, and our own well-being. And that can put a serious strain on engagement. In Workhuman’s “One Year Into COVID” report, 25% of employees said the most difficult adjustment they’ve had to make since the pandemic started is finding work-life balance. Even as your organisation begins to finalize a back-to-work plan, keep your humans at the center of the discussion. How can you create a path forward that meets them where they’re at and takes into account their physical and emotional well-being?

REALISTIC GOAL SETTING According to Gallup, many organisations have answered the call for work-life harmony with “flexible work arrangements, alternative work schedules, and remote work options.” But what about industries, such as healthcare and manufacturing, where that kind of flexibility simply isn’t possible? Take a look at goal setting.

Gallup found workers who strongly agree they have realistic performance goals are 2.4x more likely to strongly agree they have a healthy work-life balance. Qlik is one company that’s doing this right. They implemented a continuous performance management solution that allows employees to initiate checkins, priorities, and crowdsourced feedback throughout the year.


In reviewing each of these six tips for increasing engagement in times of change, you’ll notice none of these require a massive investment in new benefits and perks. Thriving in the future of work requires a simple, yet essential mindset shift. “This is not just a different way of thinking and acting,” reads Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends. “It’s a different way of being, one that approaches every question, every issue, and every decision from a human angle first. And it’s not just a good idea, but a mandate for growth.” By focusing on building a human workplace, you’ll take care of engagement and protect your organisation from costly turnover at a time when disruption is inevitable.

To learn how recognition can drive retention and engagement at your company, get in touch.

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