Winter 2021
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CTDO Magazine

It's Not Business as Usual

Friday, January 15, 2021

In the midst of disruption, employees need career development.

Employee engagement is an elusive goal during the best of times. But business as unusual—actually, life as unusual—is what most of 2020 was about. So, does engagement even matter now? Is it possible?


Yes. Your organization depends on its workforce to deliver the needed business results—always. You wouldn’t expect a delivery person to accomplish their task without a well-thought-out route, a functioning GPS, and a full tank of gas, so your company can’t expect to get where it wants to go as an organization if most of its employees don’t know where to focus and are running on empty.

The challenge is real

Engagement is a personal relationship. The way your organization and individual employees define success shapes that relationship.

And it is one of the reasons engagement is difficult to address with broad-brush organizational approaches. Many of the factors that affect someone’s engagement—that is, how people feel about their daily work and their manager; how their job fits in with the rest of their life; how their goals align with the organization’s, if they know what they want from work—are out of senior leaders’ and talent management professionals’ direct control (and sight).

To make things even more challenging, 2020’s external forces acted as the great unequalizer. That’s evident at the industry level, with some sectors decimated and others flourishing. Within the same industry, some organizations have survived and others have closed up shop. And differences in personal situations have been magnified, depending on a person’s role, location, family situation, and personal well-being.

Consider three team members doing the same work: One has always worked from home but now has to keep an eye on 8-year-old twins as they do distance learning. Another is new to working from home, seated at the kitchen table while her recently laid-off spouse is conducting a job search from the couch. The third is back from furlough wondering whether he can trust the company again and dodging barbs from weary colleagues who say they would have liked a six-week break. 

So, what can you and your organization do to increase workforce engagement when employee experiences differ so much?

Ramp up your listening strategy

Many of your employees aren’t OK. But they may not be telling you that. As organizations continue to restructure, people may be reluctant to speak up.

Like ducks paddling frantically beneath the surface as they glide across the lake, your employees may be putting on appearances, faking it until they make it. But they can’t make it on their own.

Gather information on employee challenges and needs so that you can take meaningful action to increase engagement. At an organizational level, use your findings to reshape policies, communications, resource allocation, training strategies, and talent management processes. At the team or functional level, encourage the appropriate leaders to take targeted action. Here are two strategies for collecting that information.

Conduct a survey. An organization-wide survey with demographic cuts is the most efficient approach. It offers reach and representation, enabling you to note enterprise trends and the “local stories” of specific workforce demographics, regions, functions, and locations.

If your organization conducts annual engagement surveys to use as a scorecard for organizational performance, you may be thinking this is not a good time because scores will be down or that you don’t have the resources for the initiative.

Don’t worry. Instead of your business-as-usual survey approach, try these options:

  • Give it a different name, such as a pulse survey or check-in survey.
  • Manage expectations on how this survey differs from what you generally do—such as, “No, a lower engagement index will not affect your compensation.”
  • Ask fewer questions, which makes it easier for employees to participate and for you to analyze. Whittle your questions down to what is most important now.
  • Explore work priorities (Do people know where they should be focusing?); resources (Do people have what they need to achieve high performance?); work environment (What is working and what is not?); communications (Are leaders succeeding in their business-as-unusual communications?); connections (What do people, especially those new to remote work, need to be aligned with the organization and feel connected to one another?); confidence (How are people feeling about specific policies, such as return-to-work plans or diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies); and recent business decisions.
  • Adjust your action planning approach. Don’t spend more time on analysis than on action. Identify steps you can take across the organization—such as programs, policies, communications—and encourage managers to use the findings as a jumping-off point to discuss immediate actions that they and their teams can take.

Lead focus groups. If you can’t get buy-in for a survey, use focus groups (virtual or socially distant and in person) to gather examples of what is working well and what is not in your workplace. Because engagement levels and drivers often vary by location, function, or role, avoid the temptation to pull together too broad a cross-section of participants at once. Keep in mind these additional best practices:

  • Limit the group size to eight to 12 people.
  • Schedule 60–90 minutes.
  • Shape sessions according to a useful demographic, such as tenure, generation band, or career track. That enables deep exploration of trends in a population that has something in common and facilitates comparisons—for example, are there differences in older and younger employees’ perceptions, or how do individual contributors feel versus managers? The information you are trying to gather will determine whether the responses are useful.
  • Prepare lead and follow-up questions for three to four topics, but also allow some flexibility for participants to stray off topic. That captures the insights you want on specific themes and will also uncover additional themes that may arise organically.
  • Use a web conference or virtual collaboration platform where participants can speak, chat, and annotate on slides or whiteboards. And be sure you can save and file all forms of communication.

Remember: You can’t fix what you don’t measure. Your listening strategy is about gathering insights to shape meaningful actions to help your workforce achieve a renewed sense of purpose and commitment.

Lean into career development

Skeptics may question engagement efforts: “We laid off people and we are barely keeping ahead of furloughs.” “People should be grateful they have a job.” “Who has time to think about career development now?”

The answer to the latter: Your employees have time.

Individuals are reflecting—a lot. Faced with financial stresses, upside-down workplaces, sheltering in place, health risks, anxiety, and social unrest, people are noodling life’s big questions. And they’re doing so without you.

Employers are better off, though, if they ponder with you. As they think about how their job works for them, some have started to exit the workforce—women, in particular, according to a McKinsey and LeanIn.Org study.

Others are reevaluating what is most important in their lives and may be looking for a better fit. And because top talent is mobile in any economy, your company’s engagement challenge may soon become a retention challenge.

Additionally, focusing on career development demonstrates the company’s commitment to employees’ interests and needs, not just the businessFurther, research consistently correlates a belief in career opportunities with higher engagement levels.

Career development sets up targeted personal growth. That is important, because if your business is transforming, your workforce must as well.

And perhaps most important: Engagement is a shared responsibility. Leaders cannot make anyone engaged. They can only create a workplace that fuels engagement and align employee and organizational interests. If people don’t know what’s important to them, leaders can’t help them find it.

Action steps

Help employees engage in career development during these uncertain times by following this guidance.

Redefine career. Step in to shape your employees’ narrative with your own messaging. What is the organization’s career philosophy? Who is responsible for what?

Consider this healthcare organization’s message:

  • Give value to the organization by acquiring the skills you need to grow and deliver results.
  • Get the experience you need to be successful in your role. Engage with your manager, benefit from stretch assignments.
  • Grow your career. Investing in skills development and personal experience can lead to career growth.

Publish stories. Promote stories that highlight different types of career journeys—for example, leaders who got where they are via unexpected paths, colleagues who have moved from one part of the business to another, people who have taken what looked like a step back to move forward.

Encourage clarity. Help individuals clarify their values, interests, skills, and goals.

Provide tools and resources. Equip workers with the tools they need to connect what they want with what you need.

Remember: Careers don’t start tomorrow. They are happening now. When a company supports career development, it provides its employees with the insights they need to take control of their engagement today.

Establish accountability

If your organization is like many, it encourages continuous coaching and quarterly check-ins between managers and team members. Similarly, like the majority of companies, your managers and employees likely aren’t talking nearly enough.

GP Strategies’ Business as Unusual: Rewriting the Rules of Leadership report found that employees are craving direction, support, and connection from their managers. Engagement conversations can provide those.

Similar to stay interviews, engagement conversations offer an opportunity for managers to hear what individual employees think about the work they enjoy doing; tasks they don’t like; talents that are underutilized or new ways to add value; resources they need; where they’d like to grow or need to grow; and how they could work together more effectively, especially if their environment has been turned upside down.

These conversations are also a chance for managers to share what the organization needs right now, which is not necessarily what was needed last month or when 2020 goals were established. Managers can also relay new opportunities to make a difference and information on how the workplace is changing.

If encouraging more formal one-on-ones feels too heavy a lift for your stressed-out, stretched-thin managers, encourage them to choose just one of the factors above to explore informally with their team members each week.

Remember: Not everything is important or possible. The more managers and employees talk, the more likely they can determine together how to make progress toward the organization’s goals and their individual goals.

Bottom line

Find out what’s going on across your organization. Use the insights to identify how you can help. Give individuals the framework and tools they need to take control of their engagement and career with you. And keep the conversations going.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Mary Ann is responsible for leveraging 40-plus years of expertise and ongoing research to help clients cultivate motivated employees who focus their unique talents on what matters most to the business. She works with senior executives and managers to turn survey insights into tangible actions and develops tools for employees, leaders at all levels, and HR professionals to address employee engagement, career development, and performance management.

She is co-author of The Engagement Equation: Leadership Strategies for an Inspired Workforce (Wiley, 2012). Her research reports include Employee Engagement: A Practical Approach for Individuals, Managers and Executives, Coaching Conundrum, Innovate on the Run: The Competing Demands of Modern Leadership, and State of the Career. She has consulted with clients large and small across a wide range of industries and countries.

Mary Ann is an engaging speaker, blending humor, research findings, and pragmatic insights. She has presented on values-driven cultures, employee engagement, career development, coaching, and performance management at annual conferences held by SHRM and ISPI, regional HR association events, and webinars offered by HCI,, and HR Executive. Her articles have appeared in Leadership Excellence, WorkSpan, Journal of Organizational Excellence, and Voice of HR. Her expertise has been featured in media like TalentTalk Radio, HR Executive, HR News, The Cranky Middle Manager, and NEHRA’s Ask the Expert.

Mary Ann joined BlessingWhite in 2000 to establish senior executive consulting and leadership development processes, went on to lead a successful revision of the firm’s flagship solution Managing Professional Growth (MPG), and most recently created learning and support tools for employee engagement. She has worked in a variety of roles in the HR training and consulting industry, including stints at DBM and Learning International/AchieveGlobal. She received a B.A. from Wesleyan University.

Her commitment to meaningful lives and meaningful work extends beyond her day job. She is a founding member of the nOURish Bridgeport, volunteering for a hunger outreach program that serves nearly 10,000 meals a year. She was a long-term board member for WISE Services, a nonprofit that helps high schools establish experiential senior-year learning projects. She lives in Fairfield, CT.

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