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COVID-19 Could Redefine Employee Engagement

The global COVID-19 pandemic is affecting us daily from all angles — health, economics, logistics, politics, education, relationships and more. For people working in all industries and sectors, this crisis is creating a huge amount of fear and anxiety.


In many ways, it illustrates just how vulnerable we are as human beings and is causing us to question many assumptions we had about what is normal in the workplace. For leaders, this necessitates a closer look at the values and underlying purpose of their organizations, and a re-examination of the way they are making decisions. 

We are now facing the opportunity to create a new normal. When the Black Death pushed across Medieval Europe in the years 1346-1353, it killed 50 million people, or 60% of Europe’s entire population. The resultant skills shortage broke the feudal system, freeing the majority from near slavery and creating the condition for salaried workers. In a way, the plague caused the first big breakthrough in worker engagement.

What will the COVID-19 crisis mean for the relationship between our workplaces, corporations and wider society? Will a new version of employee expectations emerge, and if so, what will it look like? For many of us, we have spent more time with our families during this crisis than at any time in our working careers. Our home has truly become our workplace and the lack of boundaries has been difficult to adjust to. We have glimpsed into each other’s homes, met one another’s children and pets, and captured a voyeuristic view into the lives of our co-workers through new types of connections and technology, now at the center of our daily lives. In the process of this adjustment, the workplace has truly become the heart of our community. How we feel about our community and the role of the work within it has changed forever in our lives.

The concept of organizational satisfaction emerged in the post-World War II period, another period of crisis. The workplace saw the emergence of motivation theories and organizations invested in the idea that having a happier worker was important. This was greatly influenced by the post-war push for a better society, including the workplace.  

Over subsequent decades, this concept evolved, and we began to talk about the need for employee engagement: that employees should feel part of a work culture, all geared toward the same mission. At the same time, corporate social responsibility departments helped to define purpose and the relationship with wider society and governments, based on the notion that the world of the individual, the society, the planet and the workplace are all intertwined.

Given the current backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis, we have the opportunity to expand and evolve the concept of employee engagement and perhaps redefine what we mean by organizational and community citizenship. Right now, this means that corporations and employees are acting with a degree of altruism by putting humanity and a sense of “doing the right thing” for humans first — before pure profit.

As the “shelter in place” order continues around the globe, some people have described a sense of relief and guilt that they were able to work remotely, while many have not had that luxury. Some have been deemed essential workers and some had no work to go to at all. Spurred by a common crisis, we’ve developed compassion for one another as co-workers, across industries and work types. This crisis has sparked empathy, which is so essential to a well-functioning organization, community and society.  

Empathy and the citizenship that it creates is more powerful than engagement. This type of citizenship is grounded in the sense that we all have shared worth and a sense of duty to each other. The relationship between the workplace, government policy and our roles as citizens has never been pronounced in our lives. As we move forward as a society, in a period of a new normal, all of us are going to face new challenges together, and we will need to rise to them in a new way. 

In the book, Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power & Relationships (Bloomsbury 2020), which I co-authored, we make the case that we need to take a careful look at the social and environmental context of the world today and focus on developing new business models based on sharing, empathy, reciprocity and cooperation. This will necessitate reinventing engagement, from a foundation of citizenship within a more purpose-driven setting. In the post-COVID-19 world, old rules will need to be re-written.

All sections of society currently feel that we are part of something bigger, as we adopt a war-type mentality. For some companies, this represents an opportunity to press reset and think about how they might build an organizational model to align their purpose to the relationship with their workforce. The way that each company chooses to handle this crisis may define the relationship it has with its employees going forward. 

      In Share, we offer a four-step process for organizations to align and be congruent with empathy, values and purpose:

  1. Discover what is important from each individual to align on purpose.
  2. Define what this means in the context of strategy and how the organization competes.
  3. Develop a plan to align the purpose-based values and empathy at the core of how everything is done.
  4. Deploy “how we do things around here,” through the actions of every employee, every day.

Core to the thinking of the new engagement is a contract of citizenship, based on empathy for the employee and wider society. This in turn will prepare individuals, organizations and wider society to truly tackle the enormous issues we face. The goal of every corporation needs to be building a successful, purpose-driven organization that makes ethical decisions for the well-being of the larger community.  

Recently, we’ve seen an emergent theme in how some organizations lead the charge and take action, in the absence of regulation or law. In many cases, corporations have prioritized purpose and values over profit. We’ve seen instances of companies making the decision to continue paying hourly workers, suspending bank charges, offering alternate mortgage payment arrangements, and more. With respect to making the big decisions about allowing employees to work remotely, health-care benefits and other forms of economic relief, corporations have stepped up to be part of the bigger relief system. The decisions made by these CEOs and organizations have placed empathy at their core, sometimes at the expense of short-term profit. 

In the weeks and months ahead, every organization will have to make difficult decisions. If they choose to act with empathy for the long term and not only at a time of crisis, this may increase the sense of citizenship of their employees going forward, and create a better world for all of us.

About the Author

Chris Yates Bio Image

Chris Yates is the general manager of learning and development at Microsoft and is the co-author of Share:  How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power and Relationships (Bloomsbury, 2020).

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