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Employee engagement tips learned from the pandemic

  • Communications
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  • Jan 13, 2022
Employee engagement tips learned from the pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has not only changed how people work, but also what they expect from the workplace. A shift in employee mindset has been attributed to the phenomenon dubbed “The Great Resignation,” where workers are quitting their jobs at high rates. As firms look for new ways to attract and retain employees, we turned to Ivey’s Organizational Behaviour faculty for advice on boosting employee engagement.

Elena Antonacopoulou’s tip:

Elena Antonacopoulou

Remember that work is meaningful when there is purposefulness

Elena Antonacopoulou is a professor of Organizational Behaviour and Strategy

To maintain engagement, Antonacopoulou says leaders should be the catalysts for demonstrating and reminding employees of the cause they serve. It is about restoring and reinventing the meaningfulness in what they do, how they do what they do, and why what they do matters when serving the common good. This can be achieved by articulating to themselves and others the underlying sentiments driving their contributions. By shifting the focus beyond the reasoning (mindset) behind purpose and bringing forth the sentience in their cause, we can reconnect to the essence (meaning) that guides action choices. Antonacopoulou says that using art-based images as metaphors can be particularly useful in expressing sentience. This shifts the focus from job satisfaction to work fulfilment. And such fulfilment energizes their dedication, gratitude, and engagement.

 “This approach is helpful because it taps beyond competence, activating strength of character, itself mobilized by heightened conscience. It not only expands ways of seeing any given situation, but ignites curiosity to search for meaning,” she said.

Lynn Imai’s tip:

Lynn Imai

Help your employees create a personalized career development plan

Lynn Imai is an assistant professor of Organizational Behaviour


Imai, who is a career counsellor, suggests leaders play a career counsellor role. This involves having meaningful and honest conversations with employees about their careers. Instead of empty promotions or ritualistic performance reviews, Imai says leaders should get to know their employees deeply – their past, present, and future. Ask them about their childhood. Where have they been so far? What are their interests? What induces flow for them? How are they motivated and what do they consider to be accomplishments? What are their hopes and dreams? What is their long-term career vision? Such questions will help leaders to create personalized career development plans that will keep employees motivated.

“If employees believe that the best way to maximize their career is to not just stay, but to work hard and smart, then that is what they will do,” she said. “Develop the employee’s role and give resources (e.g., access to networks, information interviews, conferences, workshops) so that it moves the employee towards the long-term career vision.”

Alison Konrad’s tip:

Alison KonradPut employees’ needs first

Alison Konrad is a professor of Organizational Behaviour

Konrad says employee engagement comes from a combination of need fulfillment (i.e., need for subsistence, growth/development, and belonging) at work, minus the burden of nuisance stressors. This includes paying a decent wage and providing sufficient benefits so that employees won’t be distracted by financial worries.

“Provide employees with opportunities to grow and develop with challenging assignments, training, horizontal job changes, and – when feasible – promotions,” she said. “Don’t pile on ‘nuisance stressors,’ such as demands that everyone return to the office five days a week – people really value the reductions in commuting and interruptions that come with flexibility in the time and place of work.”

Karen MacMillan’s tip:

Karen MacMillanConnect with your employees

Karen MacMillan, PhD ’13, is a Lecturer in Organizational Behaviour

While socially isolating is a great practice for a pandemic, MacMillan says it may make employees feel less connected to the workplace. To help forge strong connections, MacMillan suggests leaders ask their employees questions. For example, at the start of every meeting, take a few minutes to go around the table and get an update from each person. How are they feeling? Any concerns? What are they planning for lunch? The questions do not need to delve deep – the idea is to acknowledge the person behind the job before you get into the work. 

“Employees need to know you value them as people, rather than just as producers,” she said. “Socializing in moderation is not wasted time – humans have strong social needs.  Employees with robust social connections will often produce better work and they are less likely to leave an organization.”

Martha Maznevski’s tip:

Martha MaznevskiFocus on the purpose and trusting compassion

Martha Maznevski, PhD ’94, is professor of Organizational Behaviour and Faculty Director for Executive Education

As continued uncertainty weighs heavily on us all, and individuals’ work-life demands are complex and high, keeping employees engaged is particularly challenging. Maznevski says leaders can help by continuously focusing on two aspects: purpose, and trusting compassion. Trusting compassion is a humane recognition that your employees want to do a good job and are inherently capable of that. Given the current uncertain environment, Maznevski says employees may need flexibility with respect to both how and when the work gets done, and support for enabling them. Without compromising the overall purpose, she says leaders can work creatively with employees one-on-one and collectively to act on compassion. It starts by asking with sincerity: How are you doing, and what can I do to help?

“It is easy to get lost in the weeds right now, when to-do lists are endless and demands are constant. Reminding oneself and others about the purpose of what we’re doing – who is affected by what we’re doing and why does this matter? – helps the leader and employees keep focused and stay inspired,” she said. “And a reminder to leaders: if part of the work is not directly related to the purpose, maybe it can go way down on the priority list.”

Lucas Monzani’s tip:

Lucas MonzaniCreate affective commitment

Lucas Monzani is an assistant professor of Organizational Behaviour

Literally, hundreds of studies have shown that having happy and committed employees is key to reducing turnover. But there are different types of commitment (affective, normative, and continuance commitment). Affective commitment develops when employees feel their personal values and priorities align with the company’s mission. However, sometimes people feel a moral obligation to stay with an organization to pay back investments in developing their potential (normative commitment). Other times they don’t quit their jobs only because they don’t have a valid alternative, or because the consequences of doing so would be too costly (continuance commitment).

Monzani quotes extant research showing that the ideal type of commitment profile is a combination of high levels of affective and normative commitment with low levels of continuance commitment. This configuration is what researchers identified as a “moral imperative” commitment profile. When people have a strong affective and normative commitment towards their organization, they stay in their jobs because they want to stay, either because they identify with the organization or share its values and mission.

Monzani says the great resignation might have happened because some organizations failed to promote a sense of affective commitment in their employees. And since many people were laid off during the pandemic, they may have had time to reflect on what they wanted in life. As a result, he said the tables have turned: organizations need workers, but people aren’t willing to go back to suboptimal working conditions.

Organizations need to foster a strong sense of belonging and attention to employee well-being to reverse this trend. The research from Ivey’s Leadership Institute showed that managers with a strong leader character simultaneously elicit affective and normative commitment in their employees. Therefore, in addition to improving the quality of working conditions, organizations should also focus on improving the quality of their middle managers’ character.

Shannon Rawski’s tip:

Shannon RawskiEncourage your employees to form emotional bonds with each other

Shannon Rawski is an assistant professor of Organizational Behaviour

Rawski says research suggests that employees who are on the fringes of social networks within a company are more likely to turnover, so finding ways for your employees to connect is critical. This can be achieved through mentoring programs, employee interest/support groups, or social events. In our post-COVID-19 world, Rawski says even virtual coffee meetings could do the trick. She suggests managers and HR professionals give an extra nudge of encouragement to introverted employees or employees who are structurally isolated within the organization (e.g., those who work alone).

“The messaging around events should emphasize employees' shared identity as members of the organization, so that they go into the events feeling like they and everyone else already belongs,” she said. “Once strong social bonds are formed among employees, organizations can reap the benefits of affective commitment, a desire to stay at the organization because of the positive feelings and relationships cultivated through work.”