Employees will be coming back to the office soon — are you ready for the reunion?
With COVID-19 vaccinations underway, the “return” to the office is making headlines across industries and global news outlets. But while we’re obsessed over when we can push the reset button and return to our previously scheduled lives, we’re actually not “returning” to anything, from work to shopping and leisure.
Life under lockdown has fundamentally changed our routines — from what we consume, to how we work, and even what we search for online. Since it takes the human brain from 2-8 months to learn new behaviors, we are now physically and emotionally different people, and we need different things in our work lives.
Just as our daily routines have changed in response to the pandemic, the new drivers of workplace success will also change. According to CBRE, employee engagement will be a new key performance metric, but the nature of what engagement means has changed from the highly curated, selfie-worthy experiences of the recent past. Workers are looking for meaningful community building driven by shared purpose. They are asking their employers to care about equity, health, and climate. They don’t just want their employers to engage them, but to engage in what matters to them.
In a post-COVID era, employee engagement will be the new measure of a brand’s success.
Building engagement strengthens community, and that’s especially valuable right now, when people are seeking connection. According to LinkedIn, the growing percentage of organizations who prioritize engagement see their cost per hire decrease by almost half and their turnover rate by 1/3. A sense of community has psychological benefits, too. In a hybrid work future — where there’s a blend of analog and virtual participation — employers who pay extra attention to connecting teams emotionally will help geographically dispersed workers build resilience and manage job stress.
Doing nothing isn’t an option. The negative effects of disengagement show up in your culture, your external reputation, and your bottom line. Gallup cites disengagement as the “fixable problem that costs U.S. businesses one TRILLION dollars a year.” Companies who ignore or choose to defer the problem to the future lose an average of $7.5 million a year through attrition (for a midsize company with 1,000 employees, including hiring and replacement costs).
Improving employee engagement is paramount to attracting and retaining today’s workers, as well as to optimizing your investment in people and place. However, not all engagement efforts are equally successful. Employee experience, like customer experience, can only succeed when all business functions align in a single outreach strategy.
A strong brand can be a unifying platform that aligns internal and external messages across typically siloed business functions such as real estate, HR, and marketing, bringing together employees’ beliefs and purpose with organizational goals and strategy. Companies whose internal truths resonate with external messaging earn their employees’ advocacy, which is three times more trusted than the CEO in the marketplace when it comes to making purchasing or hiring decisions, according to Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer.
As organizations prepare to reunite with employees in the workplace, they have an opportunity to realign their brands with purpose, and engage employees on the issues that matter most to them. Here are three things every company should do right now:
Stop asking employees to tell you what you want to hear, and find out what they REALLY think.
Many employee workshops are structured to reiterate what the employer wants to hear. And that leads to cynicism about the potential for real change within the company. In our work with a global software company, we conducted employee-led “culture clubs,” using scenario-based exercises to surface employees’ emotional perceptions of their culture, exploring questions like what will make them want to be back in the office, what they are most proud of, and what they tell their friends. Giving employees more avenues for agency and ownership in their contributions can help identify disconnects between desired and actual behaviors, while revealing insights about what employees share in common, from work and life demands to personality types.
Give your values an assist with a unified and powerful brand narrative.
When unexpected change occurs, conventional wisdom says that your values will help you navigate uncertainty while keeping your staff motivated and inspired. But even the most thoughtfully crafted values can’t do it alone — and this is where your brand comes in.
A brand is essentially a powerful story, one that connects to our sense of identity, self-expression, and aspirations. There’s a psychological reason that stories work. They connect people emotionally, triggering the human mind to bypass the need to question and validate, shortcutting directly to belief and trust.
A relevant and unified brand narrative helps leadership communicate a stabilizing vision for the future and serves as a roadmap for an employee-driven work experience. Your company’s internal narrative (the stories that illustrate why you do what you do) can be shared through a culture playbook that informs the organization’s goals and strategies. A culture playbook points to actions that employees — and business units — can own to bring your stories to life.
Let employees build a meaningful experience together.
Think about the experiences your employees share: the symbols, artifacts, and rituals that are vital to maintaining your culture. Have they been translated into a remote experience? Can everyone, in every location, access their potency equally? Are they accessible and inclusive? Rituals can help build relationships, celebrate successes, and create opportunities for collective joy, all of which transform employees into brand advocates.
For a global social networking service, we helped translate the cultural experience for sharing remotely. We designed a hybrid work brand toolkit, which provides both tangible and virtual links to the company’s culture. The toolkit creates new shared behaviors and unifies the experience so that the organization doesn’t unintentionally create an inequitable hybrid work experience with cultural haves (in-person) and have nots (remote). Employees are given a range of choices to customize their individual and team experiences, which leads to a high rate of adoption and enthusiasm.
Now, can we stop talking about the “return” to everything?
Let’s acknowledge that we’ve been on a journey that has changed us all and altered our individual stories in ways both large and small. The culmination of that journey will be a new kind of people-focused work culture — with new behaviors, rituals, and a stronger sense of collective identity. Employee engagement will become the new measure of a brand’s success.
Editor’s note: this article originally appeared on gensler.com