Employee engagement metrics have been fairly steady since 2000 but with major changes brought about during 2020, they've taken a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, according to Gallup.
Employee engagement hit a high of 38 percent in May and a low of 31 percent in June, Gallup reported.
Last week's Talent Experience Live episode featured IRS Engagement Officer Andy Reitmeyer and revealed his insights for maintaining high levels of employee engagement, even in challenging times.
Reitmeyer manages a team of 20 employees who he says is responsible for keeping about 80,000 IRS employees happily engaged, “feeling the love and drinking the Kool-Aid." But several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the HR team found many of their remote employees were burnt out and struggled to stay motivated.
Reitmeyer shared recipes for rebuilding a culture that re-engages employees for a post-pandemic future, including preventing burnout, creating internal opportunities, and leadership’s role in effectively supporting teams.
How has COVID-19 changed the way the IRS approaches engagement?
COVID-19, Reitmeyer said, crushed everything that was familiar, structured, and well-planned. The employee engagement team saw the need to help the now-virtual staff cope with what amounted to culture shock. Working from home meant loss of office camaraderie and even simple routines like stopping at a favorite coffee shop on the way to work.
The team started by spending a few weeks helping long-time workers (many IRS employees have tenures of 20, 30, and even 40 years) adapt to new equipment, new technology, and new processes.
Keeping camaraderie alive was paramount, as was helping employees learn how to successfully work in their new virtual environments. For Reitmeyer’s team and other leaders throughout the IRS, this meant providing innovative training and new job tools.
How have you adjusted employee surveys to assess engagement?
Quickly realizing that employees needed an outlet, the engagement team turned its typical survey into a feedback channel inviting open-ended comments on what was working and what wasn’t amid the unprecedented workplace changes.
Initially, Reitmeyer said, the response to feedback was reactionary. But as time passed, the team became able to take a proactive approach, sifting through comments on a weekly basis to identify and stay on top of emerging trends.
How has the IRS as a whole adapted to the new workplace normal?
“We learned flexibility,” Reitmeyer said.
He said becoming flexible contrasts sharply with the traditional hierarchy, rigid structure, and processes that characterize most government workplaces.
Managers learned to give employees the freedom to work around caregiving for children, elderly relatives, even pets. Without giving employees this flexibility, IRS leaders have been unable to achieve their mission, or worse, employees would be negatively affected.
Strong, frequent communication
Communication makes a huge difference in securing employee engagement during crises.
Do messages always have to be eloquently crafted? No, Reitmeyer stressed.
Don’t worry about writing prize-winning literature every time. As long as they’re authentic, even simple statements of support will go a long way, like “We’re family. We’re all in this together.”
How has the pandemic affected internal mobility?
Internal mobility – a major factor in employee satisfaction and engagement – has actually improved in some ways at the IRS as a result of the COVID crisis. Virtual work has broken down the barrier of geography and expanded the talent pool, which opens up possibilities for employees no matter where they live.
“We’re realizing we don’t have to be co-located for everything we do,” Reitmeyer said, which opens up possibilities for employees no matter where they live.
Geographical barriers aren’t the only ones coming down. Previously, workstreams were very siloed, according to Reitmeyer. Now there’s a bigger focus on sharing news via the IRS intranet, educating employees on projects happening across departments and celebrating successes.
What would you have done differently during COVID-19 to prevent burnout and struggles it caused for employees?
Reitmeyer said he spent most of April and May in constant meetings, working 12-hour days, seven days a week.
“I was setting a terrible example of work-life balance,” he said, adding that he burned himself out, which affected his team.
Looking back, Reitmeyer can see how encouraging his employees to take a break if they needed to – and doing the same himself – could have helped avert burnout.
He referred to the IRS mission statement for employee engagement:
We want to help employees understand and celebrate who we are, what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. We do this by embracing four pillars of engagement:
- Leaders lead by example.
- Leaders develop employees in every conversation.
- Leaders talk less and listen more.
- Leaders support their people.
And sometimes, Reitmeyer points out, this means going beyond providing on-the-job support when people need a shoulder to lean on.
“As a leader … you need to be that shoulder,” he said.
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