How to Keep Employees Engaged and Productive in the Face of Disruption

How to Keep Employees Engaged and Productive in the Face of Disruption

Employee Experience

Est. Read Time: 3 min.

As many businesses settle into a new normal, leaders’ focus is starting to shift away from immediate crisis control and toward putting sustainable processes in place for working through this period. Though leaders cannot (and should not) pretend that everything is normal, they still need to take steps to ensure their workforce remains productive and engaged.


While there’s no playbook for this situation, it’s important to do what you can to keep employee morale high, maintain continuity for your customers, and, ultimately, protect your company’s future. Here are a few steps you can take to gently promote productivity and engagement right now.

1. Be mindful of mental health

Social distancing can have dramatic effects on employees’ mental health, stress levels, and quality of sleep. In a study of 2,760 people quarantined during an influenza, 34% of individuals reported high levels of psychological distress—an indicator of anxiety and depression—compared to just 12% of non-quarantined individuals. And since 61% of workers say their mental health affects their productivity, supporting employees’ wellbeing is a critical component of effective management.


Recognize that employees may be struggling, but keep in mind that no two people deal with difficulties in exactly the same way. Factors like personality type, location, and family situation can all influence employees’ responses to COVID-19 and working from home, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. 


Instead, make it easy for employees to access the support they need—whatever that means for them. Here are a few ways to create a self-service approach:


  • Compile mental health resources in your company’s knowledgebase and ensure employees know where to find them. This could include a mix of internal and external resources, including the numbers for relevant hotlines and links to articles about how to manage stress and anxiety. If your company doesn’t have a knowledgebase that employees can access from home, you could also send these resources in a company-wide email.

  • Confirm your company’s benefits and policies when it comes to mental health. Can employees use sick leave for mental health days? Does your company’s insurance plan cover counseling? If so, make sure employees know how to access the resources available to them. 

  • Encourage people leaders to promote mental health awareness. Whether it’s publicly discussing stress-reduction strategies they’ve found useful or letting their teams know that they’ll be taking a mental health day to decompress, when managers lead by example, employees feel more comfortable taking these steps themselves.

2. Chastise less, but check-in more 

Taking a step back may feel like the best thing you can do for your people right now. Unfortunately, this approach has the potential to backfire—leaving employees feeling isolated and making it harder for managers to determine when someone needs extra help. 


While some companies are pausing formal performance reviews or being more lenient, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still monitor employees’ output and step in where needed. Some changes in productivity levels are to be expected, but if an employee seems consistently unproductive and disengaged, allowing this to continue unchecked benefits no one. 


Train managers to touch base with their direct reports more often on a one-on-one basis, and ensure they feel equipped with the right language to handle the situation delicately. If an employees’ performance has dipped, an angry or frustrated tone may cause their engagement and morale to drop further, so it’s important to approach these discussions from a place of empathy and compassion. 


Here are a few ways to have effective conversations about employee performance during this challenging period (and beyond): 


  • Encourage all people leaders to first ask how the employee is doing and what’s going on in their life—and to really listen

  • Approach performance conversations from a solution-oriented angle, noting that you want to work together to help the person perform at their best again. 

  • Mention specific examples and concerns, like how the person’s performance has impacted the rest of the team. But balance these concerns with an emphasis on why the employee’s contribution is valued to make the criticism easier to hear.

  • Outline clear next steps, like an action plan for the employee to work toward and a time when they will next reconnect. This can help employees feel galvanized by the conversation, rather than demoralized. 


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3. Balance flexibility with routine

During any period of change at work, it’s only natural for employees’ typical routine to become disrupted. But re-establishing that routine or creating a new one can help them adjust faster and keep their productivity high. 


This is particularly true when working from home, where employees say that their biggest challenge is unplugging after work. When your home is also your office, the line between working and not working can become blurred, leading to employees working longer hours and taking fewer breaks. While this may not sound like a problem for productivity, the potential for burnout is high—hurting productivity in the long run. 


On the flip side, some employees may struggle to get and stay productive while working remotely, especially if they have other commitments to take care of, like children or sick family members at home. Here are some ways to help your people establish a productivity-boosting routine, while still creating space for flexibility: 


  • Work with employees to understand their home situation and build a routine that optimizes their personal productivity. For example, if they struggle to stay focused in the afternoon when their children want to play, consider whether they can shift their hours accordingly.

  • Keep your recurring meetings (like one-on-ones and all-hands gatherings) on the calendar and only cancel them if absolutely necessary. Doing away with them may signal that they weren’t important in the first place, while continuing with them helps establish a sense of continuity. You should also use video as much as possible to promote engagement, since employees may be tempted to multitask if they’re only on audio.

  • Remind employees to take regular breaks. Stepping away from work for a few minutes, rather than having coffee or eating lunch at your desk, is shown to reduce stress and exhaustion, restore focus, and boost engagement.

  • Ask managers to stop working at a reasonable hour, or at least to limit after-hours communications with employees. When employees get notifications outside of office hours, they may feel pressured to respond right away, which can hurt their work-life balance and disrupt their routine. 


As your company adjusts to a new normal, few things will be as important as keeping a pulse on how your employees are feeling. And one of the best ways to do that is to ask for feedback in their own words. Learn more about our modern survey tool with AI-powered sentiment analysis.

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About Laura Zifchak (Poggi)

Laura leads the marketing team for the PeopleDoc by Ultimate Software products in North America. She joined PeopleDoc in January 2015 to help HR teams learn about HR Service Delivery technology, understand how it benefits their existing business strategies, and become expert users of our platform as customers.

Laura has experience with bringing technical software solutions to market with prior leadership positions at both IBM and RTTS. She has an MBA from CUNY Baruch Zicklin School of Business, and a BS degree in Marketing from Siena College.

With years of practice managing teams through rapid growth and constant change, Laura is passionate about employee and manager experience, and using technology to help scale and improve operations.