Why do you focus on employee engagement?

Most learning and development (L&D) leaders answer that engagement translates to business outcomes like retention, performance and attracting the best talent.

That sort of utilitarian reasoning for employee engagement initiatives made sense pre-COVID-19, when the economy was booming and unemployment was at a near-record low of 3.5%. Today, however, L&D needs to look at employee engagement anew and through the lens of the ongoing ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. As of May, the U.S. unemployment rate was 13.3%. It was an improvement over April, yet U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell warned in June that “significant uncertainty remains about the timing and strength of the recovery.”

With so many laid-off and furloughed workers in a scramble to find jobs as restrictions are lifted and more workplaces reopen, training and development leaders might conclude that talent retention is unlikely to be as much of a challenge for a while. They might think, then, that they can deprioritize employee engagement.

The opposite is true. Now more than ever, it’s critical for L&D to invest in the employee experience in a meaningful way.

Why? Because Customer Experience Just Got Real

Customer erosion is a fact of life in the churning wake of global pandemics and severe economic downturns. In conversations with L&D leaders, two themes have been consistent: a concern over keeping customers or making sure they return and a chilling awareness that no business is immune from economic calamity.

As a result, the customer experience is in a spotlight, the likes of which most companies have never seen. L&D leaders must align with the strategy to retain and nurture customer relationships during this crisis and moving forward.

We are all being tossed about on the same rolling waters. Your organization, your employees and your customers are all staring into a fog of uncertainty. Everyone is adjusting his or her business and life with as much agility and consistency as possible.

As a result, customers need vendors, suppliers and partners who will:

    • Engage on a human level.
    • Find creative solutions to new and challenging circumstances.
    • Be flexible and accommodating.
    • Be empathetic.

Your customers need a rich customer experience that is deeper than anything you’ve ever developed with them.

How? Focus on Your Customer Ambassadors

Your employees are the emissaries in creating those mission-critical customer experiences and building and sustaining those relationships. The degree to which your company succeeds — or thrives! — past this crisis will be determined by the degree to which your employees have the vigor, inspiration and commitment to enthusiastically:

    • Lean into the continuing storm that their customers face.
    • Listen actively to their customers, to hear what truly concerns them and to deepen their emotional connection.
    • Find ways to creatively deliver solutions for every customer.

Given the current trauma in both domestic and work life today, only your engaged employees will be able to meet the new reality of customer needs and deliver business-saving customer experiences. Your less engaged or completely unengaged employees are already pulling your culture down and represent a potentially fatal risk to your customer relationships.

What dooms most employee engagement efforts from the get-go? Companies have invested in them for the wrong reasons.

The Pandemic Amplifies Why Most Engagement Efforts Fail

COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for L&D leaders to the truth that companies have struggled to understand the simple premise of employee engagement: When the company and its leaders genuinely care about their people and employee engagement will naturally emerge.

When asked about the “whys” behind their employee engagement efforts, L&D leaders rarely share that a fundamental commitment to caring is a core characteristic of those efforts — which is the biggest reason most of them fail.

Offering genuine care to each other has never been more important than it is right now.

Stop Thinking Engagement Is Transactional

Genuine care means honestly prioritizing the needs of others. It is not:

    • A tactic as part of some quid pro quo.
    • Part of an exchange for something a business expects to receive from an employee in return for the offer of care.
    • A means to a business outcome.

Caring about someone means you have their best interests at heart. That sentence isn’t continued with, “so you can get what you want from them.”

Employees know if leaders really care. They’re suspicious when they sense that caring has other agendas or ulterior motives. A transactional version of caring stifles the fulfillment, engagement and commitment that true caring can catalyze.

When care is transactional, everyone loses.

Self-determination theory tells us that when the basic needs for autonomy, mastery and relatedness are not supported in the workplace, employee physical and mental well-being suffers. Lack of engagement follows, because meeting those three needs are the core of genuine care. In the business environment, they translate to:

    • Providing a sense of independence at work.
    • Offering the assurance or the necessary support needed to make sure each employee can do his or her job and grow.
    • Ensuring each person is connected — to co-workers, the company’s mission and vision, and customers.

When engagement efforts are transactional, your customers also suffer. When employees’ three basic needs are unmet, they are far less equipped and much less motivated to provide the exceptional service customers deserve. This kind of service is critical now if you want to retain customers and sustain your business through this crisis and the economic challenges ahead.

Customers will always remember how they were treated during their time of need, and your employees must be supported and cared for to be ready for that challenge. None of us can care for others if we don’t feel cared for ourselves.

To Deliver a Great Customer Experience, L&D Needs to Truly Care

All crises bring into sharp focus what is truly important. Caring for your employees and your customers has always been the right thing to do. Now, doing the right thing — for its own sake — is also critical to your business, if you hope to do more than survive this year. That single realization should make it easy to commit to genuine care for your employees.

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