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Analysis

How technology is improving employee engagement

The rapid rise of virtual working during the coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses in every industry to find new ways to improve employee engagement.

Nicholas Fearn

Technologist

Photo by Leon on Unsplash

Unleash Your Employee Engagement In the highly connected and digitized workplace of 2021, businesses are utilizing many new technologies and techniques to improve employee engagement. leaders globally who have been involved in significant HR technology projects.

  • The rapid rise of virtual working during the coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses in every industry to find new ways to improve employee engagement.
  • Employee engagement has always been an essential part of the workplace, but the rise of remote working in the last year has only exacerbated its importance.
  • A look at why some HR leaders think employee engagement is all about the small details.

Employees are the beating heart of every organization and business, no matter what industry or size. But in order to maintain a healthy relationship with staff and get the most out of them, effective employee engagement strategies are paramount. 

In the highly connected and digitized workplace of 2021, businesses are utilizing many new technologies and techniques to improve employee engagement.

But which are the most effective, and which should companies avoid altogether? We spoke to several HR leaders to find out. 

A workplace revolution

The rapid rise of virtual working during the coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses in every industry to find new ways to improve employee engagement.

Vinod Kumar, CEO at Vodafone Business, says: “Flexible working has always been part of the Vodafone Business culture and employees are given laptops and mobile phones as standard when they join, along with keyboards and laptop stands.

“However, COVID-19 caused full remote working, which meant digital tools, especially collaboration platforms and mobile devices, became absolutely vital to keeping our employees connected. And, as we shifted past the pandemic’s first stage, we experienced and saw a clear evolution in the use of digitalization to enhance productivity, agility, and time-to-market for product innovation at speeds and cost-effectiveness not previously seen.”

When coronavirus broke out in early 2020, Vodafone Business decided to move a thousand customer service specialists online and was able to do this in a week. But at the same time, the firm had to think of new ways to keep its sizable remote workforce engaged during a period of great uncertainty and concern. 

Kumar tells UNLEASH: “Back then, we had to react; and even though it was successful, we realized early in the process we had to do more than giving our employees laptops and risers. We had to change our way of thinking and approaching work to keep them engaged, healthy — both physically and mentally — and productive. 

“To support them, I upped my informal webinars to a weekly basis, which allowed me to share business updates with everyone. And, most importantly, this allowed people to have the opportunity to ask questions, share concerns, or even ideas on what we can do better.”

The firm has taken a plethora of steps to increase engagement with employees. “At Vodafone Business, we have helped our team with changes ranging from flexible hours, pulse surveys every six weeks, virtual gifts, counseling, sponsored kids camps on coding, to create the strongest possible employee community,” says Kumar.

While technology has allowed Vodafone Business to accelerate employee engagement in the pandemic, it hopes to build on this over the next few years. Kumar explains: “We are now looking to the future. We are especially looking at ways technology can help us embrace new ways of working that put the wellbeing of our people at the core of our operations.

“We did some research on this and discovered 60% or so of our employee’s time is usually dedicated to individual tasks. The remaining 40% is spent on projects that have collaboration at their core. So when our offices reopen, we will make sure they are shaped around the needs of our people, not the other way round.  And technology is going help us do that.”

Rethinking the employee experience

Hitachi Vantara is another major business exploring ways in which technology can help transform employee engagement.

Jill Morris, senior HR business partner, says: “With the workplace having undergone seismic change, we wanted to rethink the employee experience from both a corporate and personal perspective and consider the ways the workplace might operate in the future. From our discussions, we found that technology could play a vital role in allowing employees to stay connected and productive.”

Her view is that employee engagement is all about the small details. “When working remotely, where much of our interaction with our colleagues and peers takes place through a screen, enabling processes and experiences that feel human is critical,” she says.  “To replicate celebratory office traditions, we’ve implemented an internal recognition platform where employees can recognize and celebrate the great work being achieved by colleagues across the company. This recognition can be peer to peer or senior manager to junior employee.”

Morris says that although technologies can help staff feel more appreciated in the workplace, reminding employees of all levels to use them is essential to their effectiveness. She continues: “In the long run, these platforms can help teams excel on their learning and career paths, and ensure teammates receive the recognition they deserve, even when working remotely.”

At Hitachi Vantara, its employees are using instant messaging applications to communicate and collaborate in real-time. Morris adds: “We also use communications platforms like WhatsApp, which serve as collaborative tools to provide each other with instant feedback. Technology can be a true enabler of engagement, and the right digital tools can certainly unlock effective employee communications and aid collaboration across teams.”

Leveraging new employee engagement techniques 

Many HR leaders are implementing new strategies to recreate key features of onsite work design lost to the rise of remote working, such as consistency, serendipity, and visibility, says Gartner research director Alexia Cambon.

“They have tried to recreate consistency between the onsite and remote experiences by investing in tools that virtualize onsite practices — for example, whiteboarding. They have tried to recreate serendipity — the ‘water-cooler moment’ — by encouraging more time in virtual meetings. And they have tried to recreate visibility by investing in tracking — whether that be in monitoring technology or just increasing their manager check-ins.”

She warns, however, that these investments do not take into account human behavior in the remote world. Cambon says: “Leveraging these office-centric strategies in a remote world is resulting in employee fatigue. Virtualizing onsite practices does not take into account how many digital distractions employees are exposed to in the remote world: virtual tools only increase that exposure.

“Increasing virtual meetings doesn’t take into account how cognitively draining these experiences are in the remote world: emerging research shows that virtual meetings are very tiring due to all the extra information our brain has to process. And investing in tracking systems does not take into account that it is already difficult for employees to disconnect in the remote world: when you add the feeling of being monitored, our research shows that employees are much more likely to display behaviors of presenteeism.”

Cambon says organizations shouldn’t try to virtualize office-centric working, but instead rethink work design completely and focus primarily on human behavior. This approach, she points out, is called human-centric design. “If the remote world is one of high digital distraction, virtual overload, and difficulties disconnecting, progressive organizations are thinking about how technology and new work design can decrease exposure to digital distractions; mitigate the impact of virtual overload; and encourage people to disconnect, not work longer hours,” she explains.

The most progressive organizations are taking many different steps to solve these challenges, according to Cambon. She says: “To reduce exposure to digital distraction, progressive companies are encouraging employees to create flexible work patterns that allow them to make room for time away from the screen. This involves resetting how we think about activities traditionally thought of as ‘personal time’ — for example, a run, a walk, or meditation. Instead of thinking of these as outside work, leaders must advocate for these activities being seen as essential to, and a key part of, work.

“To reduce the impact of virtual overload, progressive companies are also encouraging employees to work asynchronously first, and limit synchronous work to its most necessary function, rather than persist with a culture of meetings. And finally, to ensure employees don’t feel ‘always-on’, organizations are adopting leadership philosophies rooted in empathy that advocate for the importance of disconnecting, rather than the importance of working longer hours.”

Overcoming various challenges 

When it comes to improving employee engagement with the help of new technologies and novel workplace techniques, this may be entirely new for many organizations. As a result, they may encounter a range of challenges along the way. 

Betsy Summers, principal analyst on the future of work team at Forrester, says a common challenge faced by organizations looking to improve the employee experience is figuring out which department should be responsible for this. She tells UNLEASH: “Only 27% of respondents in Forrester’s 2020 Business Technographics Marketing Survey identified HR as the primary owner of employee experience.”

Measuring employee engagement to gain access to actionable insights is another challenge, according to Summers. “Leading firms go beyond the occasional pulse survey to embed employee engagement and experience sensing into the flow of work, using natural language processing to analyze employee sentiment and identify areas ripe for improvement,” she says.

“Doing so requires resourcing and support at the highest level, and to get the attention of the CEO, HR leaders must quantify the value of employee engagement. Though time-consuming to create and full of seeming intangibles, a business case of employee engagement exists in productivity gains, employee referrals, reduction in attrition, accelerated time to productivity, and gains in customer satisfaction.”

Alex Arundale, chief people officer at Advanced, warns that there are often too many things to engage within the modern workplace. She says: “It’s great to have tools and communications, but sometimes it feels like overload and not knowing where to look and read next. This is the challenge to simplify and find ways that everyone can connect within the way, the time, and the media they like to use. This requires a really good comms strategy to enable the technology.”

Employee engagement has always been an essential part of the workplace, but the rise of remote working in the last year has only exacerbated its importance.

What’s encouraging to see is that many new technologies are enabling businesses to improve employee engagement. But at the same time, companies must overcome a range of challenges when using technology to improve employee engagement. 

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