This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.

We can all agree that 2020 has truly been one for the history books. COVID-19 changed the way we work and live, requiring organizations to shift, change and adapt normal business practices to simply survive. It was the crisis we didn’t anticipate that will have implications for years to come.

One of those implications is employee engagement. Some organizations were somewhat prepared by having a strong engagement culture prior to the crisis. For example, Salesforce, the company that has been recognized a dozen times by Fortune as one of the best companies to work for, put employees first by giving daily updates, conducting mental health check-ins, and providing whatever resources were needed to ensure employees felt supported and confident in their jobs. This is a great example of a company’s engagement practices that were in place prior to the crisis, which means, most likely, employees will be better engaged during and after the crisis, resulting in a committed workforce.

However, this conversation is not to highlight companies excelling in employee engagement amidst a crisis, but rather to call out companies that put employee engagement on the back burner, to the point that it has now become too little too late. The unanticipated pandemic pulled back the curtains on organizations that were not investing in their employees and advocating for employee engagement practices. In many sectors, employees were expected to take on tasks that were beyond previous job descriptions. This was in addition to heightened demands in their personal lives, like teaching school-aged children and sharing home workspaces with partners. Therefore, without strong employee engagement programming and a commitment to employees, the pandemic stresses made the employee experience exhausting, which possibly led to disengagement and job burnout.

Bolman and Deal (2008) use the analogy of the black swan to demonstrate how an organization should prepare for the unexpected. The idea is that if management chooses to only believe there are white swans in the world, the day the black swan arrives, it will be devastating because no one assumed it even existed. Therefore, management should prepare for and anticipate the unexpected. In preparing for the black swan, organizations need to value and invest in employee engagement processes and strategies instead of putting it off until it is too late. With a strong focus on the bottom line, organizations tend to assume they can always count on employee loyalty and commitment (Kim, 2007). However, the objective of public relations is to have a sound understanding of why any public is viable to a public relations process (Health, Douglas, & Russell, 1995), and therefore, a public or audience can and should not be taken for granted.

So, my heart goes out to all those employees who feel overworked and unappreciated. I was drawn to employee engagement research because I was once an undervalued employee. But more importantly, I hope the pandemic ignites and encourages companies to cultivate an internal culture that recognizes the intrinsic value of employees before something like this happens again. There is no higher return on investment than empowering and supporting your people.

Laura L. Lemon, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. She can be reached at lemon@apr.ua.edu.

References
Bolman, L. & Deal, T. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice and leadership (4th ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Heath, R. L., Douglas, W., & Russell, M. (1995). Constituency building: Determining employees’ willingness to participate in corporate political activities. Journal of Public Relations Research, 7, 273-288.

Kim, H. S. (2007). A multilevel study of antecedents and a mediator of employee-organization relationships. Journal of Public Relations Research, 19, 167-197.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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