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How to improve employee morale and maintain engagement

Clear expectations, frequent communication, growth and development, and a sense of purpose are all key to employee engagement

Read time: 7 minutes


Motivated employees are essential for any company looking to increase efficiency and boost productivity. This can be a particular challenge when people are worried about job security or when outside forces, such as the COVID pandemic, make it hard to remain upbeat.

Ewa Okon, a business advisor with BDC Advisory services, says the first step to boosting morale and engagement is to understand the difference between the two.

“Engagement is about connection and motivation, while morale is more about personal attitude—about how happy we feel, for instance. Morale can be fleeting, while engagement tends to endure. That’s why employee engagement is so critical to long-term success.”

Morale can be fleeting, while engagement tends to endure. That’s why employee engagement is so critical to long-term success.

“For many of us, the pandemic has disrupted our work-life balance,” says Okon. “The restrictions on going to the gym, playing sports and gathering with friends and family, for instance, make it harder to enjoy our work.”

To compensate, Okon says that companies must be more deliberate and strategic with employee engagement. Part of the solution is to recognize that all employees tend to perform at a higher level when their needs are met.

The hierarchy of employee engagement

In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs—a concept that remains popular today. The hierarchy is typically portrayed as a pyramid, with the largest and most basic needs—for food, water, warmth and rest—at the bottom. Subsequent levels include needs for security, love, belonging, prestige, esteem and finally, self-actualization. The concept suggests that until basic needs are satisfied, it’s difficult to satisfy more advanced needs.

“Employee engagement is similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” says Okon. “The lower-level needs in Maslow’s hierarchy correspond to things like employee compensation and benefits, job security, and a clear understanding of expectations. Above them are a sense of belonging, being appreciated, and growth and development.”

Fair, equitable compensation  

Compensation and job security do little to engage employees and are often taken for granted. If they are perceived as unfair, however, they can cause employees to disengage. Setting clear expectations is not only more important to employee engagement, but also more likely to be under the control of managers. Ensuring that employees understand their roles, responsibilities and policies can prevent conflict and confusion, and help them succeed.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Managers are most responsible for satisfying mid-level needs in the employee-engagement hierarchy. The best managers achieve it through honest, open and regular communication.

The rise of remote work has made this much harder, however; video conferences are at best a poor substitute for face-to-face conversations. A more deliberate and intentional approach is needed, according to Okon.

“Increase the frequency of meetings,” says Okon. “If managers used to meet with their teams every two weeks, ask if that’s enough and consider bumping that up to at least once a week. Frequency matters, although the quality of communication is most important.”

Managers should also increase the frequency of one-on-one meetings with each employee. Since some employees may be reluctant to voice their concerns in group settings, managers should check in with individuals regularly to clarify expectations, set realistic goals, monitor progress, and identify and remove potential obstacles. Okon created a meeting template to structure these one-on-one check-ins.

When we’re asked for input, we feel valued. And when our ideas are implemented, we feel validated and more connected to our work.

Meetings are most effective when employees are encouraged to weigh in on matters that are important to the company and when managers acknowledge their ideas.

“When we’re asked for input, we feel valued,” says Okon. “And when our ideas are implemented, we feel validated and more connected to our work.”

If employee ideas are unrealistic or not implementable, managers should explain why. The goal is to involve employees in decision-making processes; co-creating is the best way to get buy-in.

Equip managers to listen and help employees

Okon believes that a top priority is to strengthen the abilities of those who deal directly with employees.

“The best managers are exceptional listeners,” says Okon. “They quickly recognize how their employees feel and how they are likely to react to a particular action or development.”

Companies should strive to build the emotional intelligence (EI) of their managers. Also known as emotional quotient (EQ), EI is the ability to recognize both their own emotions and the emotions of others.

“We can significantly improve our EI through training,” says Okon. “We can learn to listen better, for instance, and to identify what motivates someone. This is essential information for providing feedback, coaching and helping employees develop professionally—another need on the hierarchy.”

Well-trained managers resist the temptation to micro-manage and instead focus on how best to support their employees, celebrate their achievements and set them up for success.

Give employees a sense of purpose, and allow them to grow and develop

At the top of both hierarchies—Maslow’s and employee engagement—is self-actualization: growth and development, a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and alignment between our work and our larger goals.

Most of us want our employers to help make the world a better place in some way.

While not all people seek this level of satisfaction from their work, employers can still contribute to it in meaningful ways, particularly by supporting causes that resonate with their employees.

“It feels good to work for an organization that shares our commitment to a particular cause, such as safeguarding the environment,” says Okon. “Most of us want our employers to help make the world a better place in some way.”

Employees who feel well supported and recognized, and who are clear about expectations, can focus on growth and development—a key engagement driver and near the top of the hierarchy. Employees who are learning and growing can focus on mastering their role and/or acquiring new competencies.

Emphasize wellness and wellbeing

Perhaps the simplest and most direct way to boost employee engagement is by providing wellness support.

These range from virtual fitness classes, mindfulness apps and counselling, to cooking classes, concerts, team-building activities and more. The goal is to provide access to activities that can help relieve stress and inspire joy.

“The best managers know what would benefit their employees,” says Okon. “And the best companies empower their managers to do whatever it takes to engage employees. Ultimately, engaged employees represent a strategic, competitive advantage for an organization.”