(Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash)

In recent months, the rhythms and structures of work life have been, well, deconstructed. Employees fortunate enough to have a job will be working from their kitchen tables for the foreseeable future, adding pressure to working families with children. Career development seems hazy at best for many employees, especially those unsure about how their roles will change in the coming months. At the same time, Corporate America is scrambling to combat systemic racism, asking painful questions about diversity and inclusion.

As these pressures add up, how do we ensure that our employees are engaged in the work they’re doing and that they’re feeling aligned with new corporate directions? Are they feeling included, heard, and valued during this season of change? Are they feeling burned out and in need of a mental health day (or two)?

Surprisingly enough, according to a recent survey in Gallup, employee engagement has been on a historic rise in the U.S. during the pandemic, with a reported 38% of employees feeling “engaged” in their daily work, as of early May. Among the possible explanations: a heightened sense of purpose during the pandemic, as well as efforts by employers to prioritize worker health, wellbeing, and a sense of camaraderie. But will this rally last as the pandemic months drag on?

In a recent webinar, From Day One gathered several HR leaders to consider the factors of vulnerability, inclusion, and the changing nature of keeping employees connected during such tumultuous times. Some highlights from the webinar, which was moderated by Fortune associate editor Emma Hinchliffe:

What Fosters Employee Engagement Now?

“It's really about the emotional connection,” said Liz Pavese-Kaplan, senior director of the Limeade Institute, which helps companies measure employee engagement. “Then the behavioral actions that energize you to put more into what you're doing.”

We often think about engagement in terms of productivity: how many products they can launch, tasks they can cross off, and sales they can close. But our panel of experts emphasized that the key to engagement lies more in how employees feel while doing their work than the work itself. Engagement has also been tied to psychological factors: worker confidence, the ability to trust in colleagues, and even feeling well-equipped to deal with stressful situations.

“How do you feel about how you belong within the organization? Do you feel included within the organization? Do you feel that your opinions and interests are respected and valued? Do you feel like your voice is heard?” asked Mikeisha Anderson Jones, VP of global diverse executive engagement at American Express.

Engagement also connects to an individual’s personal growth within an organization and whether they can weather an economic downturn with a company when things can get difficult.

“How do we reinvent ourselves and reinvent what we do?” asked Pavese-Kaplan. “Because it is different, and that's not a bad thing, right?”

Elevate the Humanity of Your Employees

While it might be easy these days to assume that all is well with employees when their tiny avatars show up on your computer screen, less evident are the overlooked stressors in their daily lives. Many companies are strategically addressing this aspect of work with new programs and digital HR tools to stay in touch.

TTEC, a company that provides customer-engagement and other services, launched a campaign called “It’s OK, We’re All Human” during the pandemic, encouraging employees to be as transparent as possible about what they are going through, via community message boards and access to mental health resources.

“We wanted to provide different channels of communication that we didn't have before,” said Judith Almendra, TTEC’s VP of talent management and employee engagement. “So truly making sure that employees have a venue for them to voice what's on their mind.”

Our panelists, clockwise from upper left: moderator Emma Hinchliffe of Fortune, Mikeisha Anderson Jones of American Express, Judith Almendra of TTEC, Lara McLeod of Zillow Group, Christine Doucet of Ace Hardware, and Liz Pavese-Kaplan of the Limeade Institute (Image by From Day One)

While employees have become more open about discussing mental health, there is still a lingering social stigma about it. All the more reason, said our panelists, for leaders to bring these issues front and center.

Lara McLeod, senior pathways manager at Zillow Group, gave an example: “One of the things that we focused on was actually providing a company-wide chat where we had our chief people officer and our VP of community and culture sit down together and discuss what they've gone through with mental health and how that has affected their work. And how important they see that, as well as to reiterate the message that it is OK. Not only from a stigma side, but from a business side to take mental-health days.”

Breaking down the sense of shame can have myriad positive effects for employees, like bringing authenticity to the workplace. “I think that it's allowing people the ability to truly bring their whole selves to work in a way that was perhaps different six months ago, a year ago,” said Anderson Jones.

A Shared Mission

It might have been a different story just a few months ago, but aligning employees to a shared mission or purpose is pivotal right now, especially for businesses undergoing drastic changes. Ace Hardware, deemed an essential business at the start of the pandemic, has made adjustments to embrace employees in a shared mission.

“I think we all want to be part of something bigger,” said Christine Doucet, director of the Ace Hardware Foundation and head of employee engagement. “To me, that's the ultimate engagement when you can tie that passion and purpose together. That's when magic happens,” she said, noting that one of the company’s mottos is “we exist to help others.” She added: “Regardless of your role, whether you're working in a store, in our warehouse, or here at corporate, we all have that same mission.”

What that mission means in the detail of daily work is something that needs to be clearly and constantly communicated. Managers have a responsibility to prioritize connection with their employees and meet them where they are, not just where we hope they will be.

Pavese-Kaplan added: “What do we want our employees to leave [work] knowing, feeling, doing? And if we're seeing a lot of redundancy in our goals, that's a red flag for us to say, OK, are we just doing this to make ourselves feel better? Or are we really checking in with the employees to see what they need at any given point and really letting them lead, vs. responding from a fear response?”

Compassion for the Unknown

As the pandemic wears on, what was once hopefully pictured as a few months of uncertainty has dragged on to form a much more complex idea of the future. The antidote? Compassion.

“It's really important to acknowledge that better health and wellbeing, and safety psychologically and physically, also lead to better performance,” said Anderson Jones, adding: “But better health and wellbeing will lead to happier, more whole people. And that drives engagement.”

Companies dealing with layoffs and furloughs are in a pickle here, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take actions to lessen the harm to morale. TTEC has continued to provide benefits to furloughed employees as well as partnering with sister companies to help find jobs for those employees in open positions elsewhere. For Zillow’s part, the company leads layoff conversations with transparency, making sure not to promise things they can’t back up. “That's where you can run into trouble,” warned McLeod.

For employees with children at home, compassionate engagement also includes having permission to step away from their work to address family matters, which may be something they struggle to speak out about or ask managers for.

“We were hearing from our employees that they were feeling guilty. Like, ‘I have to help my kids. Is that OK?’,” said Doucet. And they may ask themselves: “Am I doing all the right things and being pulled in all directions?”

Added Doucet: “I felt that too, and so what our leadership did was literally give permission and acknowledge what was happening, that we're all in different situations. As long as you get your work done, we'll be flexible. And I felt that weight lifted off some of our folks’ shoulders.”

Listening intently to the concerns of employees, whether they’re parents or not, is a key skill for managers to sharpen if they hope to engage their workforce in meaningful ways. Recently, the Black Lives Matter Movement has propelled this need for compassionate communication and understanding of employee needs. Many companies have encouraged their black employees to speak openly about their experiences if they want to, which itself can be exhausting.

McLeod said this was a meaningful moment at Zillow Group. “There were ‘aha’ moments happening everywhere. We went from a company that was not making statements on social justice to one that's now saying racism has no home here and educating employees on Juneteenth and creating multiple spaces not only for our black employees to be able to process and grieve and share what that experience is like, but also we're putting out resources for allies, for employees and for managers. Everyone is watching what is happening in the world right now.”

“Look, we are all human,” added Anderson Jones. “And we are all going through this at exactly the same time. And the way that we were experiencing it is not identical. That ability to be human and open about what those distractions are, or about what those changes are, has created a different type of relationship amongst all of us.”

Thank you to everyone who attended this webinar live. If you missed it, feel free to check out our replay here and visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Mimi Hayes is a New York-based author, comedian, and assistant director of content at From Day One. You can read her work at mimihayes.com, check out her podcast "Mimi and The Brain," or find her first book, a comedic memoir about her traumatic brain injury on Amazon.