- Essential, front-line employees put their lives at risk every day
- If they're motivated only by pay, their resilience and performance will suffer
- Managers can coach and care for essential employees using five key elements
Every employee is an essential employee to someone. But some employees are essential to all of us.
And the list of their roles is long -- healthcare workers, emergency responders, postal carriers, grocery store workers, warehouse staff, transportation workers, and manufacturing and factory employees. Those people go into work while others can do their job more safely from home. And some of those essential workers are just plain scared.
They often aren't sure what the risks are or what their company does to ensure their safety. As one plant worker recently told a local TV news reporter, "I don't want us to shut down, but I don't want to get sick and die because I am going to work."
At-risk workers make a choice about going to work every day. If that choice is dictated solely by pay, their resilience and performance are likely to suffer and their loyalty will be more easily weakened.
If their performance is motivated by a deep psychological and emotional attachment to their company and its success -- if they're engaged, in other words -- their resilience and performance will be extraordinary. You'll see the kind of performance that Gallup finds helps companies thrive during economic downturns.
But even the most engaged worker is in danger of getting worn down and worn out. Gallup has found spikes in Americans' levels of worry and stress and in employees' fear of being exposed to the coronavirus at work.
Leaders need to pay close attention to that -- employee resilience is one of the most important factors of business success right now, especially among essential workers.
Key Elements for Managing Essential Workers
Resilience is a personal characteristic, but leaders can support and develop it.
Gallup's extensive research on building highly engaging cultures surfaced 12 key elements that empower performance, and five of them are particularly important to resilience in times of crisis:
- I know what is expected of me at work.
- I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
- At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
- The mission or purpose of my organization makes me feel my job is important.
- My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
People who strongly agree with these five items are:
- 3 times more likely than average to strongly agree that their organization has the right tools and processes to respond quickly to business needs
- 2.5 times more likely than average to strongly agree that their organization has the right mindset to respond quickly to business needs
- 31% more likely than average to say they are always able to bounce back from illness or hardship
Coaching to these five elements helps on-site employees feel more clear about and confident in their role. But how they are coached is key, and frequency matters.
How to Coach Essential Employees Using These Elements
To coach is to connect, individual by individual, and it's almost always done best through conversation.
To deliver on those five key factors, managers and leaders must make time for open conversations, and lots of them. Workers at risk must know that their manager cares about them, is thinking about them and appreciates them.
Employee resilience is one of the most important factors of business success right now, especially among essential workers.
Those managers who work alongside their on-site employees have an advantage: Their presence reinforces that employees aren't alone in the situation.
But whether coaching in person or virtually, making the most of your connections is important. Gallup recommends using those five key factors as a guide to productive conversations.
Take these elements, for instance: I know what is expected of me at work. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
Managers can use them to ask clarifying questions, including:
- What are your priorities today?
- Do you have what you need to be successful?
- What will success look like today?
- Do you have what you need to feel safe as you work?
These questions align managers and employees around expectations, resources, safety and quality -- and show employees what excellence in their role looks like and how to attain it. They also give managers a way to express their interest and care.
And consider this element: At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
People feel more resilient when they operate from their talents -- their innate thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It lets them build on their strengths, deepening their connection to the work and making it feel more meaningful.
With this in mind, great coaches individualize their approach and ask questions like:
- What did you do today that really played to your strengths?
- Thinking back on the past few days, when did you feel like you were really excelling?
- How are you able to be your best right now?
One Gallup study showed that 61% of employees who feel their manager focuses on their strengths -- and questions like those show great focus -- are engaged at work, while only 1% are actively disengaged. Among employees who feel their manager focuses mainly on weaknesses, active disengagement jumps to 22%.
Workers at risk must know that their manager cares about them, is thinking about them and appreciates them.
Finally, there's never been a better time to integrate workers into the mission or purpose of their company so they know their job is important. It honors their efforts in these difficult times, shows them that they're part of a cause bigger than themselves and solidifies their resolve.
Managers should ask their employees meaningful questions -- such as, "How is your daily work contributing to our company's mission?" or "What is your personal purpose for continuing to show up and work so hard?" -- and then listen closely to the answers. These types of questions connect workers to a deeper source of meaning, and they help managers connect with their workers as well.
What Essential Employees Need to Know
This brings us back to that essential worker quoted at the beginning. If her leaders had tapped into these five elements, her response to the reporter's questions could have been very different.
As it is, she's clearly struggling to decide if the paycheck is worth the risk (and she might decide it's not) because she's not hearing a unified message from her leaders and getting coaching from her manager that reinforces that message.
Think about when you've been most centered or calm during the COVID-19 pandemic -- probably when you felt a semblance of control and clarity. Perhaps when you were focused on something you're great at and able to see a successful outcome.
It was most likely when you knew that what you were doing mattered and that you mattered to others.
What that worker needs to know -- what all essential workers need to know -- is what's expected of them, that the materials and equipment they need are available, that their coworkers are committed to quality, that they'll get to do what they do best, and that their job is important.
They need safety protocols that enable them to do great work without fear. They need to know they, their jobs, their communities and their customers are protected. They need leaders and managers right there with them. They need a leader who cares and a manager who continually coaches them and meets their engagement needs. They need to know they matter.
All of our workers do, but none more so than those who put themselves at risk for the rest of us.
Take care of your essential employees:
- Download our perspective on performance management to read more about important conversations to have with employees.
- Learn how people and workplaces behave in crises to effectively lead through COVID-19 disruption.
- Partner with Gallup to find an engagement solution that works for your unique business circumstances.