Onboarding By embedding company values into recognition, employers build a culture that’s grounded in purpose, which inherently builds trust and respect among employees to achieve common goals together. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The pandemic has created an environment of continuous change and uneasiness for many employees. Whether it’s adjusting to remote work for the foreseeable future, adopting new COVID-19 workplace precautions, taking pay cuts, working longer hours for less, worrying about job security and more, employees across the globe face unpredictable change and uncertainty.

In addition to dealing with operational and psychological uncertainty, employees are also focused on and concerned about how their company aligns with pivotal issues that are currently shaping society, such as the fight for racial justice, LGBTQ rights, the 2020 Presidential Election and more. Facing greater employee scrutiny for their actions (or lack of action) to support societal movements, has even led to executive leadership changes and corporate policy overhauls. Just one in five HR leaders believe their employees trust company leaders, and sudden corporate changes, especially at the executive leadership level, can lead to employees’ uncertainty about the future of the company and their career, and create further disconnect and mistrust among the workforce.

Related: Employees give employers thumbs-up for COVID-19 crisis management, empathy: Zenefits study

Now more than ever, it’s important for employers to re-establish trust among employees to boost engagement, productivity and confidence in their ability to positively contribute to the company. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, there are some actionable steps that employers can take to improve trust among employees.

Step 1: Take action where it matters

The pandemic and current societal shifts have created new expectations from both employees and the general public about the roles and responsibilities of businesses in society. According to a Just Capital report, 80% of Americans say the pandemic has opened their eyes to acceptable and unacceptable corporate behavior, and 90% say this is an opportune time for companies to hit “reset” and focus on doing right by their stakeholders.

There are several ways employers can “reset,” enact new behaviors and take action that align with what employees care about most. Start by gathering feedback and identifying the issues employees are passionate about solving or supporting. Frequent listening activities, such as pulse surveys, mentor programs or check-in polls, give employees a voice to provide feedback and actionable insight that employers need to rebuild trust and make constructive changes.

Step 2: Practice transparent communication

Transparency and continuous communication have never been more important to creating an environment of trust. Before the pandemic, research shows that during times of change, there is an increase in demand for information from leadership.

However, according to Orangefiery, a slim majority of U.S. employees (54%) say they’ve been satisfied with communication from leaders throughout the pandemic. When asked how employers can improve communication moving forward, employees said they’re looking for leaders to provide more transparency about what the organization knows and doesn’t know (32%), clarity around misinformation (22%) and more frequent communication (22%).

Employers can start creating greater transparency through different communication tactics channels, including:

  • Holding weekly all-staff meetings to review company initiatives, changes and updates
  • Using online conferencing tools to address issues in real-time
  • Creating internal “social channels” or threads for company leaders or specialists to share what they know
  • Conducting one-on-one check-ins with employees to understand their questions and concerns and more

Step 3: Reinforce values through recognition

With most Americans (72%) admitting this is “the lowest point in history they can remember,” employees are not only facing outside stressors from the pandemic, political landscape and civil tensions, they’re also potentially facing feelings of isolation from remote work. During times of uncertainty, active recognition from leadership is crucial to build trust, create a culture of resilience and keep employees engaged.

Throughout the pandemic, many companies have increased peer-to-peer recognition and leader-led recognition programs. In fact, in the month following the onset of the pandemic, Achievers saw a 14% increase in the number of recognitions sent across the platform.

In addition to increasing the volume of recognitions that’s given during times of uncertainty, it’s also important to strategically align company values with that recognition. For example, perhaps a core value of an organization is to be an employer that “puts people before profit.” In this case, leaders could recognize how difficult the past few months have been for employees and consider offering a more flexible work environment that allows employees to set their own schedule.

By embedding company values into recognition, employers build a culture that’s grounded in purpose, which inherently builds trust and respect among employees to achieve common goals together.

Step 4: Create a space for active listening

Active listening is the most powerful action an employer can take. It invites employees into a safe relationship that minimizes fear by creating open lines of communication and allows trust to flourish. This type of listening can take many forms – such as more traditional styles of one-on-one feedback meetings and mentorship programs, or using technology to gather ongoing feedback through surveys or chatbots.

Either way, it’s important for employers to prepare to hear both positive and negative feedback. How employers respond to employees, regardless of personal feelings and input, will have a direct impact on the employees’ willingness to give their opinions in the future. The goal is to show employees that their employer is ready to listen to them, whether it’s good or bad. When employers and managers are open, friendly, supporting and accommodating to feedback — even constructive criticism — it encourages employees to communicate truthfully, build trust and even perform better. In fact, according to research from Salesforce, when employees feel heard they are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform at their best

One way to create an open space for listening is by establishing mentorship programs. This works as a two-way street, giving employees a space to debrief and “check-in” in a less formal setting, and managers a space to capture the voice of the employee and help employees feel heard. It also further encourages them to be honest and transparent throughout the work week. In fact, 93% of employees say trust in their direct boss is essential to staying satisfied at work. This signals the importance of employers to encourage continuous feedback streams with managers and their direct reports.

Surveys are also a great way to harness the power of active listening. Some companies survey employees yearly to understand employee sentiment; however, the sporadic data that comes from annual surveys may not always expose issues in real time or allow companies to take swift action to make improvements. Implementing, an always-on channel for employees to provide feedback any time of the day and using technology to fully understand the results, can help leadership quickly identify crucial areas for improvement.

Other ways to regularly maintain a space for active listening is by implementing chatbots and pulse checks. Chatbots invite employees to confidentially share how they feel about work without the fear of face-to-face confrontation, and without having to carve out the time and energy for yet another Zoom meeting in their day. Based on employee responses, an employer can better understand the individual employee experience and where to improve upon.

Pulse checks are another efficient way to retain continuous employee feedback and provide data that helps organizations improve. As employers effectively use this feedback data to improve, it shows employees that their company is listening, which builds trust and engagement. A highly engaged workforce leads to a 41% reduction in absenteeism and a 17% increase in productivity.

Trust — especially during times of uncertainty — is an important part of maintaining a healthy culture that recognizes, celebrates and engages employees. Given the uncertainty that today’s workforce faces, employers can rebuild trust by implementing feedback, giving recognition, rewarding employees for a job well done and providing an active space for learning and listening.

Jeff Cates is CEO of Achievers, an industry-leading employee engagement solution provider.

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