How Companies Can Better Engage Their Employees in Response to COVID-19

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Apr 9, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

One of my favorite movies growing up was City Slickers starring Billy Crystal. As Crystal’s character faces a mid-life crisis, his two best friends take him on a cattle drive across the western United States.

Crystal’s job is to buy advertising for a radio station, and a few minutes into the film his station manager boss played by Jeffrey Tambor chastises him for having bought a “stupid” ad for a local pizzeria as a significant departure from how Crystal used to do his job. Tambor takes away Crystal’s authority until he “gets back on track” and soon after Crystal leaves for the West with his two friends.

While there are many things about this scene that are significant in relation to Crystal’s character, it has particular relevance for managers right now. Tambor approached this conversation in a way we might typically associate with how to manage others – we see a problem with an employee’s performance, set new parameters for their contribution, and then things unfold as they do.

And this tougher, more direct approach could very possibly be a reasonable way to go – most of the time.

Because of the outbreak of COVID-19, employees who typically came to work every day are now being forced to work at home. This means that employees with families will be interrupted in their work and the social isolation can be rather daunting for many who rely on human contact. They will likely struggle to be quite as engaged in their work even under the best of circumstances. But there’s something far more insidious than annoying family members that is likely eroding away at your employees’ level of engagement.


The Washington Post and ABC News recently conducted a poll and found that more than nine in ten Americans believe the COVID-19 outbreak is going to cause a recession. This, coupled with all of the other indicators around unemployment, massive government bailouts, and of course the looming threat of a deadly illness, means that employees are dealing with more than children banging on their office door and unstable Internet connections during Zoom calls. They’re dealing with the possibility that life may be fundamentally worse for them and their loved ones in a couple of months.

In City Slickers, Jeffrey Tambor plays the offending pizza ad on a cassette tape, declares that people are having accidents during drive time because of it, and then throws it in the trash. If a manager simply comes down on their employee for poor work in such an aggressive way amidst all of this fear, it will pile on further anxiety and cause the employee to shut down even more.

Back during our hunter-gatherer days, our ancestors were vulnerable to a variety of predators like enormous saber-toothed cats. If an unarmed gatherer was suddenly approached by one of these beasts, their survival was based on other members of their community coming to the rescue. Their ability to re-engage with their work was based on no longer feeling like their life was in danger.

And while we aren’t engaged in the same type of danger, this does feel like a dangerous time. In short, employees don’t need to be chastised. They need to feel like their manager has their back so as to re-engage with their work.

Employees will be most engaged when the problems they are facing right now are acknowledged as important.

To ensure that employees feel seen in this way, managers can do a few simple things. For mass communication like emails and blog posts, get some data on what employees are going through right now and start off your communication with an acknowledgment of what people are going through at a high level before pivoting to the main purpose of your content. In anticipation of a meeting, ask all participants to send you a few words on what kinds of day-to-day problems they’re facing in this new normal. And if you’re having a one-on-one meeting, simply start the meeting with a question like “This is a difficult time for all of us, are there any struggles you’re experiencing in response to this new situation that you’d like to share?” And then, with any of these situations, offer even just one or two tips for how they might solve the problem – either in the moment or follow up with them – just so that they know that those problems have been heard and are important to you.

Billy Crystal had to traverse the western half of the country and almost drown in a flooded river to re-engage with the life he had created for himself. While your employees don’t have that luxury, the scene in the river does provide us with another cue…

He only got out of the crisis he was in because the people he was with had his back.

Your employees will be most engaged when you as their manager acknowledge them as important. If you show you have their back, they will resume the work they are doing with focus and efficiency.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.