3 things 2020 has taught me about employee engagement

Late Night with Larry: Volume 1


On March 13, as the Rise team in Chicago settled into a mandatory work-from-home order, I sent an early-morning email to all employees. My message was simple: These are challenging times, but we’ll get through them together and be better for it. I’m here and my (virtual) door is open to you. And most importantly, thank you. Rise is its people, and I was -- and continue to be -- grateful for the professionalism and support we all have shown to one another and our clients.

In the weeks and months that followed, I made it my mission to show employees that I meant what I wrote. The agency would cut expenses, not staff. We would continue to invest in talent and recruitment and make progress on diversity, an initiative I care deeply about. And there would be ongoing, open communication. I’m proud to report that since becoming CEO in March, Rise has hired over 60 people. Nearly three quarters of these new hires are women, three of whom are in leadership roles. And we’ve had zero layoffs due to Covid-19.

Amidst all of this, I closely followed the agency’s weekly employee engagement survey results. Early on in the pandemic, our eSAT score rose to a company all-time high and was up significantly from the year prior. (eSAT is a satisfaction score from the employee engagement software the agency uses, Glint.)

As the months went on, the scores have ebbed and flowed, but the trend continues to be positive. Some dips are to be expected as our workplace -- and the world -- grapples with a global health crisis and its impact on both our personal and professional lives.

In talking with employees and digging into the weekly survey data, I’ve found there are new and different factors moving the needle on employee engagement right now. Here are three things I’ve learned about employee engagement this year.

Listen first. Then over-communicate. When I transitioned to the CEO role in March, I began a listening tour. I had been with Rise for 10 years, most recently as President, but I wanted to attack this role like it was my first day at the agency. I’m analytical and data-driven, so I organized these conversations in a report and identified themes. As the pandemic has continued, so has my listening tour. Now I revisit these themes to understand what’s still relevant and what’s new. This helps me plan for our monthly virtual town hall meetings, during which all employees hear the latest agency, client and industry news.

Overall, employee feedback has been tremendously positive. The need to feel seen and heard, especially during challenging times is so human. As leaders, it’s our job to drive these conversations and respond in a meaningful way.

Numbers always tell a story. Dig until you know what it is. I mentioned our eSAT score earlier. While a helpful gauge, an overall number doesn’t always tell the full story of what’s really going on. That’s why analysis is critical.

For example, there was a period where we noticed a dip in scores related to work-life balance. Because we had a weekly pulse on employee engagement data, we were able to act on this information quickly. We asked our leaders to increase the frequency of conversations with their teams about managing workload. In listening to feedback from our employees, we learned that in addition to finding balance, there was an opportunity to improve delegation of work to team members. To empower our managers and directors to confidently delegate work, we’re providing management training and hiring a dedicated team to focus resource management so managers and directors have the time they need to effectively coach their teams. We continue to check in with employees and monitor engagement scores to assess effectiveness.

Rise is one of the most data-driven agencies in the world, so gathering and utilizing employee engagement data to make smarter decisions is core to who we are. But all organizations can benefit from this approach. The key is to not take data at face value. There’s always a bigger story to uncover. It’s our job to figure it out and take appropriate action.

Benefits matter. Know which ones your employees need now. Compensation and benefits will always be key factors in employee engagement. But today, some work perks like subsidized gym memberships and beer Fridays are no longer at the top of the list. At Rise, we’re constantly assessing what benefits employees need to feel productive and supported, and identifying how we can make these work within our budget.

This begins with listening. I’ve heard from many employees who struggle to take breaks or “turn off” work at the end of the day. This isn’t limited to Rise -- new research reveals the struggle is real, which is why it’s critical that we have this personal time. So, we’re finding creative ways to make sure employees take time off. This summer, we closed the agency two additional days and converted our annual employee appreciation day, Rise Day, into a day off. We communicate with clients about these closures in advance to ensure employees can truly take the time for themselves.

We also know Risers are actively involved in their communities and the social issues at stake and we want to support that. We decided that all employees can take a half-day off to vote, as well as a full day off to volunteer at the polls.

And we have programs in place to support working from home. Before the pandemic, Rise offered a generous number of WFH days. When it became clear that the uncertainty of the pandemic was causing extra strain on our employees, we moved to unlimited WFH days for the foreseeable future. We know that this flexibility is especially critical for parents who are managing e-learning. In addition, we also provide employees with a monthly stipend to offset the cost of home internet service.

This is just a handful of learnings. The takeaway here is that to effectively lead through a crisis, executives must understand there are new and different elements impacting employee engagement.

So why am I sharing all of this now?

Seven months into the pandemic, with many late-night emails to Risers sent, it feels like the right time to turn my attention outward, too. Risers will continue to hear from me as we tackle what’s ahead. And I will continue to listen. It’s how we all will continue to grow together. But I also hope those outside of the Rise community will join in the conversation. There’s much we can share and learn from one another, especially during this unprecedented time. Subscribe to the Rise blog to follow along, offer your comments, and reach out with thoughts. I look forward to it.

One final thought. I wrote that first email to Risers following a morning walk with our family dog, Miley. As she and I walked up the driveway, the rising sun cast a warm, comforting glow on us. I snapped a picture of it and shared it in my email. I believed then as I do now: We too will rise from this. And we will shine.


10/07/2020 at 08:00