Fostering Employee Engagement Amidst Uncertainty

Published on July 29, 2020.

It’s worth repeating again and again—our current circumstances are not easy and things will continue to change. Self-care, self-compassion and resilience, are the keys to enduring change and uncertainty. Ensuring that we create a work environment where every employee feels valued and supported is a daily effort and is more difficult now. 

This month we talked with supervisor Minerva Munoz from TRIO Student Support Services Program and Dawn York-Bentley from Morrill Hall Shared Services Human Resources about their challenges and successes in keeping teams engaged over the last few months. The changes they made and actions they took help to support employee engagement.

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Fostering Employee Engagement Amidst Uncertainty

As the University begins its sixth month of extended reduced operations, many feel that the stressors brought on by the pandemic have not gotten any easier; in fact, they’ve intensified. Many faculty and staff continue to work remotely, combining the challenges of long-distance collaboration with colleagues with the collapsing of the divide between “work life” and “home life,” whether it’s a houseful of restless kids or isolation and loneliness. Add to this the complex task of working towards community healing and justice after the murder of George Floyd. Recently, some employees are coming back to campus and many faculty and staff members are experiencing furloughs or pay reductions. All of that is to say, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or burned out, the chances are your team is feeling the burden, too. 

“This COVID thing has required us to come to the table, very real, on a lot of different levels,” Dawn York-Bentley, an HR Pro Generalist 2 in Morrill Hall Shared Services said. “And as supervisors, as managers, as directors and as employees, we can’t ignore it.”

Dawn encourages supervisors to acknowledge the situation and the challenges that come with it. The pandemic and civil unrest has affected each person differently, so supervisors can support their faculty and staff members by meeting each of them where they are at. There is no one-size-fits-all support: by not recognizing and tailoring to the unique perspectives and circumstances of each team member, supervisors risk their team members burning out and disengaging. Rather, embracing the reality of those personal circumstances helps to build trust and demonstrates that supervisors value each individual and their contributions to the team.

When faculty and staff transitioned their work to a remote space, Minerva Munoz, TRIO Student Support Services Program Director, established “Are You Good?” meetings for 15 to 30 minutes each day to foster connections and collaboration. 

“I was trying to just make sure that they knew and could trust that I cared about what was happening to them and that we were processing this together and that we're building community,” she said.

Similarly, Dawn said her supervisor, established daily standing meetings and made a point to follow up with each staff member to give them an opportunity to continue the discussion privately if they wanted. 

“When your supervisor does that reach-out and specifically pulls out something that they heard, I don’t know how much of a better example you can give to say that ‘I am actively listening.’” Dawn said. 

Another vital part of staying in touch is coaching each member through the changes to their responsibilities brought about by the pandemic. 

“We were experts in previous environments and we all of a sudden just kind of shuffled around.” Minerva said. “It was like your job description changed a little.”

Minerva quickly brought her team together and challenged each member to create a plan to call and assess the needs of each of their advisees within the first two weeks of the pandemic. 

“I kept reframing to them that I recognize that some of the things I'm asking them to do is a little social worker like. “ she said. “But given the pandemic and the chaos and the things that our students were going through, that is what we needed.” 

The prolonged uncertainty and chaos we’re experiencing necessitates a focus on self care, wellbeing, and focused time away from work.  Minerva encouraged her team to spend part of their work week doing something that they personally find fulfilling. She asked them to capture the activity and post it on the TRIO social media channels as a way to model self care to their students. 

Following the murder of George Floyd, supervisors in the Urban Research and Outreach Center (UROC) provided their staff the option to spend a day as a volunteer giving back to the Minneapolis community where they work and live and recognizing the tragedy both personally and professionally.

“It made a difference for people to come back into the work environment, share their experience, and then just to feel like they did their part as a citizen,” Dawn said. “Once they got past that volunteer day, it just allowed them to be able to focus on their work and do better in their work environment.”  

This era of rapid change requires supervisors to focus on their employees and themselves more intentionally. Remember to breathe. Take one day at a time. Lean into discomfort and uncertainty. Allow yourself to make mistakes. 

“In the end we are not going to be perfect, and I am not going to get it all right, and things are going to change. So what I say today may not be true a week from now, but at least we are a community and you know where my intentions lie and where my heart is.” Minerva said.