Author Profile Picture

Chris Ford

Blackhawk Network

Senior Director

Read more about Chris Ford

Rethinking your employee engagement strategy in a changing world of work

It's time to throw out the old rulebook on engagement and personalise your approach.

Scientists say that it takes people 66 days to form new habits – the ‘new normal’ we are experiencing has already surpassed this and many of us have created new routines and habits that are likely to stay. Having to deal with an uncertain future and a life under social distancing measures will have an impact not only on our routine but also on our interests and preferences. 

In other words, what we thought we knew about people’s interests and preferences based on their 2019 behaviour and attitudes, can no longer be relied upon. Businesses, which often follow conventional generational structures to determine what their employees value most, must make a significant renewed effort to re-engage their people to understand how they may have evolved.

Why the traditional concept of generations doesn’t work

When you’re dealing with a large and diverse workforce, it’s hard to have a clear view of all of their preferences, and we all inevitably follow the instinct of fitting people into boxes. 

Looking at your employees based on their generational grouping is a long-established concept, and a common way to package age groups to easily define their interests and needs in the workplace. We may follow common stereotypes and believe that a younger employee’s favourite pastime is to go out drinking, or that people over 65 might enjoy knitting. However, recent research by Blackhawk Network revealed that we can no longer use broad-brush generalisations.

The study, analysing the hobbies of adults from different generations – from Baby Boomers to Gen Z – found that the distinction between these boxes isn’t as clear as once thought. Today’s adults are far more nuanced when it comes to trying something new.

Reaching out will make people feel valued by the organisation and part of something bigger, in a time when they may feel more vulnerable.

The research raised a variety of nearly 150 hobbies, which in itself proves how difficult it is to pinpoint exactly what your employees’ different interests and needs are.  For example, board games, commonly associated with baby boomers, now feature among the top 15 hobbies for Gen Z and Millennials. The research also proved that some interests are far more universal than commonly thought. For example, baking, traditionally associated with older ages, was equally mentioned across all groups.

The onset of lockdown and this new world we find ourselves living in means people are trying new things, adopting new interests and are probably living a different life with a different set of challenges than before. We simply can no longer guess what our employees think or feel, especially if this is based on traditional stereotypes. 

Re-engaging your people

The pandemic has to make businesses stop and think. They need to throw out old conceptions and find out how people’s habits have changed and whether these habits might stick around long term. 

It’s clear that businesses need to change the way they view their employees and take an empathic approach to engage the workforce. In this ‘new normal’, it’s crucial to strengthen this relationship by finding opportunities to listen to staff and re-discover their priorities and interests.

A recent McKinsey study suggests the companies that have invested in open communication throughout the pandemic were the ones able to adapt the quickest. Even something as simple as a regular Zoom call giving people space to feedback on what’s working for them and what they need from the business can go a long way to helping everyone feel engaged and motivated. 

Reaching out will make people feel valued by the organisation and part of something bigger, in a time when they may feel more vulnerable. In other words, you’ll be giving them a chance to choose how they want to be treated and understand employee’s needs on a deeper level. 

Providing tailored incentives for happier employees

This empathic approach is just as important when it comes to building a reward and incentives programme. While a reward to engage staff could be a great tool to motivate workers and help businesses with increased levels of performance, one that is placed poorly could have the opposite effect.

For example, a mother that’s having to entertain her son at home could find much more value in gaming credits as an incentive, but that wouldn’t be an obvious reward choice if a business only considered her life stage or generational grouping.

Offering a choice-based incentive, such as a gift card or e-voucher that can be used in a variety of shops and is an instant reward, can help businesses get ahead of the curve as interests and priorities evolve.

Organisations that think of their staff as their most important asset are generally the ones that thrive.

While two employees may receive the same card, one may choose to spend it on a new picnic basket for summer, while the other may simply spend it on grocery shopping – a level of personalisation you wouldn’t be able to guess. By rewarding with choice little and often, employees will feel constantly recognised. Furthermore, this strategy is also cost-effective for businesses, as these small perks fall under the category of trivial benefits, which don’t require taxes. 

Giving staff the ability to choose for themselves how they use your gesture is paramount to adapting to the new normal. Importantly, a choice based offering helps businesses drive a supportive company culture, where staff feel recognised for their efforts and are empowered to decide how best to use the reward.

Some will use it for a gift for themselves, some will use it to support the family, and some will save the amount. Don’t try to second guess what they may decide and definitely don’t assume the 2020 employee has the same interests and preferences that the 2019 employee had.

[cm_form form_id=’cm_65a14c3f5da64′]

Put your most important asset, your people, front and centre

Ultimately, organisations that think of their staff as their most important asset are generally the ones that thrive.

It’s impossible to engage everyone as you would engage your own family, knowing everything about them from cradle to grave. However it is possible to engage employees in a relevant, personal and timely fashion, offering value along their journey with your business in a manner that makes them feel listened to and rewarded.

Finally, always remember that happy employees = happy customers = happy companies.

Interested in this topic? Read ‘Seven employee engagement myths busted‘.

Author Profile Picture
Chris Ford

Senior Director

Read more from Chris Ford

Get the latest from HRZone

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.