As every organization goes remote, one question reverberates across industries: How do leaders keep their teams motivated and engaged?

It’s no surprise that employee engagement is essential for accelerating productivity. Gallup estimates that the cost of poor management and lost productivity from unengaged or fully disengaged employees in the US is between $960 billion and $1.2 trillion per year.

In the past week, leaders have made all sorts of motivational gestures — from new benefits to free counseling, WFH equipment, grocery gift cards, and promises of bonuses to come.

These efforts are not in vain. However, the most influential engagement lever to pull during this crisis may not be expensive, fancy, or even significantly different than in times of stability. In fact, it’s free and easy: regularly checking in and asking how people are doing.

In 2018, EY conducted a national study to identify top determinants of employee satisfaction and belonging. Above any other measure, over 40% of American workers said they feel happiest and most connected at work when colleagues simply check in with them, asking how they’re doing personally and professionally. This aligns with a 2017 American Psychological Association study which finds that when employees feel supported by their managers, they’re twice as likely to be productive and satisfied with their jobs.

A simple check-in holds exponential power — especially when it comes from a leader, and especially during tough times. It doesn’t need to be a 30-minute call, a 1:1, or even a text thread. When leaders simply say, “Hey, I just wanted to check and see how you’re doing,” adding low-stress qualifiers like, “No rush to respond. I’m here if you want to talk about anything,” it entirely shifts employee perspective, mitigating anxiety far beyond that interaction.

“Consistent, everyday conversations and empathy will help build team resilience and cohesion, even when you're not able to be in the same space at the same time,” adds Chief Member Victoria Taylor, Head of Community at LinkedIn. Victoria shares one recent study, which finds that "91% of CEOs believe empathy is directly linked to a company's financial performance, while 93% of employees say they're more likely to stay with an empathetic employer."

People want to feel seen. They want to know they are not alone. It’s impossible to predict the specific influences COVID-19 will have on any individual, but as a leader, reframing fear with words of comfort holds tremendous power right now. Asking “how are you” won’t end this crisis, but it will go a long way.

Published March 20, 2020