At first, employees at Health Boost IOT Technology Company thought their employer was just looking out for their health. Each employee at the company, based in eastern China, was given a smart cushion to pad their office chairs to measure blood pressure, posture, and fatigue at work.
But as employees were disciplined for time away from their desks, they realised that the cushions weren’t what they seemed. Every bathroom pitstop, coffee break, and water cooler conversation became data to enforce productivity.
It should feel like a sci-fi story — but it’s fast becoming a reality as employers in highly regulated industries navigate return-to-office plans in line with regulatory requirements.
With tales of employers monitoring employee office attendance via access cards, and cameras in meeting rooms, HR leaders are facing new challenges to maintain trust and psychological safety for onsite team members while juggling compliance obligations.
Keeping employees engaged and motivated in this context isn’t just important — it’s paramount. But long-term engagement isn’t built on surveillance and fear — it’s forged in how organisations support greater connection, well-being, and autonomy among employees.
Employee Engagement Challenges in Highly-Regulated Fields
Employee engagement is the engine of great organisations. Engaged employees perform better, and are linked to higher levels of profitability — and organisations with high levels of engagement enjoy higher employee retention.
But organisations in highly-regulated industries often face a host of additional challenges to their employee engagement:
Poor work-life balance and a high-stress environment increase burnout and absenteeism, leading to higher levels of employee turnover. And when skilled employees quit in a competitive talent market, regulatory requirements levy an additional layer of complexity for re-hiring.
When we view these factors in the context of the last two years, it’s easy to see how organisations could be struggling with employee disengagement.
“Employees in highly regulated industries feel they can be successful in a remote capacity, so it’s more challenging to convince them to come back into the office,” explained Laura Battle, EVP and head of HR at Pensionmark Financial Group.
“Employees have had time to really evaluate what is important to them, such as health, family, wellness, and happiness. This shift has made many employees realise that the standard office routine, five days a week, may no longer be needed or necessary in many fields.”
Why Does Onsite Employee Engagement Matter?
While working on site may be unavoidable for some team members, keeping your people engaged and motivated to do their best work relies on understanding how each employee feels, and tracking their evolving job satisfaction.
Collecting employee feedback is the most effective way to do this. Employee engagement surveys help you identify the areas of your employee experience that are contributing to employee disengagement. Meanwhile, pulse surveys help you keep a close eye on other factors that impact job satisfaction, such as working environment, team dynamics, travel, and health and safety.
Tracking these metrics while collecting both quantitative and qualitative data about how your in-office employees feel means you can pinpoint problem areas, act on your survey results, and introduce new initiatives that boost engagement and retention.
For more examples of questions you can use to measure your employee experience for your in-office team members, take a look at our article on the 35 key employee engagement questions to ask, or download our Return-to-Work Survey Questions template.
6 Employee Engagement Ideas to Motivate Onsite Teams
Checking who’s clocking in will ultimately only harm employee engagement — but organisations can use employee feedback to create a great experience for onsite workers.
To do that, they need to focus their employee engagement strategy on fostering a culture built on trust and connection, and create intentional engagement activities that strengthen working relationships, empower autonomy, and prioritise professional development.
Here are six ways to keep your in-office teams motivated and engaged:
1. Use public praise to recognise employee contributions.
We’re all hardwired to crave praise. When we receive recognition for a job well done, it gives us a sense of reward, which helps us internalise new knowledge and behaviours.
In the workplace, employee recognition is a powerful way of encouraging a highly engaged, motivated workforce. HR leaders can encourage managers to lead with peer-based praise within their teams — but organisations can extend the impact by building a culture around recognition in person.
All hands meetings or team huddles are great opportunities to celebrate employee contributions publicly, while implementing purposeful tooling (like Lattice Praise) can make regular praise easy, visible, and part with your company culture — especially when it’s integrated with regular workflows, such as messaging like Microsoft Teams or Slack.
Remember that public praise isn’t for everyone, and that while some employees may bask in the spotlight, the very thought might make others break out in a cold sweat. In all instances, it’s better to ask how your employees prefer to be praised.
2. Build community with Employee Resource Groups.
Creating an office culture where every employee feels supported and motivated hinges on finding ways for employees to foster meaningful connections with one another.
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are a great way to further this cause and build strong working relationships. ERGs are purpose-driven, voluntary networks that bring together employees from traditionally underrepresented groups.
Research shows that ERGs are vital for fostering community, advocacy, and psychological safety at work — but a 2018 academic study by Emerald also found they enabled effective informal learning and development.
Human resources leaders can support ERGs by offering the budget, tooling, and support to help each group create meaningful activities and advocacy that builds long-term community across the whole organisation.
3. Offer onsite opportunities for professional development and informal learning.
Growth is an essential building block of employee engagement. When employees feel their company doesn’t support their professional development, they’re more likely to leave for one that does.
In-office working offers some unique peer learning and mentorship opportunities that nurture both engagement and employee growth, while connecting employees across different disciplines and seniority levels.
“Knowledge exchange for onsite employees is exponentially higher than when working remotely,” said Anna Zouvelou, People programmes and development lead at fintech Tide. “You can share information in an informal setting, shadow a colleague, brainstorm creative ideas, or just listen to work discussions in the office.”
Battle suggests in-person peer mentoring as an effective way to forge deeper connections and knowledge sharing: “Employers can nurture younger staff members or new hires by having them take on a mentor/mentee relationship with a seasoned staff member.
“Employers can also invest in a collaborative peer learning programme that brings employees together in a group learning environment — an example would be bringing a seasoned professional to the office to hold a lunch-and-learn on a relevant topic.”
4. Foster trust and connection with team building activities.
Team-building has come a long way since the trust fall exercises from decades past — but it’s still a valuable tool that helps foster trust and connection within teams.
Context is key to getting it right.
Research shows team-building exercises are most effective when they’re purposeful, rather than being purely for fun. A 2018 meta-analysis on team development found goal-oriented team building activities have a positive link to employee trust, coordination, and communication.
That’s not to say you can’t have fun — but team building must be structured to maximise benefits to both employees and the organisation. Options for goal-oriented activities include team hack days, engagement huddles, and setting collaborative OKRs. Want to amp up the fun? Try an escape room to boost team communication and problem-solving.
5. Nurture employee autonomy with intentional tooling and support.
Autonomy is a building block of employee engagement, and research shows that high autonomy leads to high levels of job satisfaction. But as organisations attempt to entice employees back into the office, they might be tempted to lean on enforcement measures or surveillance tactics to get their way.
Zouvelou says that this only leads to erosion of employee autonomy and trust, leading to employee disengagement.
“This can harm employee engagement, because employees don’t feel trusted by their employer. It’s also detrimental to culture, as employees stop feeling valued — they don’t feel supported and part of a team.”
While on-site employees might not have much choice about where they work, tapping into autonomy in other ways ensures that engagement stays high, even when you’re in the office.
In practical terms, this means giving employees the freedom, tools, and support to set goals, chart their professional development, and approach projects in their own way. Organisations can empower greater autonomy by encouraging project leadership, nurturing creative thinking, and empowering employees to make their own choices rather than implementing rules.
6. Take a holistic approach to employee well-being.
The pandemic made all of us reconsider what wellbeing means to us. As organisations navigate their return to the office, they must ensure in-office employees feel their well-being is supported just as much as any remote workers or hybrid peers. They must also consider how they support holistic well-being across physical, social, emotional, and mental health.
“Organisations can incentivise employees in different ways, and they should focus on understanding what is more enticing to their specific population,” said Zouvelou. “Companies may want to start by revamping the workspace. This can be done by creating different break-out areas dedicated to entertainment, well-being, or collaboration.
“Additionally, giving employees opportunities to socialise and stay connected with colleagues can add real value,” she added. “Not only is it a good incentive for them to come to the office, but it also maintains a strong company culture.”
Battle adds that offering flexible working hours where possible may signal to employees that their work-life balance and personal lives are valued: “Giving employees that flexibility will help them adjust to being back in the office, foster a positive culture, and keep them motivated to continue coming back into the office.”
Trust, Connection, and Community Build Effective, Engaged Teams
As organisations issue a rallying call for employees to return to the office, HR professionals must make sure organisations adopt an approach based on trust and connection to keep employees engaged, rather than surveillance.
Boosting employee satisfaction in an office-based context means organisations need to nurture the intrinsically human ways that employees connect — with work and with one another. Creating new ways for teams to connect, empowering autonomy in actions and projects, and building a holistic wellbeing strategy to match that of remote or hybrid peers will all be critical. Ultimately, organisations will need to make sure employees feel trusted, supported, and valued to ensure engagement and retention long-term.