This week’s post was co-authored by Robinson+Cole Labor and Employment Group lawyer Emily A. Zaklukiewicz.

Over the past year, employees have faced a number of challenges in light of the current pandemic, both personal and professional. Employees who are engaged in “frontline” work have been particularly impacted including those working in manufacturing facilities that have not closed and have been operating consistently over the last year. Many companies are recognizing the signs of exhaustion, burn-out and stress in their workforces and are actively searching for ways to engage, and re-engage, their frontline workers.

One area where companies are focusing is on their paid time off/vacation offerings.  During the pandemic, many employees including those in frontline positions, opted not to take, or take very little, vacation/time off to recharge and engage in personal pursuits. As a result, some companies have focused on revising their paid time off/vacation policies to increase flexibility by revising carryover and use provisions or paying employees for unused and accrued paid time off/vacation where state law does not otherwise require payout. Some companies have chosen to strongly encourage employees to take the time or even to institute a company-wide vacation day where the facility is closed and all employees collectively take a paid day off. With regard to compensation, some companies have provided bonuses (including “thank you” bonuses to all employees) and premium pay to employees working during the current pandemic.

Another avenue to increase employee engagement might be through team-building activities. In today’s world, where gatherings may not be advisable and may be restricted by relevant law, such activities may be held virtually or may involve an in-person component that does not require a group gathering. Companies have been sponsoring a variety of events from virtual puzzles and fantasy sports leagues to wine and cheese tastings. These activities can also have mixed virtual and in-person components such as sponsoring a “virtual 5k” where employees complete a 5k run or walk while wearing a Company t-shirt and then share photos of their activity. The key for these activities is to secure employee buy-in through ensuring that all employees are invited, that the activity is consistent with the interests of employees widely, and that employees are engaged during the activity but are also professional and collegial. Typically, activities such as these, especially those that may occur outside working hours, may promote greater goodwill from employees if participation is encouraged but is not necessarily required.

Lastly, companies who employ frontline employees, including manufacturers, have turned toward employee recognition programs as a mechanism for improving employee morale and engagement. This can take the form of company-wide recognition as well as individual recognition. For example, company-wide recognition could take the form of a “thank you” card and free item or similar expression of gratitude, while individual recognition could include recognizing an “employee of the month” or a specific department for exemplary teamwork, excellence in performance on a particular project, or another workplace success.

While these are examples of several ways that companies are engaging workers, there is a world of possibilities and the manner and method of incentivizing workers will largely depend on the particular employee population and the company’s culture. In developing successful engagement initiatives, some employers have opted to conduct engagement surveys which provide an anonymous tool to collect feedback directly from employees both on the level of engagement and also on the opportunities that may exist for the company to re-engage employees. Managers can also provide helpful insight into engagement and may have ideas that employees have provided on how manufacturers can increase the level of employee engagement.