In this episode, we’re talking about employee engagement during times of adversity — and let’s face it, we’ve all been dealing with a touch of adversity lately with the COVID-19 pandemic upending things on both personal and professional levels. With all this uncertainty, employee engagement can be a bit precarious. When people aren’t engaged, productivity lags, and sales and marketing efforts can suffer.

Thankfully, we’ve got Jacqueline Throop-Robinson joining us to discuss how to manage employee engagement through adversity. Jacqueline, the founder of Spark Engagement, Inc., has a 30-year career focused on uplifting leaders and inspiring passionate engagement at all levels of an organization. As a best-selling author of Fire Up Your Team: 50 Ways for Leaders to Connect, Collaborate and Create with their Teams, Jacqueline strives to create cultures of passion, productivity, and performance.

During our conversation with Jacqueline, we cover:

  • Employee engagement levels — before and during the pandemic
  • Employee engagement as part of disaster preparedness planning
  • Managing teams and morale during times of uncertainty
  • Applying “lessons learned” during the COVID-19 pandemic to future periods of adversity
  • and more

Want to connect with Jacqueline online?


Alanna Jackson: Welcome to the B2B Mix Show with Alanna and Stacy. In each episode, we'll bring you ideas that you can implement in your sales and marketing strategy. We'll share what we know along with advice from industry experts, who will join us on the show. Are you ready to mix it up? Let's get started.

Stacy Jackson: Hey, everybody. This is Stacy Jackson.

Alanna Jackson: I'm Alanna Jackson. We are the cofounders of Jackson Marketing. In case, you still haven't heard, we are also sisters. Stacy, what are we talking about?

Stacy Jackson: Today, we are talking about employee engagement through adversity because, Hey, we're all going through a little bit of adversity right now, aren't we? With this COVID-19 pandemic stuff. We're in lockdown. Some of us are facing serious sales and marketing challenges and productivity challenges with all the remote working from home. That's going to impact employee engagement. It's a vicious cycle, if engagement's down, that impacts everything else. Alanna, what do you think about this topic for today's podcast?

Alanna Jackson: I think it's definitely an important topic that we need to focus on because a lot of businesses have had to change their models and things have completely changed in their working environment. Making sure that employee engagement is on track and up is key for a lot of businesses to keep going and moving forward because you have to depend on those employees to be productive in their work and making sure that they have the right environment and that they are engaged with their work and with their coworkers is critical.

Stacy Jackson: Alanna why don't you introduce today's guest, who is an expert in the area of employee engagement?

Alanna Jackson: Sure thing. Jacqueline Throop-Robinson is the founder of Spark Engagement, a global analytics company in human resources, focusing on employee engagement. Throughout her 30 year career, Jacqueline has focused on uplifting leaders and inspiring passionate engagement at all levels of an organization. As a bestselling author of Fire Up Your Team, 50 ways for leaders to connect, collaborate, and create with their teams. Jacqueline strives to create cultures of passion, productivity, and performance. Her book has been described by one reviewer as, "The most important personal development book you'll read all year." Jacqueline is a multiple RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Nominee, and is represented by the National Speakers Bureau. Jacqueline shares thought provoking insights, research and actionable advice on the principles of personal to organizational engagement. Her clients include a wide range of industries around the world. Jacqueline has worked throughout North America, as well as abroad, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Bermuda. That's a lot of different places. Jacqueline, welcome to the B2B Mix Show.

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Thank very much.

Alanna Jackson: Do you speak a lot of different languages since you've kind of been in all those different places?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: I wish languages was a natural talent of mine, but it's my daughter show, not mine. Fortunately, the world operates largely in English in the business context, and so I've been very blessed that way.

Alanna Jackson: That's true. If not, there's always an app, right?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: inaudible trust me.

Stacy Jackson: Jacqueline, before we begin talking about employee engagement through adversity, would you like to tell our listeners a little bit about Spark Engagement?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Sure. That would be wonderful. Well, Spark Engagement does of course do employee engagement, but we do it quite differently. We build it from the ground up. We center everything around the individual. We have an online individual assessment. We have online strategies and tactics for individuals to help themselve manage their engagement so that they can lead a fulfilling work experience at work life that they really aspire to. Of course, we do work with organizations because we take that data and we create collective reports and help organizations do the things that we know work at an organizational level. But we're all about the individual.

Stacy Jackson: You kind of know a little bit about employee engagement then?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Yes. I've been studying that for about 20 years now.

Stacy Jackson: Before we kind of jump into the now, let's take a step back and go pre pandemic, in the days where life was easygoing. You weren't cooped up in our house and going crazy. According to some of the researchers up to 60% of the world's workforce is not engaged. Why is that, and what do we do about it? Does that seem high or does it seem like it's expected?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Well, it's very interesting because I feel that that number is used to catch people's attention. I think it's a real, probably solid marketing strategy because it seems so high and people go, "Oh, wow." But what we've found because we have a very nuance model, where we're able to identify eight different states of engagement. It's not just you're engaged or you're not. You could be disconnected, you could be stagnated, you could be quite neutral, you could feel frustrated. We have all sorts of different states of engagement that are possible. What we have found with our global database is about 25%, are truly not engaged.
A third or a little more than a third are neutral actually, which is really different from not being engaged because it means you're not positive, but you're not negative. That is a critical group to influence when you're looking at your workforce and then the remainder tend to be in what we call our positive states of engagement. We call them energized, engaged or passionate. It is actually a much more hopeful picture than some of those headlines indicate. But 25% is still significant. In an organization, when you have a quarter that are truly not feeling the love, you're going to feel it, you're going to be aware of it. Our work is often using our models and what we know about what creates engagement to help people find the meaning and progress they need to move out of those negative states.

Stacy Jackson: When we look at, fast forwarding to now, where a lot of businesses are dealing with the adversity they are facing with the COVID-19 pandemic and everything that comes with that, it's definitely a new way of life and doing business. Have you seen how this pandemic has impacted employee engagement? Is there anything that you've observed?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: I've been interviewing many employees. A lot of my clients have asked for, obviously through video conferencing technologies. But they've really wanted to, not just do a survey, but really have conversations with their employees. What we found has been really interesting. Engagement in this context will depend on a combination of things. One is, the individual's mindset, how they are viewing the world currently and their place in that world. But also how the organization is responding to COVID-19 and how they are working with employees to find solutions. It's all over the place. In some organizations, I have one client that had to reduce their workweek from the traditional 37.5 work week, down 20%.
That is a different situation than a company who's been able to preserve compensation and benefits and is dealing more with helping employees be productive remotely. It is quite different depending on your particular situation. But there is an opportunity in tough times to strengthen employee engagement. People are nervous about measuring employee engagement right now and I tell them not to be, because you want to know how people are feeling. You want to know what they think about things so that you know what to do to support them. It's actually a terrific opportunity to strengthen employee engagement, even if you have difficult messages to deliver.

Stacy Jackson: Do you find a difference between a bigger company versus a smaller company on how they are able to influence that and execute employee engagement practices?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Small companies may, depending on their industry, really struggling with generating cash right now, right? They may be faced with having to lay off people who've been with them a long time, and that can be just really challenging. The larger companies tend to have a bit more buffer for weathering this storm and are preserving more that foundation. I do think it's more challenging for smaller companies. Again, it would depend on the industry, but I think there's also an opportunity there because even in small businesses, people tend to be very close knit and they tend to understand and be very empathic with the business owner and understanding the challenges. They tend to be willing to work with the business owner, and even if it is a really extreme situation where they can't remain employed for a period of time, I haven't found employees to be resentful of that, right? Because they really don't see what other options the owners had.
In bigger companies it's quite different. In larger companies, employees are reacting quite positively generally, as long as the larger companies have really strong communications and the other thing that I found to be completely essential is flexibility. We have a couple of clients who we had to kind of edge down the road of, it's not BAU. It's not business as usual. You can expect the same level of productivity. If someone has small children at home or is caregiving for elderly parents, there's no way they can keep up through productivity. It's just not possible, right? They may have to have different work hours, fewer work hours and if the communication is strong and the flexibility is there, those I have found, to be the two main ingredients. I think the third one though, is finding really innovative ways to bring their team together, even though it's remote.
I have one client who does quiz nights on Fridays with their employees. I have another one who has sent, if they're in a small geography, they sent a bottle of wine to every employee and they had a happy hour.

Stacy Jackson: Nice.

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: There's also opportunities to try to help people stay connected. I find most companies are very aware of people who live alone in this time and who don't even have a family to interact with. They're a household of one. I have been very impressed with how my clients have been really supportive. One client even set up a buddy system so that people who live alone and do independent work, that they have people reaching out regularly to those people.

Stacy Jackson: That's a good idea.

Alanna Jackson: Yeah. Because it will be very easy, right? If you're someone who normally works very independently and you live alone, you could be forgotten quite easily.

Stacy Jackson: Right. Especially not being able to go out anywhere right now, just to have that engagement in some way, could make a huge difference for those individuals.

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Yes. I have an executive I coach and she is working abroad. She lives alone. She was traveling just before the lockdowns. She was quarantined and then the lockdown started, it was quite, she's been there longer than all of us.

Stacy Jackson: Oh my goodness.

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: My daughter and she are born in the same town in China. I thought, you know what? This would be really cool. My daughter would love to meet her. We had her over for dinner via video conferencing technology. We cooked separately. We found a place on the table to put her and we had dinner together.

Alanna Jackson: That's nice.

Stacy Jackson: That's fun.

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: I think doing things like that can really make a difference to people during this time.

Stacy Jackson: Yeah. Definitely because it's just such a crazy time that we're not used to and just to make that extra effort as a company can make the big difference for your employees and how they feel about your company.

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Absolutely. In fact, I have been encouraging one company I'm working with, that's been struggling a little with employee engagement to just take on some of these ideas and make them their own, find something that's authentic to them, but to really reach out. I think they're going to have better employee engagement results this year than they've ever had.

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Stacy Jackson: We are back. Do you think that the companies that have never really done the remote work and are finding themselves kind of scrambling a bit and even some of the companies that do have people, some people working from home have probably struggled as well, but do you think that employee engagement needs to be part of their disaster preparedness plans for situations like this that may arise? I mean, none of us really knew that this was going so you don't necessarily prepare for this where the whole country or the whole world is kind of put in place, but is it something that we need to start thinking about going forward, having that as part of our preparedness plan?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Absolutely. I've been actually very surprised by clients who normally, are very aware of employee engagement, so to put that in a box when the crisis hit. Now, I get that in the very short term, because you're just scrambling to figure out just how you're going to function, right? But I think absolutely it needs to be a critical part because what we do know about employee engagement is, we do know that it makes a huge difference in terms of productivity, profitability, and innovation. You want employees engaged at this time, regardless of your particular business situation. There's going to be tremendous value that they can add, and if we don't use that lens, we're going to miss a lot of opportunities. I just recently saw communication from a client. They were doing a wellness check in, and now I know that behind the scenes, they do care about their employees and their health and safety.
They thought that with this wellness check in, they would be communicating that. But the way it comes across, when I looked at an early version of it, was very much we care about getting our work done and your productivity versus we care about you, right? They just miss the opportunity to frame it in a way that they actually meant to. It's interesting, they got too focused on the task, neglected-

Stacy Jackson: Got lost.

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Yeah. Got lost. It could backfire on them, right? If you don't really put that lens in your communications that could be, not just a missed opportunity, but in that case, it could potentially backfire.

Stacy Jackson: Right. Are there tools or technologies that you've found that help in these situations to engage those remote workers?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: We've actually developed our employee engagement tools and assessment through hardcore research. We are not an opinion survey. We actually measure people's emotional states. I'm working with one client right now, and we're looking at a two phased approach where we measure right now to see what is the emotional landscape, are people frustrated? Are they feeling disconnected? Are they still managing to stay fully engaged and even passionate about their work? Where are they? Once we know what the emotional landscape is, we can develop strategies and tools. For example, our research started with looking at passion at work. The two core drivers for people to be fully passionate about their work, is they have to see their working career as highly meaningful. There's probably no surprise there. We've had a lot of literature on the importance of meaningful work, purposeful work.
That's not a surprise, then the sources of meaning though, can be quite unique for people, even though there are some common sources. But the surprise was equally important is, you need to have a sense of progress, that you're getting somewhere, that you're having an impact, that there are small wins to celebrate. You have to have that sense of progress. Employee engagement, looking through the meeting and progress lens, you can start to put your communications through that and really constantly and consistently communicate what is meaningful about this from a shared meeting point of view, individuals will take and connect to it in different ways. What are going to be our signals of progress? How are we going to manage things moving forward? How can you contribute to that? How will we be supporting that? Even just looking at those macro drivers of meaning and progress can really give people a basic tool for managing employee engagement.
It does come down to the individual level too. There's really no way around it. At some point you have to deal with that individual level. The collective action is important and we do a lot of work in that space. But each person's a unique human being with unique needs. They might connect to some of those shared initiatives and shared views. But I personally also need, for example, my manager, to understand where I'm coming from and what is most important for me. For example, I was working with one organization where the parents who had small children at home were being given all the administrative work and the employer thought, "Oh, that's great. They can do it on their own time. It can be completely flexible for them." They pulled all the projects that were meaningful for that person and gave them to someone else. Her employee engagement went way down, right?

Stacy Jackson: I bet.

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: For her, yes. It was important to have flexibility. The meaning in her work just completely evaporated with just being given administration.
You have to deal at that individual level and at times like this, it's really important that each line manager reach out to each person and some line managers are not comfortable with that. One employee was telling me it took his line manager eight days to reach out to him, to check on him. Now eight days in self isolation can feel like a long time, right? That ability to check in and see what individual needs are during COVID-19. I mean, it's important any way, you just don't need to do it as often under normal circumstances. But right now, when people are feeling really unnerved and anxious, it's important.

Stacy Jackson: Leaders obviously, need to check in and take the steps that you've already mentioned to ensure that their team members are engaged, especially during some kind of crisis or adversity like this pandemic. For industries or businesses that are really facing some tough economic times where job security is a big question, are there additional steps that managers should take? Obviously they can't always promise there's going to be a job, but how can they keep people as engaged as possible when there could be job insecurity?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Well, this could depend very much on the reality of that job insecurity because sometimes again, that's perceived. There's a lot you can do when it's perceived. You can ensure that people have the right information. One CEO I know has been holding townhouse twice a week. He updates on anything new. He confirms what hasn't changed and if he doesn't know where something's going, he says he doesn't know. People are very good at dealing with reality when they are clear on what the reality is. Even if it is not looking good, people need to know the reality. I think often we hold back from that for obvious reasons, because those are difficult messages to deliver, but people deserve to know where they stand.
Also, they need to be given a balanced point of view and what is within their control. What are the things that they can do now? I have one company that has started offering a lot of online learning and development as a way of keeping people interested, who can't actually, they're at home, but they can't do their work from home, right? They're kind of at loose ends. Well, this company understands that's not good for them. They're offering free online mindfulness training, resilience training, even skill upgrades. Trying to keep their employees feeling positive and engaged even if things are not looking that promising.

Stacy Jackson: Right. I think honest communication is key, right? I worked for a really big company years ago. To this day they still sometimes go through rounds of layoffs, and during those times, if they had just communicated with us, don't hide that there's going to be more say, "Yeah, there will be more or something." That would have made me feel much better. But they would just kind of glass over and hide the fact that they knew that they were coming and then the next day we'd have more rounds of layoffs when yesterday they said, "No. We're good." Anyway, it was just like, you're on pins and needles. That does not help you as an employee, want to be engaged with the company because you feel like they're hiding things from you and they're not being honest with you about what's happening in. I know that you can't share everything with employees, but there are some lines of communication you can be upfront about. I think especially right now, some of those things, a lot of people are on pins and needles. I think that the communication is key in these situations.

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Absolutely key. What can I share and what can't I share? You can share what you can't share. You can say, "I'm not able to speak to this, but I can tell you this?" The greatest compliment, I think right now that CEOs are getting in the people I'm speaking with are saying, "He or she has been very transparent, genuine." I think right now we just need to feel that human to human connection, even if it involves bad news, right? That the person is being respectful of us. They're treating us with dignity. I think honesty is a critical piece of that and then helping equip people and them feel like they are empowered and accountable. That's what we're trying to do with our individual assessment, is to say, "Don't say in your head to yourself, it's the company, it's my manager's job to make my work experience positive." Really own it for yourself, empower yourself with that because you can create this for yourself.
I think that's an important message to remind people. We are innately creative people. We are innovative as people, and sometimes people feel insecure about that. But they will be able to respond to the challenge even if they do lose their current job. People are resilient and we have to really support each other in that as well. I think that message can get lost with a lot of the fear messaging that's out there. It's not really a balanced message right now. I think that's also important to remind people of their own power to influence their own outcomes in their own future.

Stacy Jackson: We've talked about some of the big lessons that we've learned during this process, but what would you say is the biggest lesson that managers and leaders need to look at right now and apply to their process to get employees engaged?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: What popped into my mind when you asked that question is, I think more than ever, organizations are seeing employees in their whole state. They're thinking more about their family situations. They're thinking more about their emotional and mental and physical needs. They're really thinking about employees in a whole state, and I've never seen that before. I really hope we can hang on to that so that we start to think of our workforce as made up of unique, special whole employees that have their own needs and situations. It is possible to work at the individual level even if you are part of a very large organization, technology enables that. There's a lot of tools and resources out there that enable that. I think this holistic view is really been eyeopening for many of the CEOs I work with.

Stacy Jackson: Jacqueline, before we wrap up things with our final question, is there anything we didn't cover that you'd like to leave our listeners with?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: I think the most important thing with employee engagement and COVID-19, is to not shy away from it. I think managers and leaders are just worried about getting bad news back. That the engagement results aren't going to be strong, that there is going to surface even more problems. What I would say is, it will give you information that will enable you to support the business and support each person on your team and you lean into it because its invaluable data right now and it will, if it's a good tool, it will point you in the right direction.

Stacy Jackson: For our final question, we wanted to go a little more personal. On a personal or professional level, what are some of the lessons that you have taken away from this whole situation?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: This has been a really important time for me personally. I am scaling up my business. We work in different countries, so it's very easy to be 24 seven on the job. This pandemic has been a gift from me personally, to slow down, to really assess, what are my deepest passions? Because I had gotten into a situation where in scaling up my business, I was doing a lot of work that wasn't that meaningful to me and I wasn't feeling the progress I wanted to feel, and yet I was pushing through because that's what you do.
I didn't realize until I stopped, just how tired I was and how little self care I had done for months, maybe years. It really gave me an opportunity to sort of check in and it continues to check in and just see what is most important, where do I get the most meaning from my work and how can I move those things forward and really allow that to drive the business forward, rather than trying to engage in activities that maybe are not so meaningful for me, and to really look after myself properly. I still have teenagers, I have elderly parents, I have a lot of people who count on me and I think I was kind of pushing the envelope too hard for too long. I hear a lot of people talking about that like that forced stop and to reflect and reassess. I do think a lot of people are finding a fresh perspective of things.

Stacy Jackson: Yeah. I think so too. Especially when you're an entrepreneur, business owner and you're kind of forced to take a little bit of a break and you're like, "Wow, I should be really taking care of myself or this passion or this project and don't always have to burn the candle at both ends."

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Yeah. Our culture really is a culture of busy-ness. I mean, it is just what we adopt. I think sometimes without stopping to think about it too much. I had a CFO said to me recently, "I don't have time to think." Right? I think that's not an indicative of our culture sometimes.

Stacy Jackson: Yeah. I do too.

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Yeah.

Stacy Jackson: Well, Jacqueline, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us today about employee engagement through adversity. If our listeners would like to connect with you online, what's the best way for them to do that?

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Our website is, and you can find out about our tools and resources there and of course I'm on LinkedIn, I'm Jacqueline Throop-Robinson. Those are probably the two best ways to get ahold of us.

Stacy Jackson: We'll include those in the show notes.

Jacqueline Throop-Robinson: Thank you.

Alanna Jackson: All right. Make sure you go, follow and connect with Jacqueline. If you want to get in touch with me or Stacy, you can hit us up on social. On Twitter, you can find Stacy at Stacy_Jax. That's S-T-A-C-Y underscore J-A-X. You can find me at Alanna_Jax. That's A-L-A-N-N-A underscore J-A-X. If you're not a Twitter fan, you can always look us up on LinkedIn, under Stacey Jackson or Alanna Jackson. Finally, don't forget, you can also leave us a voicemail on the anchor mobile app or on our show page. See you next week. The B2B Mix Show is hosted by Stacey Jackson and Alanna Jackson. Have you guessed it, Jackson marketing. If you need help with your B2B inbound market marketing efforts, visit us at

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