A CEO acquaintance once told me that a dip in an employee’s performance meant ‘trouble at home’. But with little choice other than working from home during a second lockdown, how can we understand and prevent such a dip in performance?

Following government advice, working at home has left business owners and HR more reliant than ever on their line managers but arguably have less visibility of: 1) line managers’ capabilities 2) the impacts of managers’ performance on front line teams.

Earlier this year, many companies saw a rise in employee engagement and organisational belonging as workforces pulled together to face the pandemic, but many firms still have limited insight into the point when this period of ‘heightened response’ will end – and how this inevitable tail-off will occur and its effects across different parts of their business.

And how can business leaders – already facing job retention and budgetary issues – tell when this crisis response will level off, anticipate staff burn-out and, crucially, determine where their line managers will need to prioritise support and coaching resources for individual employees?

Enter data-driven tools and flexible learning.

Real-time and data-driven employee engagement tools are helping managers more accurately target and prioritise teams’ and individuals’ needs. So an organisation can ask a dozen questions of its employees more frequently to get faster insights, rather than run big surveys that mean long lead times and excessive time commitment from everyone involved.

For example, these types of tools quickly spotted that, as the first lockdown was being eased – after a period of heightened Covid response by companies and intensive efforts to keep employees connected – many employees were asking for more support going forward – their line managers had in effect “eased off” after the immediate crisis. Data indicated that greater enablement for managers might be needed to better support and connect their employees within this new world of work.

Similarly, employee feedback on business planning needs such as returning to work can be ‘plugged into’ into wider employee engagement tracking – and assess risks to performance earlier.

Since these surveys are confidential, they enable HR teams to collect an array of demographics that have become particularly important during Covid: (whether employees are living alone, living with family, living with others, etc.), so HR can identify differences between particular groups’ sentiments and their implications (as a further example, with employees having spent significant time at home, are those who have been alone keener to get back to the office?). With rich data, leaders can decide if there is a need for strengthening internal communication or designing new return to work protocols to boost culture and engagement.

Many organisations launched return to work surveys after the first lockdown which identified that women were more concerned than men on how Covid-prevention measures might be applied in workplaces; leaders had early warning of the need to clearly communicate safety measures, especially for the most worried employees.

Similarly, surveys can get employees to answer logistical questions like: “How do you travel to work?” or “How do you plan to travel to work once the latest COVID-19 restrictions are lifted?” with response options such as: “Walk, Cycle, Drive, Taxi, Public Transport, Other,” enabling them to detect contrasts in different work groups’ needs.

Through these fast turn-round surveys, organisations’ leaders quickly gain insights into employee engagement, benchmark company sentiment and identify emerging risks. At the corporate level, surveys can show the impacts of changing Covid restrictions on employees’ engagement or exposed frontline workers’ ability to maintain a high level of performance. Analysis showed how leaders’ response to changing work conditions, such as when to re-open an office, or allow flexible hours, might affect employee performance going into 2021.

By providing managers with survey dashboards, they have the ability to review the data shortly after the survey closes. These insights cut through the fog of management reports and quickly identify performance issues and the priority actions needed to resolve them, across the organisation.

As a result, leaders can understand quickly when and how performance might drop off, the key drivers of engagement and the impact on the wider business strategy. Managers can then determine what initiatives will drive the biggest impact on their teams’ engagement and performance.

These dashboards also provide a snapshot of which departments are prospering – so best practices or initiatives can be shared with under-performing parts of the business, and front- line leadership or training approaches adapted. Today’s employee engagement tools can be set up so that all relevant people in the organisation can access them – not just senior executives and HR. This openness helps leaders and managers alike to prioritise employee communication and action planning across the business.

Although frequently out of sight, line managers remain one of the touchstones for building culture and making change happen: successful ones create high-performing teams, and the minor improvements they inspire can add up to massive company-wide effects, enabling good habits and practices to scale throughout the business.

Many engagement tools can be integrated with collaboration products like Slack and Microsoft Teams, leaders have the tools to make micro-improvements on a daily basis, by embedding learning opportunities into their managers’ daily workflows. This combination not only allows managers to check progress and adapt as they go, but also the opportunity to dive deeper into learning with curated resources when required.

With a clearer window on the workforce, companies can take a culture first approach – not only to their ongoing pandemic response but also in ways to boost performance, despite today’s singular challenges. With data-driven tools, leaders and HR can assess the risks from, or beneficial impacts of, innovative change strategies or greater connectedness with front-line staff on their organisation’s performance: a level of insight that my CEO acquaintance can put to use – right across the workforce.