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Fostering engaged employees in a virtual environment

This article is the second article in our series about the challenges of remote work for both team leaders and employees. The first article on why remote work is here to stay can be read here. The next article about employee morale can be read here. A complete overview of the articles in this series is shown at the end of this page.

What is an engaged employee?

Imagine that the following two people work on your team:

Jane loves her job. Not only does she enjoy the activities needed to accomplish to complete her job, she is also a true believer that your team’s mission is critical to achieve the company’s vision which she signed up for when she joined. As a result, she approaches every task that comes her way with a positive and enthusiastic attitude. She has the team’s interests first, and is aware of business context. Therefore, she works with her team to improve performance for the benefit of the organization. Jane always tries to go the extra mile. And because she believes in the organization’s mission, she feels compelled to develop solutions that improve the customer’s experience. Jane is an engaged employee.

Now consider Anna. Anna has lost interest in her job. When she starts her workday, the only thing she can think about is the moment when she will shut down her computer in the evening. Throughout the day, Anna is doing the bare minimum to get her tasks done, or might even work counterproductively for the rest of the team. She comes to work only because she needs the money. Potentially, Anna is already looking for a new role somewhere else. Which is a pity, because when she started a few years ago, Anna was just as excited about her job as Jane is today. Anna is a disengaged employee.

Why does engagement matter?

A study published in the Harvard Business Review that looked at companies with over 500 employees found that 71% of managers felt that employee engagement is one of the most important factors in overall organisational success. Yet, according to a research from Gallup, historically only one in 3 employees feel engaged at work.

The potential for improvement is thus enormous. Given the benefits of employee engagement for employers are impressive, it is a goal all team leaders should strive for:

Dedication: engaged employees take pride in working for your organization. They go the extra mile to excel in their work. To the outside world, they are great advocates towards customers and users.

Innovation: engaged employees look for opportunities to improve products, services and processes. They want to be creative to improve the status quo.

Loyalty: engaged employees see themselves working for your organisation in the long run. Their retention rates are really high.

Commitment: employee engagement drives a desire to be there for the team. This results in fewer leave, sick absences, conflicts or accident rates.

How engagement dropped in June 2020

Surprisingly, employee engagement reached an all time high in May 2020 (38%), according to Gallup’s survey. However, this high was quickly followed by a tremendous drop in June (31%), reaching an all time low, and setting a trend that is more in line with what could have been expected with increased work from home.

So what caused the short term improvement of engagement? First, employers started to focus more on communication towards employees with regards to latest developments. Employees felt that their employers cared for them. Second, there was a shift in the employment base. Not only was it smaller, we also expect the most engaged employees to have maintained their employment disproportionally when companies needed to decide who to lay off. Third, the employees who remained in their positions felt deeply fortunate to have kept their job, which might have provided an extra boost in engagement. 

But what happened in June? First, social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing shifted leaders’ efforts to the numerous challenges around diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Second, as states and countries started to re-open, employers stopped being as clear in their communication as in March and April. And Finally, some previously laid-off employees returned to work, with lower engagement levels.

Thus, managers now need to find more lasting ways to increase and maintain engagement.

How to improve employee engagement in a remote environment?

Let us come back to the story of Anna for a second. If Anna was an engaged employee until March 2020, but started feeling disengaged since, chances are high that she didn’t receive the supportive environment she needed from her organization. And Anna will not be alone, as a lot of organisations will struggle to keep their employees engaged in a long term remote environment if their leaders do not take action today. As a team leader, you should absolutely not believe that the disengagement came from Anna herself, nor blame her for it. Instead, you should find ways to revert the trend, and bring Anna back on the path of engagement. The following is a list of key strategies to make Anna an engaged employee again. In remote environments, team leaders can take these simple steps to keep their employees engaged:

  1. Build trust between employees and management

In remote environments, it is harder for team leaders to consult their teams when they need to make decisions. Most managers therefore wrongly feel pressured to make decisions on their own, as they no longer have watercooler moments or corridor talks where they can quickly discuss ideas with their team members and collect their feedback. The result is that employees who were used to contribute to ideas now feel disconnected from the decisions their team leaders make, and they struggle to buy into these decisions.

On top of that, informal communication flows in remote environments spread more slowly than in person, and some employees feel that they are now made aware of changes and decisions way too late.  They feel forgotten and gradually lose trust in their leaders.

When teams work remote, the best way to maintain trust in managers is to create a culture of open and transparent communication. The worst thing leaders can do in this environment is to wait until a decision is made before they start communicating about it. This will leave employees felt treated as executers rather than as builders. Instead, team leaders should be super transparent about what the important issues are that they are working on, and how far their decision-making has progressed. They should also more than ever create formal opportunities for employees to participate in the process, and challenge and influence ideas. Not only to build trust, but because in a new environment additional perspective adds tons of value. This does not mean more meetings. Simple written communication tools can do the trick. But the opportunity must exist.

  • Empower employees

As a manager, you are not the only one who is adapting to a remote environment, so are your employees. Therefore, your leadership style needs more than ever to focus on giving them the tools and inputs to thrive, rather that to tell them exactly what to do, when and how. Otherwise, they will never perceive their role as important, will feel resentment, or might feel bored. Quit micro-management, show flexibility.

To do so, make sure to align beforehand what you require from your team members. Set clear objectives, in terms of deliverable depth, quality, and timeline. From there, trust your employees to find the best way for them to deliver results in this new environment. And be there to support them along the way if they need it.

Make sure your employees are on track by providing way more feedback opportunities than you did in the past. Be clear on the targets required for promotion, and regularly provide your view on how well they are performing against those. And if you sense creativity, by all means, nurture it by providing bandwidth to work on new ideas.

  • Offer opportunities to build relationships across the organisation

Social connections are at the core of well-functioning organisations. They allow to share information beyond the traditional siloes that exist. But they are also super important for employee engagement.

First, by getting to know lots of people within their organization, employees feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. They realize how everyone else is experiencing the company’s vision, mission, values and goals. This inspires them to also contribute to its success.  

Second, social connections give employees joy. They lead to friendships. And a smile from these friends enriches your day. It provides positivity that is sometimes required to get through some tasks or difficult periods.

Third, having connections at work helps your team members to know who to reach out to for help. As people can no longer physically work to another department’s open space to ask who would be the most relevant person to help out on an issue, they need to tap into their personal networks. Missing the right relationship and not knowing who to reach out to provides a feeling of powerlessness and embarrassment not often escalated to superiors. Employees feel that they don’t now the people in their organisation, and start to feel disengaged.

So how do you create these opportunities to build relationships?

First, make sure your employees attend many the virtual events your organisation organizes. Make it a priority for them to attend rather that to spend a few extra hours to finish an analysis or finetune a presentation. These company-wide events often have networking moments or breakout rooms.

Second, open your address book. However tempting it may be to take the lead yourself on all the projects with other teams and departments, you need to also send people from your team. These collaborations will be opportunities for them to connect and meet new people

Finally, don’t limit your virtual happy hours only to your team. iungo is a great platform to hold informal virtual events dedicated to meeting colleagues from other teams in the organization. Imagine that every Friday during lunch break all employees are invited to connect on iungo for an hour. That means that they can be randomly connected to and meet 5 to 10 new colleagues, every week. Time well invested into keeping them engaged.

In this series about the future of remote work:

For team leaders:

  • Challenge 1: How to keep employees engaged?
  • Challenge 2: How to keep morale high?
  • Challenge 3: How to keep productivity high?

For employees:

  • Challenge 4: How to get to know new colleagues?
  • Challenge 5: How to stay in touch with colleagues?
  • Challenge 6: How to build deeper connections with colleagues?

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