What Leaders Can (and Should) Do About Employee Disengagement




PHOTO:
Niklas Hamann

We’ve been doing this whole “work from home” thing for a little while now — over a year, for many of us. And while many amazing developments have come about as a result of remote work, one sticking point remains for leaders.

Engagement.

Engagement is normally a term thrown around to motivate HR teams to ensure employees are emotionally committed to an organization and its goals. But with remote work, leaders have begun talking about engagement as something innate in the employee: are they engaged or not? And instead of asking HR to help make sure remote employees are engaged, leaders are alternating between giving up on remote work entirely or blaming the individual employee for being disengaged.

Highly-engaged employees are over 20% more productive than those with low engagement, according to a recent Gallup poll. It’s no secret that engagement and results go hand-in-hand, but what appears to be a secret is this: employees don’t randomly become disengaged. The environment they work in leads to disengagement. And over the past year, that environment shifted significantly, which means the strategies and systems leaders use to engage their team also need to adapt.

Let’s break down some of the key ways that organizations get in the way of remote employees’ engagement and ability to succeed, action items for improvement, and the new definitions of success in this new, modern, remote-work world.

How Are Leaders Hamstringing Remote Workers’ Engagement?

There are a few core pain points that most organizations have yet to address, even after over a year of working from home. While there’s no denying the adjustment has been challenging for some and harrowing for others, it’s high time for organizational leaders to take a long, hard look at some of the behaviors that have become their new standard operating procedures — because they’re likely doing more harm than good.

Related Article: What 2020 Taught Us About Being an Effective Leader

Keeping the Same Processes as Before

Chances are good you needed to adapt many processes when shifting from an in-person work environment to a remote one. From communication and document sharing to task delegation and tech support, everyone had to figure out how to adapt. If processes still remain from your days working in the office, consider modifying them for the remote work environment. It will make your employee’s lives so much easier.

For example, are you still having that biweekly happy hour, but over zoom? If you’ve noticed attendance dwindling or more muted, video-off attendees, consider trying a different activity that’s better suited to remote teammates, like an online game.

Focusing on Face Time Instead of Output

While many people miss aspects of being in the office, your remote teammates also love the decrease in distractions. The pandemic has shifted how we view our time and the way we get our work done. So why are we so obsessed with hopping on a video call for every little thing? Just because your calendar is blocked off for meetings every other hour doesn’t make you a good employee. In fact, if your employees are chained to Zoom for more than half of their work week, how can you expect any kind of quality output from them?

Sometimes leaders over rely on video because they’re not trusting their team to get work done. Setting up clear accountabilities and output expectations can help relieve this tension, and allow leaders to manage to outputs more effectively.

Related Article: Can Asynchronous Collaboration Survive Our Always-On Workplaces?

Asking What the Company Needs Instead of What Employees Need

The pandemic didn’t just upend the workforce. Parents are struggling to care for their children. Families are trying to make an open floor plan work for everyone’s work-from-home needs. And some people have lost loved ones over the course of this pandemic. While upholding success metrics is vital to a company’s success, it’s worth noting that if all you’re concerned about is how employee disengagement is hurting the company — without interrogating if you’re part of the problem — you may need an attitude adjustment.

Many companies have increased their budgets for mental health services or babysitting stipends, but they haven’t retrained managers on how to support teammates who are struggling and how to push back on the workload for their team. That type of retraining (and its implications for the company) are a key part of actually helping remote teammates stay engaged through ups and downs.

What Should Leaders Do Differently?

A lot goes into empowering remote team members and ensuring they have what they need to be successful. While this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, it’s enough to get you started — and short enough to share around at your next team meeting.

  • Look for patterns in symptoms of “disengagement.” You’re concerned about employee engagement for a reason, right? Why? If you’ve noticed patterns of behavior among several teammates, don’t write it off as “disengagement.” Discuss it with other leaders too. What may seem to be just a problem with one teammate could actually be a pattern across teams. Once you’ve identified the patterns, consider if organizational support would help address this — or better yet, ask the employees themselves! Oftentimes, simple changes like switching certain meetings to async or setting more flexible working hours can make a huge difference for engagement.
  • (Re)define “effective.” I know I sound like a broken record, but if you’re still holding onto the archaic working models that you used in-office, it’s time to level up! We used to view hard work as teammates staying late or arriving early, but that’s not a great way to evaluate work. Instead, consider what your team needs to do: what does a home run week or month look like? Is it shipping high quality features regularly? Or answering customer support tickets quickly and kindly? Start using those metrics to evaluate how the team is doing. Plus, take the stress off of your team by asking them what would help them to meet those metrics more easily. From there, you’ll be able to reduce your reliance on face time as a metric for work and instead provide flexibility to your team. Producing great results is a two-way street, after all.
  • Switch the focus from employee to organization. Your employees are responsible for their own tasks and output. Your organization is responsible for making those tasks and that output easy to complete and produce. If an employee is logging into work each day prepared to fight a losing battle to get their work done, of course they’re going to be disengaged! Your managers should be equipped to do whatever is needed to help their team members do great work. And if they’re not, get them the training they need to do so.
  • Iterate on different ways of working. Everyone works a bit differently, and the benefit of remote work is that your employees can identify the ways they work that lead to the most productivity. Don’t stifle that exploration. Invest in your employees by allowing them to find (within reason) the ways in which they work best. It makes the cadence of work more bearable, and the workday much more humane.

Related Article: Riding the Employee Engagement Rollercoaster

What Does Success Look Like?

In this work-from-home era, gauging engagement looks a little bit different, but is still extremely manageable. The best way I’ve found to check on engagement is a combination of goal completion and checking in with the team regularly about how they’re feeling. A good sign that you’re improving is if you’re getting candid feedback and the issues are getting smaller. It’s hard to fix every problem, but if you’re in an open dialogue, you’ve got a much better chance.

Goal completion is also important because it allows you to assess whether the changes are impacting what the team needs to get done. Keep in mind there can be an adaptation period when you make changes, so you may need to give your team a few weeks to get their feet under themselves.

The key here is to foster transparent communication practices that will enable you to support your teammates when they need it. Don’t shy away from conversations about the support needed to do great work. Welcome them, engage with your employees, and watch as their engagement skyrockets the moment they have the tools they need to excel.

Jen Dennard is the COO and co-founder of Range, the team success software used by Twitter, Carta, CircleCI, and more to keep their teams in sync and connected (even during covid).

Prior to Range, Jen led the organization design team at Medium, deploying custom software and training to help scale the company.



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