The Gallup report on the State of the Global Workplace for 2023 is revealing, but not necessarily in a good way. 23% of employees are engaged in their work, which Gallup defines as “[finding] their work meaningful and [feeling] connected to their team, manager, and employer,” while 18% are disengaged. This leaves 59% of employees on autopilot.
With employee engagement at historic lows—though still higher than last year—some leaders are attempting to make positive changes. Unfortunately, they’re still looking through the lens of the past and trying to impose or return to old norms.
Based on our research and experience, this approach is evidence of leaders being in denial. For a vast majority of industries, hybrid work is the future if companies want to retain talent, prioritize growth, and stay competitive.
And yet, some people suppose that remote work is to blame for employee disengagement. “Of course my employees aren’t engaged when they’re sitting in their pajamas and only seeing people on Zoom!” While I think this is far too simple, there are real challenges that arise in our new hybrid work world. Some are inclined to brush these under the rug, but that is a one-way ticket to building a company that is living in the past. Let’s walk through some of the biggest obstacles to employee engagement and some solutions.
Business as Usual?
Let’s start with a story. One of our clients has two private equity firms backing them. When the back-to-work conversation began, Firm A said great—five days a week, business formal, and we’ll see you at 8 A.M. on Monday. Firm B said, great—we’ll start three weeks after the holidays and begin with three days a week. When employees showed up to the office, they all had a pair of slippers awaiting them under their desks.
The differences between these two firms are plentiful, as you might imagine. Can you imagine how it might have felt for the employees who had ample transition time versus those who had to show up as if the world as they know it hadn’t changed dramatically over the last two years?
Firm A’s employees were disgruntled and confused—a lack of communication, transparency, and planning led to disengagement, turnover, and whiplash. Firm B, on the other hand, knows how to meet their team where they’re at. The leaders realized that—given what had already been happening—the team could work differently than they did before. There was no point in forcing a bygone paradigm of work. Firm B was and continues to communicate strategically and honestly about the circumstances.
The Solution: Personalize Your Change Management
How can companies be more like Firm B in their change management? Well, when you consider how you might implement remote and/or hybrid work, it’s crucial to think about what is most important to you and your team. Unless you work in an industry that requires employees to be in the office, it’s likely worth it to transition to hybrid or remote work.
Many companies are giving up their local footprint in favor of renting a coworking space once a week or once a month. Some companies used to have four floors in a building and now only have one.
There are myriad options that can be cost-saving and therefore allow you to provide other higher-value benefits like new training opportunities or healthcare offsets. You can make moves like this that match the values of your company and people and ultimately, can make you a more competitive company for potential talent.
Lack of Opportunities for Connection
We know it’s important to be in person sometimes. Imagine being a young person joining a new organization right after graduation. So much learning happens not just by attending meetings and getting feedback from your supervisor on your own work, but also by watching how leaders and those with more experience on the team interact. When you see your boss talk to a client, you learn cultural norms whether they’re good, bad, or indifferent. You learn about professional norms, relationship-building, and about the subtle and oh-so-human parts that make up the work we do.
There is more to sales, innovation, and business than technical offerings. How do you structure the offering? How do you talk about it in a board meeting? How does strategy get developed in person when everyone is in the room? Frankly, someone who has only three years of remote-only sales experience would have to play some catch-up if they are transitioned to doing sales in person.
The Solution: Intermittent Co-Location
A lack of connection with coworkers can certainly be a cause for a lack of employee engagement—yet, it’s unimaginative to think this can only happen five days a week in the office while wearing heels or a tie. As it turns out, the Gallup poll reports that engagement has 3.8x as much influence on employee stress as where they work. In other words, employees’ relationships with their team and leaders matter far more than whether they’re remote or in-person.
Intermittent co-location can be a great solution. Companies can come together in whatever cadence works for them – once a week, three days a month, a once-a-year retreat, the options are endless – to create opportunities for connection, in-person brainstorming, and real-life interactions. Although these contact hours are dramatically fewer than the traditional 40 hours, they can make a huge difference in Zoom interactions and for junior colleagues’ professional development. Getting people together in the same room changes things—we know this intimately in our post-lockdown world.
How can companies do this? One of our clients does quiz nights that started during the pandemic and continue to happen once a quarter with a great turnout. Another group of engineers has a virtual Dungeons and Dragons group that creates wonderful team bonding and inside jokes. Both of these approaches work because they’re authentic to the culture.
The caveat here is that the interaction can’t be forced. The way to create effective connections is—shocker—to ask your employees! Send out a survey and ask what people are excited about—your team is as unique as your business. Check your assumptions, and don’t assume everyone will be equally excited by free drinks at a happy hour or tickets to the opera.
Managers often worry that remote work will lead to broken communication channels. Maybe pre-pandemic, your core team heard major updates about company policy, benefits, and events at their weekly in-person round-up. Now some leaders fear there isn’t an adequate replacement—at worst, emails get lost, managers get stuck in the middle, and employees start missing deadlines. This is the worst-case scenario, but it’s not inevitable.
The Solution: Communicate Through Existing Channels
In the new world of hybrid and remote work, organizations need to think differently not only about communication, but also about how they equip their people leaders. Being overly reliant on email is not the answer.
Instead, use what is natural to the organization and use multiple channels to communicate the most important information. Don’t be afraid to mention benefit renewal information at the monthly team meeting, in a few emails, and on the Slack channel. If you have in-person workers, you can put up posters in the break room. Being strategic with how you communicate with your team was crucial before the pandemic, and it’s even more crucial after.
Need I say more? This is a big one—Forbes recently reported that 43% of middle managers are burned out. Many employers are not aware of the myriad expectations placed on employees both inside and outside of work. The cumulative effects of the economy, the pandemic, as well as related and unrelated personal issues have created another pandemic of burnout. Although I am not an expert on the psychology of burnout, I do advise companies on the people-first policies that can reduce the likelihood of burnout.
The Solution: People-First Policies
People-first work environments prioritize employees as people in policies. This means providing humane amounts of PTO, the ability for employees to communicate about sick time, and allowing flexibility by having discernment about what is urgent and what is not while also having bold goals for your company’s future.
I’ll be honest: companies that aren’t moving towards more humane leadership will not be the companies of tomorrow. While employee power has waned since the Great Resignation, we know employees will make their own choices and seek other employment if they aren’t happy with their company’s benefits, culture, and policies.
With remote work on the rise, it will take more than it used to for companies and organizations to retain and hire the best talent. It’s crucial to have a pulse on your employees. Do this by creating channels for them to communicate concerns before they become reasons for massive turnover. Communicating in ways that are authentic to your organization, offering appropriate benefits packages, and treating employees like people can make all the difference for your team.
The New Normal
While all of the above suggestions might be easier said than done, it’s worth repeating that we have entered the new normal. And the new normal is not a one-time thing; it is constantly being created and re-created.
Engaging employees requires that leaders acknowledge that things have changed and will continue to change. And it’s not just that businesses have changed—psyches have changed. Since 2020, how we all view opportunities, priorities, and work has changed forever. At the same time, the competitive environment has changed. The rise of remote work means both that employers have more choices in talent than ever before, and that employees also have more choices.
Being locally, nationally, and globally competitive is going to require smart strategizing that responds to the reality of the times rather than imposing an out-dated paradigm onto your people. People do their best work when they’re engaged, valued, and cared for by their workplace teams, benefits, and culture.
In our executive advisory and change management work, we’ve seen the transformation that is possible for both teams and leaders. If you want to strategize for the future, we have a team that can help. Don’t hesitate to reach out.
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