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Effective employee engagement in a remote-first world

What will the workspace of the future look like, in a time after Covid-19 restrictions? The answer is far from clear yet, but we know we need to have a plan.

 

In our previous two blogs, we’ve looked at leadership through the lens of the changing workplace: how does leaders’ behaviour need to adapt? What more can they do to understand what motivates their people? Now, we’re taking it a stage further: managers and leaders need to know where their teams will be working, and how, if they want to be effective in how they engage with them.

 

Reports of the office’s death are greatly exaggerated, it seems. Figures from CBRE have shown that office space rentals have actually declined relatively little, even as recently as Q4 2021. Contrary to myths of widespread empty workspaces, anecdotally we’re hearing that many commercial leases are for similar-sized spaces as before the pandemic. Behind the scenes, the office layout is changing to make them more suited to flexible working, collaboration, and impromptu meetings. The workplace of the future is likely to look very different: it won’t just be a series of floors filled with people hemmed into rows and rows of partitioned cubicles.

 

New data from the Central Statistics Office tells us that 90 per cent of people aged between 35 and 44 who could work remotely would like to keep doing so now that the Covid-19 restrictions are over. Of that 90 per cent, 28 per cent would like to do so all the time, while 60 per cent said they would like to work remotely some of the time. Just 12 per cent said they wouldn’t like to work remotely in the future.

 

So, taking all of those factors on board, let’s start with a working hypothesis that some group of employees will want to be based remotely at least some of the time. Some may even demand it as a condition of taking a job with your business, or staying in the company. In any organisation where working needs to be flexible in order to compete for talent, leaders and HR managers will need to be just as flexible when it comes to employee engagement.

 

Boston University’s Professor William Kahn popularised the term employee engagement in a 1990 paper. “The engagement concept was developed based on the premise that individuals can make real choices about how much of their real, personal selves they would reveal and express in their work,” he said years later in an interview.

 

This has a genuine business benefit: the more of their true selves that people bring to their work, the more engaged, productive, and loyal they become. The message for employers is, it’s not enough just to hire the right people and give them the right incentives. Kahn’s work identified three key factors that help people engage with their work: meaningfulness, psychological safety, and energy.

 

There are many drivers that leaders can use to influence engagement. They include: people’s perceptions of their job’s importance; the clarity of the employee’s job expectations; career opportunities; frequency and quality of feedback from management; relationship dynamics with colleagues, line managers, and staff from various levels; employees’ views of the organisation’s ethos and values; and the effectiveness of internal communication amongst staff.

 

Identifying those engagement drivers is the theory. In practice, finding the balance between them – which will be unique to each team member – is hard work. In a hybrid or remote environment, leaders and managers must be more sensitive to the push and pull factors of different personality types. One rule applied across the board won’t resonate equally with every colleague or subordinate.

 

It takes time, but this is a necessary investment in a moment of great change in the workplace. This is no longer the ‘soft skills’ side of the job that often got relegated from the priority list in favour of other KPIs. As we’ve already established in this series, the staffer who feels disengaged will, sooner or later, disconnect for good. They’ll leave if they feel unconnected to the work or sense they’re missing out on a degree of supervision and mentoring they would get if they were in the office.

 

It’s been interesting to watch the reporting and commentary around the Great Resignation shift in tone. It started with surprise that people were leaving jobs in big numbers (“but we thought you loved working here!”). Now comes to a backlash against the kind of company cultures that measure only productivity and output, with no thought of engagement or empathy (“if you treat your people badly, what did you think was going to happen?”).

 

It is possible to build engagement and foster meaningful working relationships in a remote-first environment – but it takes work. That can involve trying several different options to see what’s most effective for you. Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist who teaches at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times recently: “If you don’t run experiments, you aren’t building a learning organisation.” In that spirit, we don’t claim to have the answers – but it’s clear that there’s a value for businesses in spending quality time thinking about these questions.

 

 

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