Hey folks, thanks for checking out my latest Vibrant Workplace blog!
Last month I wrote about ‘The Great Resignation’ and how many more people than in normal years are now either looking for or have changed jobs. The Great Resignation suggests less people are engaged with the work they do and/ or the employer they work for. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many leaving. So, this month I’m sharing a few thoughts on why that might be and how we can engage and retain talented people in our teams.
Firstly, what’s happening?
The way we experience work has changed so much in the past 2-years. From conversations with many of our clients we know employers are wrestling with how to engage remote and hybrid teams. They also have the frustrations of those who’ve had to come into work throughout the pandemic, while seeing others more-safely at home. Then there’s the challenge of getting people back into the office where they may not want to be. It’s not an easy time!
There are undoubtedly some key facets of the employment experience which require a rethink, and potentially remodel, as a result of the changes of the past two years. But a big part of declining engagement levels really just stems from people waking up during the pandemic to how bad their work often is for their personal lives, and wanting more back in return.
For the first year in more than a decade, the percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. declined in 2021 – Gallup
In this blog I will share some thoughts on why engagement levels, which even in normal times are already shockingly low, dropped even further during the pandemic – and what we can do about it. I’m going to share with you what I consider to be some of the fundamental pillars of employee engagement. Not the sexy stuff, the crucial stuff, the stuff that if it’s not in place you can forget the rest as it will come across as manipulative and insincere.
We can talk about birthday cakes, ‘Employee Appreciation Day’ posts with nice graphics and staged pictures on LinkedIn, office yoga, ‘Bring Your Pet to Work Day’ – but what really shows people their employer cares about them is often taboo to talk about.
There are great employers out there, I work with some, but there is also a hell of a lot of companies who don’t approach employee engagement authentically and try to cheat by doing the cheap and easy bits, while not having the stomach to address what matters. I’ve literally had organisations ask for a meeting, then tell me straight-up “we’re looking for a leadership development intervention – it is a tick box exercise – and we will go with the cheapest provider.”
Leadership development is a good thing to do. Having an engaging manager is crucial for an employee to be able to engage with their work as your experience of working in a company is often only as good as the relationship you have with your direct line manager. But I avoid organisations like that like the plague.
A lot of these organisations want to look good on social media to attract future talent; but not actually be good… Not do the things that might cost real money. But if they truly cared about, believed in and trusted their teams – they’d back them. And their people would return it many times over through the contribution they make to the company.
It’s in the nature of writing a blog like this that I have to be generic. Some organisations are better / worse than others and the size of the organisation plays a part too in terms of what they do, could do or should do.
Some industries are better / worse than others too; and the difference can be vast. Software, for example, lives in its own bubble and it’s quite stunning the difference in what a software developer can experience in comparison with the unfortunate peasants in many other industries… Healthcare workers save lives – but don’t have half of what a software developer gets – financially or otherwise. That said, software developers save lives, through what they build, too!
I always tell people looking for work to join a tech company. Of course, even in the tech world, there are organisations that aren’t great employers. But it’s so hard to attract and retain top software talent that those organisations are cutting their own throat if they don’t invest in their employees’ experience of work. So even if you aren’t a software developer, you’ll be more likely to find a positive workplace experience in that industry if they have a relevant non-tech role for you.
What I write is not a personal reflection on any one company or industry in particular, it’s a generic view on the world of work from my experiences and perception of the typical experiences I’ve seen people have in it.
Who cares about employee engagement?!
Well, we all should. Or at least anyone involved in trying to attract, retain and get results from their team. I don’t think we’re still having the debate about whether engaging our people is a ‘nice-to-do’ or ‘must-do,’ but let me know if I’m wrong or just look up every study ever conducted and see the impact of not doing it vs the ROI of doing it…
The thing is, though, if we thought engaging people was challenging before, it’s got a lot more challenging now. As mentioned, I wrote last month about the ‘Great Resignation’ and how organisations that haven’t made people a priority are suffering worse than those with a solid reputation as a place to have a good career. Guess what? With the cost-of-living crisis this is only going to be heightened, but so too is the opportunity for organisations that truly are the best employers to support their people through these challenging times. They will benefit long term.
People have been stirred by the sudden realisation of their mortality. We take life for granted, but the pandemic has highlighted in a tragic way just how fragile it is. It’s made many of us question whether we’re making best use of our lives and getting enough return on investment (financial and otherwise) for the sacrifices we make and what we put into our careers.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, there are a few…
During the pandemic, isolation and loneliness has been a real issue within many of our teams. Ask most people who enjoy their work what it is about the company they love and it’s often not the work itself but the people they work with. ‘People work for people, not companies’ and that’s certainly what we’ve found through our employee experience platform, mooqi®.
Many of those people have become strangers in the past two years due to long bouts of lockdown, no ‘chance’ water cooler conversations or team lunches (formal or informal). Those are things a stilted video call can’t replicate, and the longer working remotely has gone on the more damage it’s done to culture, connection and team spirit. I also don’t think we’ve even begun to see the longer-term damage as we become more disconnected.
I’m not saying working remotely is in itself a bad thing. I could write (and have) at length on the benefits of it for employer and employee. But I don’t believe 100% remote work forever aides a unified, collective team spirit.
It’s more than just camaraderie that’s missing. Communication, formal and informal, aides learning, understanding and know-how. Whatever you think of the 70:20:10 learning model, undoubtedly people learn a heck of a lot (which aides problem solving, synergy and boosts performance) in passing dialogue that just doesn’t happen when we’re all at home. It’s easy to casually turn to someone and ask a quick question when they’re beside you. It’s more formal and takes more effort when you have to contact them via your computer and wait for a response. We also can’t judge mood, tone or emotion as accurately through text. Further down the chain, this all ultimately means a poorer experience of our products and services for customers.
The meaning behind our work is also becoming a bigger factor in where people want to take jobs as they want to know if they give up a third of their life to their work that it matters somewhere, to someone, somehow!
A ‘drifting’ employee facing obstacles may have little motivation to overcome them. But if they have purpose, suddenly the challenges and obstacles the typical career puts in front of them are met with resilience and commitment.
“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”
The paradox with all of this – is that many jobseekers are looking for remote or at least hybrid opportunities…
Remote and hybrid jobs are attracting 7 times more applicants than in-person roles – Career Builder
To the shock of those folk still posting the poll on LinkedIn about whether we think the future of work is remote, hybrid or back in the office – I’m going to put my hat on it being flexible business models which are to the benefit of both the employer and the employee that succeed.
And so, we have new problems with this future hybrid world of work, and we need to find new solutions to engage our teams.
What can we do?
Meaningful work connects to the British government’s report, commissioned and completed long before the pandemic, on the four enablers to an engaged workforce. Listed below, it’s easy to see how addressing any of these is more difficult with a remote team.
Engaging Manager: a manager who cares about the whole human being in their team – not just as an employee, sets them stretching objectives and coaches them to aide their delivery (…rapport building tends to take a hit when you’ve never actually met your team…)
Strategic Narrative: a clear and compelling picture of where the company has been, how it got to where it is, where it is now/ what it’s trying to be today, where it wants to get to – and the role the employee plays in helping it get there (…not so easy to help them feel a part of the big picture when they never connect with anybody and people won’t even switch the camera on for video calls…)
Integrity: in short – organisations living core, meaningful values. I could write at length about how most organisation’s values are nonsense, never mind not-lived, but that’s a blog for another day!
Employee Voice: this is probably the biggest area where employees have lost out during the pandemic – for many reasons including the autocratic nature of decision making that tends to take over when we’re in a crisis, and the very fact people are easily forgotten from their box bedroom/ now HQ…
But difficult as they may be, we’ve got to find ways for managers to connect and have an effect on their teams. So, 1-2-1s, coaching and taking a general interest in people should not slip just because someone isn’t in the room with us. I often feel that managers think they’re a burden on their teams, but actually – people will go above and beyond for a manager who truly cares for and engages with them.
Here’s a quote we got through mooqi from someone who had a great day:
“My manager took the time to have a 1:1 with me today. We talked about my future – and that hasn’t happened in a while.”
I love when this happens – because we can directly show managers the value and impact of face time with their teams. When they see how much of a difference it makes to peoples’ days when they do it, I think they’re encouraged to do it more often!
The manager / employee relationship is a vehicle for addressing all of the four enablers. But beyond that are the taboo areas that a line manager on their own cannot control – even if they want to, and usually in my experience they do.
What are these taboos?
As much as I love the four enablers, it does give me a giggle (and it’s typical) that there’s no mention of things like safety, security, salary, workload or shift patterns all of which for me underpin any discussion about someone’s ability to engage. Those conditions and circumstances need to be in place first or we can forget anything else.
Below are some of the deal breakers (or makers depending on which way you choose to look at it). You can forget about everything else – you’re kidding yourself if you expect people to engage with their work for any meaningful length of time, if you don’t take these seriously. These apply to office or remote work.
4 Deal Breakers (or Deal Makers…)
- Pay a good wage that allows people giving up a bigger proportion of their lives to work than anything else they will ever do, in their waking hours, a salary which allows them a comfortable life. That way they won’t resent you, the work, and we can take that huge distraction/ destabiliser off the table so they actually can engage with the transaction of 100,000 hours of work for a salary – feeling like it’s a fair trade.
- Encourage work / life balance. It’s far too easy for people to choose to, or be expected to, be available all the time – especially when they work from home. Yes, they should switch off on time. 100,000 hours is enough of a sacrifice from a lifetime for the typical full-time employee given what they get back in return. They should not be grateful for just about being able to keep a roof over their head. Being prepared to work late can be an acid test of how engaged someone is, but it should be the exception, not the rule. And actually, it’s better for you as the employer. Because when they have a life outside work, they get inspiration, energy and come back to work with fresher minds, happier faces and renewed focus. They deliver more in less time when they’re healthy and happy, and time served is no measure of impact or quality. Time and again I’ve seen people stay late and get kudos – but sometimes that’s burn-out and / or inefficiency!
- Allow resourcing levels to breathe! How many businesses operate with the absolute minimum number of employees they can get away with and constantly panic about what’s going to happen if the ones they’re overly reliant on go off sick or leave? We think we’re saving money by having fewer employees, but actually not having adequate resource levels squeezes those we do employ to a ‘walking dead’ level of performance. When we consider the impact on those we have, in terms of their ability to perform vs the workload, maybe we’d deliver more, better and actually be more profitable with the optimum number of employees. That doesn’t mean just go and overstaff for the sake of it so people are sat twiddling their thumbs (that will also disengage employees). It just means less is not always more and sometimes a service requires a certain number of staff. We can cut staff by innovation and optimisation, but just not replacing people when they leave and sharing the workload across the remaining team for no extra incentive will hammer employee engagement and you’ll see it in burn-out, performance, absence and attrition levels. Never mind customer experience…
- Encourage dialogue and relationships. Be it online or offline we should want our employees to talk, get to know each other and have fun. I’ve worked in organisations where a mere whimper was met with daggers across the office from management. It’s okay, or actually good, to talk! Talking builds rapport, rapport facilitates better working relationships. And also, we’re human! We can’t sit focused on a task for 8/9 hours straight without needing a distraction to refresh our minds. Set realistic but stretching targets with people, and then trust them to deliver. Follow up with coaching and be explicit with what you expect, but do allow for humanity – because the key to engaging an employee is making them part of a human workplace.
These are just a few of my thoughts, as I’m aware this is turning into a book… But really, if you want to engage your employees you don’t have to guess about how to do it. Listen to them, and they’ll tell you how to engage them.
When was the last time you audited your employees’ experience of work?
The Vibrant Workplace Challenge
We can help you factually identify how people experience work in your company and exactly what will engage your teams. We created the Vibrant Workplace Challenge to help our clients optimise their business performance by optimising their employees’ experience. Over a 3-month period we use our web and mobile app accessible employee experience platform to:
- Evaluate life in your company
- Compile a report with recommendations on what you’re doing well and what you may do differently
- Provide you with key cultural health indicators including Employee Engagement, Employee Experience and Employee Net Promoter levels
- If you meet our benchmark, we’ll verify you as a Vibrant Workplace which you can use as a symbol of your commitment to your people. It can help to strengthen an authentic employer and talent brand. If you need help to get there, we’ll offer our support to help you on the journey!