Employee Engagement in a Rapidly Changing Workplace

Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager, MSU HR Organization & Professional Development 

Recent research analysis (Quantum Workplace, 2020) seems to indicate that employees are feeling more engaged now than prior to the pandemic. While that certainly isn’t true for everyone, there are a number of variables in this situation that have led many employees to rate their engagement as higher and their leaders as better than in the previous year, including increased communication and a focus on wellness.

Engagement during this time is complicated though, and efforts must be intentional and thoughtful as people struggle with a variety of new challenges.

Here are strategies that can help. 

Frequent, Honest Communication 

When times are ambiguous and rapidly changing, some leaders pull back, gloss over issues, and avoid decisions, which can cause more difficulty. “Cognitive biases, dysfunctional group dynamics, and organizational pressures push (leaders) toward discounting the risk and delaying action.” (Kerrissey 2020). Being straightforward with people about what you know and don’t know is essential, and it can include warnings that the direction could change as new information comes to light.  

Action Step: Share information frequently. Consider brief meetings with your team multiple times per week. This allows all to touch base, ask questions, and share new information. Don’t make them any longer than they need to be and make sure you ask “how” people are doing, not just “what” they are doing. 

Demonstrate Empathy 

The combination of direct honesty noted above must be combined with deep caring. When you do meet with others, make note of their behavior and level of interaction. If they don’t seem like themselves, check-in to see if they’re ok. Without the social contact we usually have, we rely more than ever on our work colleagues for compassion and the sharing of our human experiences. Taking a bit of time to do this helps to increase trust and the sense of being “in it” together. Also, be aware that people may be juggling multiple, additional responsibilities (such as helping kids with schoolwork) while doing their job. As much as possible and if the role allows, consider flexibility in schedules so that people can work when they are most able to focus.  

Action Step: Reflect and support. Take time to think about how individuals who report to you are being impacted by this situation. When people share good news, join in that celebration. Consider what they might be struggling within their individual situation and how you can empathize and offer support or resources. Make sure people are aware of the MSU Employee Assistance Program services available to them. For resources related to flex schedules, childcare, elder care, and more, check out the WorkLife Office. 

Keep an Inclusive Eye to Innovation 

Engage your team in a fresh look at the work before you. What has changed? What has continued? What could benefit from being done differently? You may find that some of your employees have untapped skills that are now very useful or inventive ideas that might successfully move forward in this environment. Create a safe space for people to bounce around ideas and take some ownership in reinvention. Make sure you are listening to ideas from all team members, not just those who think like you. Diversity of thought and experience is what drives innovation. Empower your team to work together to solve new challenges, rather than having them passively waiting to be told what to do. 

Action Step: Set the expectation that all team members stay up on best practices and future trends for their area of work. Set regular meetings (monthly or bimonthly) to share and brainstorm ways to integrate what they are learning. 

Manage Performance and Support Development 

The pandemic has resulted in many changes in how we approach and bring forward our work. Are you and your team prepared to meet the demand? Have you reviewed processes and expectations given the shifting environment, and made the expectations clear to your team? Be aware that employees might need help in developing new skills to carry out the work effectively in the new world. It is not uncommon for people to feel awkward or embarrassed about this need. 

Action Steps:  

  • Consider what materials, equipment, and training employees might need to be effective in this environment. If working from home, talk to employees about their home set-up. Is there something they could get from the office to aid their effectiveness, such as a desk chair or a second screen?  
  • If they are now coming into work, how are things going from a safety and process perspective? Frequently assess the situation. Make a plan to address any unexpected barriers and follow through. Be prepared to address non-compliance with the MSU Community Compact
  • Normalize the learning curve that exists and explore training programs and/or assistance from a colleague that might be helpful. Check out programs available from Organization & Professional Development, AANIT Services, Broad Executive Development Programs and elevateU

Difficult times can often provide opportunities to draw people together around the mission and culture of the organization. Spartans have long been hard-working, problem solvers and there are countless examples of how our teams have risen to the occasion despite shifting ground and tight resources. When leaders exhibit honest, compassionate communication, flexible support, inclusive problem solving, and the ability to respond to changing needs, people are likely to be engaged, even during tough times. 

Sources:

Kerrissey, M. J., Edmondson, A. C., (April 13, 2020) What Good Leadership Looks Like During this Pandemic. Retrieved September 3, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2020/04/what-good-leadership-looks-like-during-this-pandemic 

Quantum Workplace (2020) The Impact of Covid 19 on Employee engagement. Retrieved September 3, 2020, from https://marketing.quantumworkplace.com/hubfs/Marketing/Website/Resources/PDFs/The-Impact-of-COVID-19-on-Employee-Engagement.pdf?hsCtaTracking=1f30c83e-71cc-46e6-b9eb-9d682de56835%7C42c75679-4e54-4ddb-8a6f-87d61a43608b 

How to Build a Strong Remote Work Culture While Working in Virtual Teams

Written in collaboration with Kathie Elliot, MSU HR’s Senior Learning and Organization Development Specialist.

As the pandemic persists, many employees will continue working remotely in virtual teams with their coworkers for the foreseeable future. During this time, it is not uncommon for the culture of a workplace to change as the shared set of values, social norms, goals and practices employees have already established by working together in person are now drastically different. Successful collaboration with coworkers can be challenging while working remotely, but it is still possible for employees working in virtual teams to develop a positive and inclusive remote work culture that ensures the same level of quality and productivity as if the team was still in person.

Why is Remote Work Culture Important?

“The 9-Step Definitive Guide For Building Remote Work Culture in Virtual Teams” describes remote work culture as an unconditional feeling of connection coworkers experience when they’re bonded by similar priorities, interests, and attitudes (Bell 2020). When people are not able to see each other on a regular basis, this feeling of connection can dwindle. Strong remote work culture is equivalent to how strong your workplace culture already is. By creating a strong remote work culture in addition to what your virtual team might already have had in person, employees can continue to feel united around a shared sense of purpose while being on their own.

Your team’s culture is surely different than it was six months ago, and with the continually unexpected changes COVID-19 has brought into the world, it might continue to change rapidly. Even if you are unaware of it, your team does have a culture that is influenced by the work you do, your work location, your team’s composition and your individual team members’ histories. Having a strong remote work culture doesn’t require team members to be in the same location if you are aware of the priorities, interests and attitudes that your team shares.

How to Develop a Strong Remote Work Culture

There are many ways to go about developing a strong remote work culture, but one of the most impactful ways to do so is through effective communication. It is easy for misunderstandings to occur while employees are working together virtually, often causing the quality and timeliness of the team’s work to suffer. By practicing methods of effective communication such as these, you can strengthen your individual relationships with your team members in hopes of creating a unified and cohesive remote work culture with your team as a whole.

  1. Frequently inquire about your employee’s social and professional needs. Knowledge and information sharing may be inconsistent due to business, lack of attention, misunderstanding what info is valuable to the team (and why). And information sharing may be imbalanced (for some) due to such factors as work style or personality differences, supervisor or co-worker preferences or bias toward certain employees (whether or not consciously known), or technology access and skill differences of the team members.
  1. Ask specific questions using multiple formats. Frequently ask specific questions, using multiple formats. “How is it going?” is not going to get a fulsome response from many employees. But, “Do you feel the communication you receive from me is frequent and thorough enough, timely, and helpful? What can I do to improve my communication with you?” is very specific.
  1. Discuss and set standards for scheduling meetings, work hours, time off, etc. What sort of communications require visual meetings, phone, text, email, messaging? Is there a priority or urgency assigned to the methods? For example, is a phone call only used when an immediate response is needed? Do all messages need to be acknowledged? Within what period? Are there “blackout” hours or days when you won’t send work-related communication unless necessary. (Use the delay send feature in an email if you think you may forget.)
  1. If something isn’t working, try something new! Whether it’s approaching a work task differently or planning a unique social event, mix it up and look for ways to keep things fresh and use this time to grow as a team. Look for ways to build in relaxing or fun team activities; identify other units or colleagues that might appreciate support or outreach “just because”.

Sources:

Bell, Ashley. “The 9-Step Definitive Guide For Building Remote Work Culture in Virtual Teams.” SnackNation, 2020, snacknation.com/blog/remote-work-culture/.

“The 2020 State of Remote Work.” Buffer, 2020, https://lp.buffer.com/state-of-remote-work-2020.