Five things you can do now to engage your hybrid team
Pity the poor HR directors charged with lifting staff engagement.
For years they’ve invested in improving the office environment – working with designers to build flexible working spaces that suit different types of work, increase natural light and ventilation, improve ergonomics and accessibility and achieve environmental sustainability.
Many have focused on supporting employee health and wellbeing, with extensive end-of-trip facilities for those riding or running to work; free massage and physiotherapy; prayer, meditation and nursing rooms; and access to on-site financial planners or other advisors.
And some have even looked to Silicon Valley to offer perks such as subsidised gourmet cafes, free snack cabinets, nap rooms, climbing walls, ping pong tables and kombucha bars.
And then COVID came to town and the ‘Great Resignation’ began.
Suddenly the investment in physical amenities went out of the window, with employers scrambling to support work from home and hybrid arrangements, manage employee stress and mental health concerns, and find ways to onboard new remote workers while keeping experienced employees engaged.
Thankfully, there is hope for leaders and HR directors alike: while a good physical office environment may contribute to attracting new employees and retaining experienced ones, the true drivers of emotional engagement are not dependent on physical proximity.
And as employees come to terms with the ‘new normal’ of hybrid working, the organisations and leaders who deliver what their people really want will have a great advantage in the war for talent.
So where should leaders focus? I’d suggest five areas:
The most important driver of engagement is care. People want to know that they matter; that you care about them as individual human beings not as a ‘human resource’. That means taking an interest in their general wellbeing and career development and taking action to demonstrate that care by customising and personalising the actions you take.
In a hybrid working environment, the lack of constant physical interaction means that leaders must work harder to connect with people in a genuine way. For example, it’s not enough to do a quick ‘how are you’ at the start of a team video call. Instead, call people individually on the phone, during a non-frantic time of day, and see how they’re really feeling.
COVID means that people’s needs have shifted down Maslow’s hierarchy to more fundamental concerns: for example, flexible working arrangements that allow people to meet their caring obligations is a great way to demonstrate care.
People also want to see their leaders going the extra mile to help them develop their skills and careers – through one-on-one mentoring and career discussions, challenging them with new projects and taking risks on them through promotions and job rotations.
And don’t forget the importance of feedback: you’re not really caring for someone if you aren’t willing to give them the hard feedback they need (especially if remote working makes it harder for them to assess the quality of their work or relationships).
To be engaged emotionally, people need to know why the organisation exists – beyond making money – and believe that what they do all day matters.
Increasingly, they want to feel proud of and aligned with the organisation’s values, as demonstrated by their policies and actions.
In a hybrid world, with fewer direct interactions with customers or business partners, employees may feel more removed from the impact of their work they do.
So, leaders need to find ways to bring this to life: inviting a customer to address the team about how they are benefiting from their products, for example, or inviting an internal business partner to discuss how they benefit from the team’s work.
The more resonant and emotional the stories that you share, the better the engagement.
With less day-to-day interaction to provide guidance and help people “course correct”, employees can easily lose focus and a sense of control over their performance and how it will be assessed.
That means leaders need to do much more work upfront to clarify role definitions, goals/outcomes and behavioural expectations (what’s ok, and what isn’t).
When coupled with an inspiring “stretch” objective, goal clarity can also inspire 'disconnected' people to become more creative, thereby firing a level of intrinsic motivation.
Try asking your people “what goal, if we achieved it, would make you immensely proud?” The answer may surprise you and energise your team members to achieve more than you thought possible.
In a hybrid environment physical distance, technology constraints and 'invisible' emotional, political, or intellectual barriers can all get in the way and demotivate people.
To build engagement leaders need to become more proactive in asking their people “what’s getting in the way?” and then working to eliminate those barriers.
Whether it’s by funding badly needed home office equipment, establishing a work schedule that coordinates across time zones without causing burnout or providing access to psychological counselling, nothing motivates a team like believing that their leader wants them to succeed.
It’s easy to forget that recognition is about more than pay rises, promotions and digital shopping vouchers.
Of course people want to be paid well. But highly engaging leaders know that a true recognition culture is focused on emotional connection – by linking the achievement of specific results to an employee’s and team’s sense of self-worth.
In a hybrid working world, it can be more challenging to bring the whole team together to celebrate individual and collective success and to strengthen the emotional connection among team members.
But it’s not impossible. The best recognition is unexpected, personalised and heart-felt. Write a letter to a young employee’s parents, talking about how valued they are and what a great job they’ve done on Project X. Surprise a team member with a hand-written note and box of their favourite cupcakes when they return to the office from a successful sales visit. Or surprise the whole team by inviting their partners to join them at an important team milestone, by video if necessary.
And with leaders having less physical interaction with each employee, it’s important to cultivate peer recognition as well, for example through weekly acknowledgment huddles or a structured digital recognition programme.
The key is to be relentless about helping people see that what they’ve personally achieved really matters – to you as the leader, to the organisation and to its customers.
One last rule that hasn’t changed in the new hybrid environment: people can spot a phony. With employees increasingly having options elsewhere, the adage that ‘people don’t leave companies, they leave leaders’ takes on a new urgency.
To sustain engagement, leaders need to get clear about their own personal sense of purpose, what they want to achieve and what their commitment is to helping their people.
Despite the challenges of hybrid working, the underlying needs of employees haven’t changed that much but the way that leaders meet those needs has.
Self-aware leaders who deliver on these five themes will have little to fear from the Great Resignation – even without the kombucha bar.
Brian Hartzer, pictured below, is the former CEO of Westpac and senior executive at RBS and ANZ, and author of The Leadership Star: A Practical Guide to Building Engagement (Wiley)