It’s hard to know yet if the workplace paradigm has permanently changed but we know for sure that it’s not what it was. This pandemic has upended the world of work quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before or are likely to see again.

Very quickly we had to learn what a flexible work model was. We moved out of the office and into our homes but now, slowly but surely, we are making our way back into the office. Some are back full time, albeit with slightly different working practices but others are now in a position where they can split time between the office and home. This is known as a hybrid workforce.

The trouble is, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to hybrid working so businesses are having to operate with the mentality of a start-up, i.e. figuring it out as they go along.

Amongst many challenges, business leaders are asking themselves a very important question – without constant meetings and interactions, how do they really know how their teams are doing and even more pertinently, what they’re doing.

One of the most immediate challenges is how to reimagine and to boost employee engagement and to make them feel motivated, included and valued, from wherever it is they are working.

What is Employee Engagement?

Employee engagement isn’t a new concept. Bosses have been doing it for years in the form of after-work drinks and the odd summer away day and it’s a vital element for a company’s health and success but leaders are now having to learn a new way to engage a hybrid workforce.

When everyone was at home over the last 18 months, we tried all sorts from the virtual happy hour to karaoke and online quizzes and while they were good fun at first, they have all been confined to the folder marked ‘remember when we did that?’

Maintaining cohesion, upholding corporate culture and managing increasingly disparate silos has reinforced our need to innovate. While this hybrid way of working can be a springboard for future growth, creativity and productivity, the real challenge is how leaders can re-envision the engagement strategies they used to use so they apply to the here and now.

Employee engagement can no longer be painted with a broad brush and so to this end, we have outlined some potential new rules for engaging with employees, regardless of where the actual work gets done.

Make it Personal

As a leader, it’s vital to recognise that each experience of the last 18 months is unique. Some will have had it pretty easy in a house with an office and a garden and plenty of space to move about. Others will have had it tough, in a small flat with two kids, the laptop on the ironing board sitting on an upturned washing basket with no outside space.

Speak to your staff, ask them how they are feeling, ask them what the company can do to make them feel more included and engage with them as if they were your friends. It doesn’t always have to be about work but it’s important to be able to share challenges, how difficulties were (and are) being addressed and often just to pass the time of day.

It’s a way away from spending four hours in the pub shooting the breeze on a Friday night but personal gestures from leader to staff are appreciated and make teams feel valued and crucially, a vital part of the team.

Facilitate Collaboration and Equal Access For All

One challenge for leaders to overcome is to ensure that everyone – the full-timers, the hybrid workers, the once-a-weekers and the stay-at-homers – feel seen. Everyone needs to have the same access to collaboration, opportunities and professional growth and two of the key elements of building a successful hybrid workforce is equality and inclusion.

Employees need to feel connected to their work and the goals and aspirations of the company, not necessarily to a physical space. It can be incredibly demoralising for those at home to think that those in the office are getting preferential treatment, are getting more access to the leadership or are favoured in any way.

Leaders will need to work a little bit harder to schedule meetings where everyone can attend, either online or in person. If some can’t attend, think about recording them so the absent can refer back and they may even have to dip into the coffers for remote working tools (laptops, phones, collaboration apps etc) so everyone can work together.

The Three Ps

In a research project published in the Harvard Business Review (of which you can read in full here), bestselling authors and former McKinsey & Company executives Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi looked into the productivity of office-based employees versus home-based employees. They identified three positive motivators that require extra consideration for remote employees.

Play, purpose and potential.

Play is the pleasure of brainstorming, solving problems with other members of the team and working on projects that require creative thinking.

Purpose is the impact the employees has on the play element and addresses the ‘why’ of what we do all day.

Potential relates to personal growth and an employee’s access to mentors, leadership and colleagues.

Naturally it’s easier to engage the three Ps in the office but to engage employees who aren’t in full-time, managers and leaders will need to innovate to promote creative thinking and collaboration between all team members, set goals and create learning and development opportunities.

The summary of the report suggested that ‘When researchers measured the total motivation of employees, they saw that those forced to work from home were the least motivated. But there is an effective way managers can increase their team’s productivity and performance, even under the circumstances of this crisis: through experimentation.

The researchers found that experimentation results in a 45-point increase in employee motivation. The key is for leaders to make sure their weekly routines are not focused only on the tactical work. Half of their weeks should also be focused on adaptive performance, where there is no plan to follow, but instead, an emphasis on experimentation and problem solving.’

There’s Another Way To Think…

Ticking the company culture box is all well and good in ‘normal times’ but it doesn’t work in abnormal times. The thing is, there’s no magic bullet. No button or corporate policy that will erase the last year and a half so leaders must now focus on shifting a mindset that has been ingrained for years.

If you rename ‘employee engagement’ to ‘intentional engagement’, whereby your interaction, communication and support is deliberate and personal you are halfway there.

Remember, and this is something you will have read a thousand times before and for fear of stating the bleedin’ obvious, it’s worth repeating – employees are a company’s most crucial asset.

Without them businesses have no-one to make the thing, no-one to sell the thing, no-one to answer the phones and no-one to do anything. They’re worth looking after because if  leaders take them for granted, they’ll up sticks and join a business that wants them.

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