Combatting Disengagement in the Age of Distraction

This week in HR, I'm revisiting and revising this blog, the first draft of which I wrote when I wasn't exactly in it to win it. I was DISengaged. We are back in the office at Crescent as of Monday, 1/18, and we continue thinking about employee engagement. With that in mind, today is a good day to refocus, reengage, and rewrite. "Things are always better in the morning." - Harper Lee

This morning I woke up with gratitude for the many good things in my life and sent thoughts and prayers for friends and family who are not so well off right now or generally. This little practice of reengaging in the context of gratitude for the good in my life and awareness of the adversity in others' has overhauled my attitude and it enhances my efficacy in the office. The best way I have found to reengage begins with deliberate gratitude. Gratitude has the power to nullify stress, like an antidote.

If engagement looks like what I described in last week’s blog, #initiative, #inspiration, #innovation, what does disengagement look like?  The following are signs that you may be losing your employee literally to another employer or practically, in terms of performance:

  • Absenteeism can be a major problem because it decreases productivity, it degrades team morale, it causes burnout for others who have to carry the workload, it bears extra operating and opportunity costs, and so on. Arriving late to the office, if it is out of the norm for the employee, may also be a sign of disengagement.
  • Indifference to work is another key indicator of disengagement.  Bare Minimum contribution precipitates from indifference.  There’s no inspiration in the work product of a disengaged employee.
  • Poor Quality Work Product can reflect disengagement.  While mistakes can be made by anyone, a disengaged employee is usually more error prone.
  • Disengaged employees are commonly Incommunicado.  Sometimes busy employees are less communicative by necessity, but an employee that is disengaged doesn’t communicate regularly with their teams or manager.  Remember that communication is an important metric for all involved, manager, colleague, and employee.  Poor communication or a lack of communication can be a multi-directional problem, with multiple root causes and players.
  • Withdrawal from Team Building Activity overlaps with other red flag behaviors.  Team building is an important cornerstone of culture and talent management initiatives. Disengagement from team activities, however, like communication, can indicate a broader cultural problem, team dynamic problem, personality clashes, leadership and competency deficits, etc. Teams need careful oversight and thoughtful direction so they do not spark disengagement on the individual level.
  • Burnout & Fatigue can indicate many things, but they are often red flags of disengagement.

I spent 2 years disengaged.  I lost my precious mom in March of 2017. At the time, I was enrolled in my Master of Business degree at Tulane University, managing multi-national recruiting operations through multiple M&As, and involved in several charities; I had serious momentum.  Everything came to a crashing halt thereafter. I dis-enrolled from class, I stopped being interested in doing innovative things at work, I withdrew from a meaningful volunteer post; I was a zombie for the next 2 years.

In hindsight, I can begin to appreciate the lessons learned and steer away from shame; I needed those difficult years.  I was arrogant and unrelenting in my expectations of others.  Going through a deep valley where you are the opposite of the values you hold dear, falling short of the expectations you lord over others can be a painful... opportunity

Not all reasons for disengagement are as obvious as bereavement, and after a year like 2020, many employees are bound to feel despondent, and validly so. Regardless of the root cause, disengagement has very real costs and should be addressed and managed, to the extent an employer can. And maybe thinking about disengagement as an opportunity can help. Renewal is almost always lovely, unless it's an insurance policy.

Engaged employees generate more revenue – as much as 43% more,
according to a Hay Group study, and they’re 87% less likely to leave their organization. 
Engagement is important and worth striving for.

Employers can and should expect strong performance and engagement from employees.  Thankfully, employers have options for reengaging disengaged employees.  It starts with communication, empathy, and empowerment. 

  • Talk openly with employees about the natural tendency to withdraw in and out of the office and give them opportunities to express their disengagement and to work through it. Shame is never productive. It's easier to approach someone who understands your problems, someone who can envisage a way out, without judgment. < Be that for your employees.
  • Review core values regularly with employees.  If official core values don’t hold sufficient meaning for employees, translate them for your team or create a team specific MVV.  Remind people why. Give their work meaning.  Communicate clear expectations that are agreed by all stakeholders.  Ask team members to be active participants in vision-building at the personal-, team-, and organization- levels.
  • Make a safe place for independent methodologies.  This could be flex scheduling, where you allow for "windowed work" or "chunks of time" - an hour on / hour off, whatever employees find effective in this new WFH dynamic. Allow creativity with an open mind. Remember employees are individuals; they will operate on different schedules, with different needs.  This is the essence of empowerment, and the opposite of micromanagement. Let them surprise you...
  • Finally, sometimes the skills, time, and talents you have in house aren't sufficient to get the work done. That's all there is to it. Consider bringing in a professional for targeted trainings or to lead certain kinds of work. This may be an impossible expense for now, but reach out to professionals in critical skill areas and ask them what it would take to make a collaboration work. Synergies are everywhere, if you can make the right connections. Think outside of the box and remember that providing resources for employees to succeed is the best way you can ensure good work as a business owner or manager.

You may already be paying for some engagement tools and there are others that are relatively free...

  • Remind your employees of your health and wellness opportunities. Do you have an EAP? Do you have access to special fitness programs like yoga and meditation? The best way to have happy, productive workers in the office is to have healthy employees out of the office.
  • Consider a book club or coffee club, where you can chat candidly about personal themes. People want connection, no matter how crotchety their exteriors. ~People just want to know that others care.~ Oprah


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