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Remote Workers on Endless Zoom Meetings Aren't More Engaged

This Week in HR, we are working remotely again as lock downs and COVID-19 continue to wreak havoc across our region.  Engagement is the natural going concern.

For many years, I worked almost exclusively remotely.  I was a recruiter for multi-national legal services firms, and we would often get urgent requisitions for 100 or more litigation consultants to work large matters without notice.  To recruit one person can be very challenging and harried, but in litigation support, we would have the additional challenge of placing consultants within as few as 1-3 days from the signing of the SOW.  That meant we had 72 hours or less to source, vet, screen, and hire 100+ W-2’s.

This happened repeatedly over many years.  There was no question that, as a remote recruiter with this kind of volume, I had to be focused, organized, and engaged.  And because the work was so relentlessly complicated, I designed and implemented a new Hiring process using easily replicable application forms that linked to my home-grown ATS and HRIS, automating an otherwise intensively manual process.

Productivity for me precipitated from necessity and workload.  I don't conclude that having a heavy workload fosters stronger engagement—it may be a primary ingredient for some people, but that isn’t singularly enough to ensure strong engagement - in fact, it can have the opposite effect at times.  Engagement for me during those very stressful times was demonstrated in ways beyond just delivering consultants.  It was demonstrated by constant efforts to document procedures, hone processes, refine systems, and improve delivery metrics.  So, what drove me to achieve?  I was so busy, often at the expense of my basic needs.

I had determined that my career path, wherever it lay, was somewhere downstream from proving myself and I was open minded to where my professional life might take me.  I knew it would take concerted effort:

  • I crafted a mission, vision, and values (MVV) for myself.  I derived career meaning from within.
  • I insisted on professional / personal learning and growth as routine disciplines, regardless of how busy everything else got. 
  • I actively observed problems in my work and conceptualized solutions, documented them, and folded them into ongoing workflows. 
  • I strove toward best practices and carefully remained within the realm of my own personal MVV (with occasional failures).
  • I committed to knowing my job inside and out as a matter of personal credibility.  I had 12,000 applicant records and I could tell you which markets were best for specialized deployment.  I never told a story without data.  I knew what I knew.
  • I sought Management recognition.  I made sure my hard work was recognized by self-promoting when it was warranted and within the realm of my values and never at the expense of my colleagues (I wasn't infallible and had my share of failures here).
  • I trained my eyes to see every action that I took in the larger context of where I wanted to be: A Human Resources and Operations leader.  I knew that practicing being what I wanted to be was somehow crucial.
  • So, how do managers encourage these kinds of impulses?  If the foregoing is what engagement looks like or produces, what is upstream from that?  Having employees in the office does not result in higher engagement than having employees work from home.  There are ample distractions and opportunities for morale disruption wherever. Remember, too, that engagement isn't a product of holding endless Zoom meetings...
  • Instead of overwhelming employees with work, Zoom meetings, and reporting requirements, so they can’t help but to feel busy, give them professional development opportunities.  Say, “This is a wonderful time to increase critical skills. We know you have some downtime and want to encourage you to develop personally.  Here’s a prize for the employee that completes their training path first.”  This demonstrates your interest in their development and the company’s investment in them as employees. Think culture of learning.
  • Constantly reinforce meaning and purpose.  Convey performance and productivity discussions through the lenses of the organization's mission, vision, and values.  Optimistically remind employees of the opportunity in every action.  Know where your employees want to go and help them contextualize their work within their own career goals. Think culture of purpose.
  • Give autonomy where it is warranted.  I think my perceptive bosses intuited that I was capable of process engineering because I was openly critical of muddled processes (imagine that…).  Sometimes your harshest critics – your vocal employees – are the ones itching for an opportunity to process-improve (if not, manage them into a less triggering position).  Observe the little things and positively reinforce employee initiative, every time, no matter how small. Think culture of gratitude.
  • Solicit and give feedback.  When my direct report comes to me with a critique, I ALWAYS do my best to make them feel safe.  I listen, validate their effort, consider, and do my very best to incorporate their suggestions.  Don’t be afraid to be frank…if you suspect an employee is slacking off, tell them that directly and say, can you correct my possibly misimpression?  And if not, acknowledge the difficulty of engagement – even mention the data—that only 30% of employees are actively engaged these days, and ask how you can help them into that statistical category.  Most employees really do want to do good work and to be recognized for it. Think communication.
  • Make a safe place for failure.  Assume that everyone around you is doing their best and that they have positive intent (I learned that from a friend in grad school). They'll never aspire to innovate without feeling safe to make mistakes. Nothing is really the end of the world; keep things right-sized...
  • Do an anonymous engagement survey through CrescentHR.  You will see themes in employees' responses. Sometimes the answer is right in front of you. Think communication.
  • If they employees are overwhelmed, take a hard look at processes. If they're still overwhelmed, take a harder look at your staffing plan. Think retention.
  • Make surer than sure that all of your employees know their jobs, their job descriptions are current, and that you’re all on the same page. Think culture of transparency.

    *If your employees are still not performing and they seem disengaged consider a performance improvement plan.  But before that, make sure their job descriptions match what you, the department, and the organization need from employees.  Tony Robbins says, “Be slow to hire and quick to fire.”  It is important to protect the organization from disengaged employees, especially if the employee is stubbornly so.

    *Feelings of stress and underpayment for hard work / high expectations can also lead to decreased engagement. Adding face time via Zoom / Skype / Teams, etc. probably won't reduce the feeling of overburden.
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