How to drive employee engagement amid the Great Resignation

As we lose count of the months spent working from home, leaders are finding the need to reinvigorate team engagement.
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Work life will never fully revert to pre-2020 office culture. Even as some companies explore their return, teams across many industries feel committed to maintaining remote work. Whether motivated by sweatpants or the ease of coworker-free Deep Work, there are many valid reasons to support a WFH future.

It’s not entirely straightforward. Well over a year into pandemic-induced remote work, engineering teams are reaching a new phase, in both good and challenging ways. What worked in the uncertain age of spring 2020 needed to be adjusted in fall 2020, only to be adjusted yet again in fall 2021. It’s natural to have cycling phases of hyperproductive and snail-slow days—the idea is to give grace for this variation.

Needless to say, as we find ourselves rounding into 2022, we’re facing a deep need to address burnout and reignite employee engagement.

TWO KEY FACTORS OF EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

A pre-COVID Gallup poll reported that managers account for an astounding 70% of the variance in their team’s engagement. The takeaway? Focusing on providing the right tools and having intentional dialogue has a significant impact on morale.

After the start of the pandemic, a survey published in MIT Sloan Management Review found that employees appreciated two meaningful changes their companies made, which fell under the categories of “communicating frequently and well” and “providing technology for remote work.”

The way forward is clear: employee engagement relies on communication and resources.

WHAT WAS EFFECTIVE IN THE PHYSICAL WORKPLACE?

To improve engagement for a remote team, it’s worth considering which tools helped the most in the office. We’re providing recommendations for translating these to the digital space.

Group brainstorms. One of the aspects of the physical workplace that is hardest to recreate in the digital world is a team brainstorm. If a plan is set, it is easy to implement while remote—but when you’re faced with the next big problem to solve, it’s challenging to start while remote. 

Remote hack: Try a digital whiteboard, like Miro or Mural. Team members from different locations can contribute to the same source, giving a close experience to a classic brainstorm session.

Summer Fridays. There was something unbelievably satisfying about shutting down your computer at 2pm on a Friday and physically leaving the office for an early weekend. As we’re headed into winter, consider extending this grace.

Remote hack: Try “Do Not Disturb” Fridays, where everyone shuts off notifications and gets a final stretch of uninterrupted Deep Work before closing out for the weekend. You could also consider DND Monday mornings, or a monthly mental health day off.

In-person 1:1s. The strength of 1:1s is their face-to-face nature. On Zoom, we still get the benefit of dedicated time, but something is lacking.

Remote hack: Rethink the structure and purpose of your 1:1s. Instead of using them as time to align on how work is going, arrive with clear data and spend just half the time on work. The other half should be focused on personal well-being. Add warmth with something like a show-and-tell item that’s bringing comfort, or a pop culture topic you both love.

“Vibe check.” In the office, leaders can walk past desks and glean signals like high-spirited chitchat or overworked silence. Virtually, it’s hard to “read the room.”

Remote hack: Make space for team feedback. Hold office hours dedicated to work culture, send weekly pulse surveys, or devise another way to listen to general thoughts about the current moment.

WHAT IS EFFECTIVE IN A REMOTE WORKPLACE?

Despite some benefits of in-person collaboration, many teams have unlocked better habits while remote. These priorities can keep teams well-resourced and engaged, no matter how distant.

Technology and equipment. Our working environment makes all the difference. Provide your remote team with the right technology they need, from reliable VPNs to subscription services to apps that help with productivity or focus, like Toggl and Serene. Be sure to finance ergonomic desk equipment, too, like a great chair or a standing desk. We provide a monthly stipend for everyone on the Uplevel team, but an annual budget or fast expense process could work, too.

Quality conversations. One-minute Zoom banter or informal Slack channels only give a small dose of social interaction. Since intentional dialogue was one of the highest cited qualities needed for happy remote work, we recommend focusing on effective communication. Continue to prioritize career development conversations and deeper topics. Show appreciation when people accomplish goals, big and small. Reach out to someone and ask their opinion on a decision you’re making. Anything beyond status updates and small talk will go a long way in this remote age.

A sense of agency. A common source of disengagement is feeling like you’re following orders with no sense of control. Ignite deeper engagement by empowering your team with agency. Encourage flexible hours—maybe even experiment with a four-day workweek—and entrust your direct reports with the ability to run their time. Another key area to address is your approval process. While projects are stuck in bottlenecks, your team members are losing engagement at home. Consider releasing some approval checkpoints, or setting up your team with a project mission so they can make more decisions on their own. 

A sense of novelty. Zoom, Slack, Git, repeat. Sound familiar? After 18+ months of the cycle, it’s time to invite new stimulus into the mix. Encourage a book club (business, self improvement, or fiction, whatever interests people), introduce a new weekly trivia, or ask the team how they’d like to shake up the routine. It’s also helpful to break the fourth wall—encourage in-person meetups, whether for a casual coffee or a team offsite. From afar, you could send a care package of WFH goodies or seasonal treats.

CONCLUSION

Despite remote teams being just as (or more) effective than they were prior to the pandemic, many are finding themselves in a rut of disengagement or burnout. Addressing the physical and cultural environment can rekindle the flame that’s been burning low. It all comes down to two core themes: (1) having the right resources and technology and (2) maintaining an active dialogue.