Six months

Tomorrow, it is six months since I transitioned to working from home.  Like many, I still haven’t been back to the office.   

Those early months were all about crisis.  Getting through and making do.

But, and despite government urges to the contrary, for those workers formerly known as office-based, there is no sign of a full time return.

So what next?  Now that adrenalin has passed and the long haul beckons? 

Most of us have now got some sort of routine sorted out, even if it isn’t completely optimal.  The kids are back at school (for the moment) even if that isn’t entirely normal either. We’ve mostly got to grips with the tech. There are now other areas, possibly somewhat neglected in these hectic months, which demand our attention.  One of these areas is an old HR favourite: employee engagement.

How connected are people feeling, now?  How engaged?  To the organisation, the mission and vision, the team, their manager? Without the place itself, the social interactions, the familiar daily rituals and habits.  In almost every employee engagement survey I have ever seen, respondents rate the people they work with as a central factor in their own engagement.  Does this hold true when we only see them through a screen?

What too, about the daily micro-frustrations of working from home (a term I have shamelessly stole from Professor Sir Cary Cooper). Not having a decent printer, the noisy neighbour, not having access to that file you need that’s still in the filing cabinet in an office you can’t access. The ergonomic issues of still not having a proper place to work.  Is this too having a negative impact on day to day engagement and job satisfaction?

Then there is all that hygiene stuff.  The bottom rungs of Maslow’s ladder.  Do employees feel safe and secure?  Do they have those basics to work effectively? Are their social needs being met by this prolonged break from the old routine?  Fast forward to a more modern thinker, Dan Pink. He argues that what really motivates us isn’t money but autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Some of us might have more autonomy right now than we had before – but are we still getting opportunities to learn, develop and progress our careers?  Do we still like we have a purpose beyond all this pandemic stuff?

During early lockdown people described themselves as more productive whilst working from home, away from the distractions of the office. Wil that sustain? And what to of creativity and innovation in the longer term?

There are more questions here than answers.  We do know that the last few months has for many people been a deeply reflective time.  For some, this is behind the desire to work more remotely in the future – a headline which has now become familiar by its regularity.  For others, a deeper reflection about what they really want out of life.  Although I have no empirical evidence, I am hearing story after story of people resigning their positions, changing jobs, starting something new. 

Is this a result of personal reflection… or is this a an engagement issue?  A loosening of the connections, a statement about how their employer has handled Covid-19, or just too many micro-frustrations?

There is no single definition of employee engagement.  Neither is there any broad agreement about whether it leads to positive business or even what drives (or detracts from) it.  But there are some similar themes whatever you read about the subject.  The critical role of leaders, organisational vision and mission, purpose and meaning, organisational integrity. 

There could just be a perfect storm of poor employee engagement building.  Reduced social connections, increased stress and anxiety, poor work life balance, blurred boundaries between work and home, furloughed employees, the impact of redundancies or cost cutting, reduced development opportunities, too much change all at once. These are the factors that will influence how people feel about their work and who they work for.

I’ve written already about the ‘what next’ for organisations post Covid-10.  There’s a need to learn from this last six months, to focus on employee mental health and determine a future strategy about flexible and remote working.  I’d argue that the other critical priority for the months to come is sustaining engagement and retaining connection. 

There’s no quick fix or simple solution. It is more than a Zoom team quiz, a virtual get together, a regular leader’s update. It also can’t be the things we did before, as those strategies are for a world that is no longer available to us.

It is time for us to re-think how we engage with our remote workforce, for the long term.

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