Scott Gregory, CEO at Hogan Assessments

Employee engagement refers to the commitment and connection employees have to their organization and is critical for business unit performance

 The global shift to remote work following COVID-19 has presented several key challenges for business leaders, many of which stem from communication obstacles and the disruption of daily social activities. With teams suffering from remote work’s lack of in-person interaction, leaders are tasked with maintaining high employee engagement more than ever in the COVID era.

Employee engagement refers to the commitment and emotional connection employees have to their organization and work, which ultimately contributes to business unit performance. Employees are engaged when their work and company’s culture align with their motives and values, which in turn motivates them to exercise discretionary effort.

For business and HR leaders in 2021, employee engagement will be a top priority as many companies continue to operate remotely for the foreseeable future. When leading remote teams, here are five things you need to know about boosting employee engagement:

Leadership shapes engagement

For some employees, working remotely can be lonely and isolating, especially for more dependant team members like new hires. Ensuring that staff are supported and set up for success while working remotely is key to maintaining employee engagement in 2021.

Employee engagement is predominantly shaped by leadership effectiveness, with effective leaders defined as those who can successfully lead a high-performing team. To boost engagement, companies need to focus on how their managers behave, which is true in “normal” times, but especially pertinent  during this pandemic. While effective leaders will devote their time to supporting their team and forming relationships of trust with employees, ineffective leaders will waste their time building political capital and promoting their own accomplishments.

When organizations are suffering with a poorly engaged staff, they should dig deep to understand their managers’ behavior. Are managers serving the needs of the team, or are they self-serving? Leader behavior is driven by personality, so the second question to ask is whether the company is selecting managers and leaders with personality characteristics that will foster an engaged, productive team.

Personality matters

When identifying effective leaders that support team members and improve employee engagement, it is imperative that companies look at personality. Decades of research show that well-validated measures of personality predict every consequential life outcome, and leadership effectiveness is no exception. Personality predicts leadership performance better than any other alternative indicator, including IQ. And because valid personality assessments promote fairness in selection and do not discriminate – that is, women perform the same as men, ethnic minorities perform the same as ethnic majorities – companies that leverage the science of personality can find strong leadership in a  diverse pool of applicants.

Hogan’s leadership value chain – based on over 30 years of data on job performance and leadership effectiveness – states that personality drives leadership, leadership drives employee engagement, and engagement ultimately drives organizational performance. Personality also influences how managers interact with their employees and how teams interact with each other, which sets the company culture – another key ingredient for engagement.

To improve engagement and maintain high-performing teams in 2021, business and HR leaders must be strategic by using valid personality assessment to select better leaders who are well-adjusted, strong communicators, and deeply compassionate when supporting employees.

Spotting burnout is crucial

Perhaps the second biggest challenge to maintaining engagement and a high-performing remote team is identifying which team members are becoming disengaged. Anyone can appear engaged and motivated during weekly calls or Zoom parties, which makes it is harder to spot who is really struggling with the challenges of remote work. It is important for managers to gain the trust of their employees so that they can have open and honest conversations about engagement and what can be done to support it.

One advantage of remote work is that there is less room to confuse activity with productivity. Some employees are great at being seen in the traditional workplace without accomplishing much, so remote work will require these employees to produce tangible results, as their political skill will not be as effective. For all employees, leaders should double down on regular goal setting that involves targets and deadlines, just as they would in face-to-face settings, but should be careful not to micro-manage. This way, employees who are struggling with engagement will be easier to spot.

Engagement cannot be done, it must be earned

With the shift to remote work, companies are now delivering several types of employee engagement and well-being initiatives designed to make working life easier for staff and to maintain cohesive and engaged teams. Actions that employers are taking to boost employee engagement in 2021 tend to fall into three categories: technology, collaboration, and employee well-being. Whether these actions really increase engagement is an open question, but they likely do make employees’ work and non-work lives easier to manage, which may lessen stress and burnout potential.  

Employee well-being initiatives include stipends for home office equipment – to assist productivity and ergonomic-related health – and schedule flexibility. Some companies have adopted a culture of relaxed protocol, making it known to employees that everyday, at-home interruptions need not be apologized for. Other companies offer employees the chance to tailor their work schedules/online availability to accommodate their non-work responsibilities while working remotely. This flexibility is designed to support staff as they navigate the transition to remote work and to maintain employee engagement.

Examples of collaboration initiatives that companies are putting into place include Humpday hangouts and virtual happy hours – held with the intention of fostering a connection amongst team members while working remotely. Paired one-on-one virtual coffee breaks, such as Coffee Ninja, are also prevalent – the goal being to foster employee relationships informally, much like what might happen when running into someone in the lunchroom in a physical office.

It is important for companies to note, however, that these initiatives are not enough to boost employee engagement on their own. If there is poor communication between managers and employees and pre-existing feelings of resentment brewing amongst team members, virtual social gatherings and coffee breaks will likely fall flat and could further contribute to work-from-home burnout. Engagement is not something that is done for employees, but rather something that is earned from them through continued support and strong leadership. The single most powerful step a company can take to boost engagement is to ensure that managers are communicating and collaborating effectively with their teams, with well-being initiatives like the above reinforcing this support structure.

The picture is brighter than it seems

Finally, while the conversation surrounding employee engagement in 2021 may seem daunting, companies will be pleased to know that remote work does not necessarily translate into low levels of engagement. A recent survey carried out by Hogan Assessments, which consisted predominantly of mid-level managers from mid- to large- sized companies across Europe, revealed that, although 60% of professionals find remote work mentally challenging, 86% report that they are engaged or very engaged with their organization. These latest findings indicate that while challenges arose for workers following the shift to remote work, attitudes towards leadership and engagement remained stable and positive throughout Europe.

Many employees understand that the challenges of remote work are not the result of their employer’s incompetence, but rather the result of a global pandemic. Employees also know that everyone is going through the same challenges – managers included – and as a result their emotional commitment to their organizations remains as high as, or perhaps even higher than, it was before working from home.

Bottom line

Managing remote teams presents many challenges for HR and business leaders, with employee engagement being a top priority for 2021. While well-being initiatives like Zoom parties and increased flexibility can make remote work easier for employees, companies must go beyond these remedies to select leaders that are well-adjusted, strong communicators, and deeply compassionate when it comes to their teams. While some evidence suggests that the picture across Europe is positive for employee engagement, companies that are struggling with a poorly engaged team must be strategic when selecting leaders and examine closely how their managers are behaving with employees.

Scott Gregory, CEO at Hogan Assessments

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