Many teams were struggling before the coronavirus pandemic. Harvard Business Review and Gallup calculated employee engagement at merely thirty percent far before the pandemic and current work-from-home (WFH) trends. This means seven of every ten employees were either “checked out” or negative about their employers.
Humans are highly social people, and we need interaction with others to perform optimally. Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success”. As we reopen the economy and the workplace, some leaders are considering WFH as the ideal strategy to reduce costs and offer employees more flexibility. For some people, in rare cases, this might work satisfactorily. However, for most workplaces, this portends disaster for employee engagement and productivity. A detailed McKinsey study reported companies with high employee motivation are sixty percent more likely to be in the top quartile in their industries. That’s right, highly motivated people give you an extreme competitive advantage.
This panacea about WFH forever is not what it seems. As fear fatigue emerges and companies begin to live with the virus, short-term decisions can create opportunities for smart-minded business leaders. The greatest things in business are never done by one person. They are done by a team of people according to the late Steve Jobs. While platforms like Teams and Zoom may seem adequate for the current reality, they do not create the same environment for team unity and high-performance.
We need organic human collisions in the workplace. These casual and informal connections create deeper personal relationships necessary for instinctive and impulsive workplace creativity; and collaborative decision-making. Yes, those water-cooler (coffee station) conversations are essential components for unity and cohesion among people. Sharing meals together is also a human need for deeper relationships at work. Why? Trust is formed when we get to know people personally, in a context away from the task-oriented contact. Simon Sinek said, “A team is not just a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other”. It is extremely difficult to develop trust without the informality of human vulnerability and touch.
Highly informed leaders are deliberate about creating human connections for a team. These connections are the building blocks for employee engagement at work. Engagement cannot be mandated. Engagement is fluid and fluctuates daily with everyone. Even the most engaged employees will have those days when they just don’t feel it. Intuitive leaders (with the proper skills) can identify those behaviors and take steps to bring people back to higher levels of engagement. Gallup reported a worldwide engagement at work of only thirteen percent. Wow!
Can you teach engagement? Whom should you teach? Why should you teach? Not all team building training is the same. For most people, the mere mention of team building results in a rolling of eyes from the memory of a trust fall activity or something equally corny. Engagement is psychological therefore supervisors must be taught why employee engagement benefits them as the leader. According to Entrepreneur, employee disengagement costs business in the U.S. nearly $550 billion annually in lost productivity. Turnover costs are estimated at 1x to 3x employee salaries. Almost fifty percent of new hires fail in the first eighteen months. And, eighty percent of people dissatisfied with their boss are disengaged. Sounds awful huh?
What is the answer? Before we identify opportunities, we must discuss possibility. The Holy Grail for leadership is little known and rarely discussed in business. Two powerful words are rarely uttered in corporate board rooms, factory floors, or hospitals across the globe. In whatever language you speak, these two words represent the desired outcome needed to address the engagement conundrum. Two simple words; when achieved, can make your business happier, more productive, and definitely more profitable.
What are they? Get on with it, John! The outcome sought, the path to success and the measure of employee engagement can be summed up in two words; discretionary effort. It’s the sole indicator of true employee engagement. Discretionary effort is the level of effort provided above required effort. Employers pay for and often receive required effort. However, only engaged employees give you that extra effort that is not required. The distinction is highly significant psychologically in so much as someone who isn’t engaged will not likely give more effort than they are paid to give. In contrast, engaged employees exhibit behaviors that are completely inconsistent with their counterparts. These people work harder, longer, and more effectively because they have simply made the choice to do so.
Skilled supervisors utilize proven tools to reach this level of engagement. Still think all team building training is the same? The most effective team building and supervisor training systems utilize decades of research from psychologists and behavioral economists. Supervisors without these tools are taking a proverbial knife to a gunfight each day. They are simply unarmed to be successful in the psychological battle to reach discretionary effort through employee engagement.
Without requisite skills and knowledge (I call these capabilities); supervisors and managers are like the asymptote in math. An asymptote is a curve that approaches a line but will never reach it. They will never reach what they need (whether they know it or not) because they do not know what they do not know. The universal battle cry of the struggling supervisor is “If we could only find good people”. Sound familiar?
Your recovery or pivot from Covid-19 is rooted in the front-line supervisor or manager. There are no bad people; only people who think or act badly. Once we realize the potential impact of one human on another, we gain an advantage with our teams. I have provided you with deep insight based on almost two decades of study. What you say matters. Your process matters. But how your employees feel when they engage with you matters more. I will end with a quote from Antoine De Saint-Exupery, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work. But rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”.