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Guest Post by Kristen Ruttgaizer, VP of People & Culture for Igloo When the CDC announced the first U.S. confirmed case of COVID-19 in January 2020, no one expected a pandemic that would change almost everything we knew about how to operate as a society, including how we work day-to-day. According to a Flex Jobs survey, only 3.4 percent of Americans worked from home at the start of the pandemic, but 42 percent were working from home full-time by the end of the same year. As the pandemic continued, having some form of remote work available became commonly accepted (if not necessary) and is now considered the norm. Another survey reported that 65 percent of employees would like to work remotely full-time going forward, while about 31 percent are open to a hybrid format. In short: working from home will continue into the future as companies have adapted to the work model and employees now demand it. With this new expectation, employers now face the challenge of making sure their employees are in-the-know and actively involved in the workplace, no matter where they’re located. To guarantee profit growth and productivity for your business over the long term, it’s important to notice whether an employee is engaged or actively involved, as well as apply different technologies and methods to continually foster employee collaboration. Common remote work myths There’s some concern over whether employees do as good a job working from home compared to working in the office. In order to implement effective strategies that will support the remote work environment, you should first remove any misconceptions about this work model from your mind. Shared below are three common myths about remote work, and why working from home is a viable option that won’t affect your employees’ workflow or the company’s bottom line. Myth 1: Remote employees are not as productive According to research, remote employees instead have the problem of doing too much work. A Buffer report shows that the biggest struggle shared by remote workers is unplugging after work, where they work after hours or check in more often than if working in-office. Myth 2: Collaboration and ideation are better done in person Evidence suggests remote work employees collaborate and brainstorm just as well, if not better than workers who are in-office. Associate professor of Harvard Business School, Ethan S. Bernstein, conducted a 2019 study that showed how the transition to an open office led to 70 percent fewer face-to-face interactions among employees over time. With so many conversations taking place in an open environment, employees started to wear headphones and avoid the potential for constant interaction. By contrast, virtual meetings tend to require an employee’s full attention and interaction with all participants on the call. There’s also further research that showed employees feeling more engaged and included — and less likely to leave their current job — compared to employees who were working in-office. Myth 3: Meaningful connections are not possible with remote work Making connections at work, even a best friend, leads to better job performance, according to a Gallup workplace study. Meeting virtually might give the initial impression that making such connections are impossible. However, when coordinated and well-organized, employees have a chance to interact with a wider network of individuals, including people who live far away. Remote interactions also help remove the concern of who can attend what event or activity, and give the chance for every face to be seen and voice to be heard in a given conversation, which proves invaluable for employees who are underrepresented or want to build their network and grow their career. Engaged or involved? There's a difference Now that you know remote work is a pretty good idea, you’ll want to make sure your employees feel included and are playing an active role in the workplace from a distance. Gauging whether an employee is engaged or involved is one way to help determine employee performance and figure out what can be improved. At first glance, employee engagement and employee involvement may seem interchangeable, but they're slightly different. An engaged employee is a worker who agrees and acknowledges a company’s goals; this employee is motivated to work because there is a sense of purpose behind their assigned tasks. However, an engaged employee is not proactively contributing to help build the business over the long term. For example, an engaged employee is not actively participating in activities that build the company’s culture or contributing to big, upcoming decisions. On the other hand, you can think of an involved employee as going one step further than a worker who is only engaged. An involved employee actively participates and helps plan ways for the business to improve by openly sharing their ideas and experience. This kind of employee doesn’t just come in for the paycheck or agree to follow orders. Instead, an involved employee has a leadership mindset and contributes their voice to decisions that could ultimately impact not only their own career but the entire business as a whole. An involved employee is more dedicated to the overall success of the organization, which inspires them to place their best foot forward to help achieve business goals and objectives. Having employees who are engaged and involved ensures that the business has a variety of perspectives and ideas that can achieve milestones that may have been missed without employee contributions from different levels of hierarchy. How to improve involvement with your remote employees Low employee engagement or involvement should be addressed when possible since disengaged employees can damage company morale and lead to serious financial burdens. A Gallup study found that a disengaged employee has higher absenteeism and lower profitability, and can cost the organization about 18 percent of their own annual salary. Thankfully, there are three strategies you can implement within your organization to encourage the involvement of remote employees. 1. Invest in flexible digital workplace solutions Low-quality software will only lead to disgruntled employees who will try to dodge the next meeting or activity. As globalization and remote work continue to become the standard practice over time, using digital tools, like intranet software, can guarantee all employees are informed and connected about what’s going on within the organization. Finding digital solutions that are customizable — and allow employees to interact whenever and wherever they work — will improve productivity and encourage employee collaboration. 2. Have management lead by example If you want your employees to be more actively involved, it’s important to make sure the individuals placed in managerial positions are actively engaged and involved themselves in company initiatives. The assigned manager sets the tone for how the rest of the team will work and interact with each other, so he or she should be invested in the growth and cooperation of employees under their guidance. Having regular check-ins and giving employees the chance to express ideas and concerns is great for management to practice, but making sure they don’t micromanage is just as important. An interest or concern over what your employees are up to while working from home is understandable, but allowing your employees to work independently and take initiative will build trust, which allows employees to feel more confident about participating and sharing ideas that will benefit the organization. The manager is also a key player in the overall communication within the organization and among employees; those in the management role are in an important, unique position that allows them to coordinate feedback and ideas across employees to determine the best strategy to achieve company objectives. 3. Celebrate what’s going well for your employees Giving a shout-out, a reward, or some form of recognition will not only show employees the quality of work to strive for but also lets them know that their job function matters and significantly contributes to the success of the business. As employees are recognized for exemplifying company goals and values, they will consistently practice their behavior and thereby build the brand as they interact with clients and customers. Overall, you’ll want to treat employees as if they are customers themselves. Like selecting a product or service, employees can be picky about where they work and how long they stay there. If you earn their loyalty and attention, your workers are more likely to stay and become involved with the company over the long term. The future of remote work It's more important now than ever for employers to embrace remote work and learn how to maintain employee involvement from a distance as working from home becomes a more permanent work model going forward. Being open to new practices, along with a focus on the people who keep the business running, will guarantee profit growth and productivity for your business over the long term. By implementing the right technology, having management on the same page, and rewarding your employees’ efforts, your workforce will still experience the same work ethic and company culture as a team working in an office environment. Kristen Ruttgaizer is vice president of people and culture at Igloo Software where she uses over 15 years of experience to shape the variety of employee and leadership programs at Igloo. In her role, Kristen provides expertise in global organizational design by implementing global HR programs and initiatives, as well as providing influential leader and employee coaching to foster a positive employee culture.
Employee engagement has been a hot topic for nearly a decade. Studies conducted by Gallup indicate that companies with highly engaged employees report an 18 percent increase in productivity and a 23 percent increase in profitability, not to mention significant decreases in employee turnover, absenteeism, and product defects. With gains like these, it’s obvious why companies are keen to develop an engaged workforce. But that can be easier said than done. While there are several different definitions of employee engagement, they all relate to an individual employee’s opinion, attachment, and/or dedication to their job and employer. Many companies utilize employee recognition software and other ready-made solutions to help engage and validate their employees. However, employee engagement is an individual matter. While these solutions aid engagement, they will not work for everyone. If you notice one or more of your employees are not engaged with their work, it may be time for a new approach. Negotiation is a key element of business. However, it’s tactics are rarely discussed outside monetary situations (sales, contracts, salary, etc.). In his book, Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss states, "Life is a negotiation. The majority of interactions we have at work and at home are negotiations that boil down to the expression of a simple, animalistic urge: I want." With this mindset, the skills and tactics used to negotiate sales and salaries can be used to increase employee engagement. Your “I want” statement is simply, “I want my employee(s) to be fully engaged at work.” It’s not necessarily a selfish want. Engaged employees frequently report higher job satisfaction and increased well-being. But employees won’t become engaged in their work just because you tell them it’s good for them too. If you want to successfully negotiate engagement with your employees, you need to discover their Black Swan. Finding the black swan Black Swan theory was popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but it’s based on a saying from 17th-century London. It was common for Londoners to refer to impossible things as “black swans,” since only white swans inhabit Europe. But Dutch explorer Willem De Vlamingh discovered black swans do exist when he traveled to Australia in 1697. Today, most people use Black Swans as a metaphor to refer to unforeseen events that dramatically impact how things are done. The global COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of a Black Swan event. However, Black Swans can also be pieces of information that drastically change expectations. In negotiations, Black Swans are the unanticipated “I want” statements, the hidden motivation driving someone to act. If leveraged properly, Black Swans allow both parties to walk away with what they desire. Discovering your employee’s Black Swan is the key to helping them engage in their work. Maybe they're trying to gain experience for the next step in their career or simply saving up for a dream vacation. Whatever it may be, understanding their Black Swan will give you the insight you need to create a win-win situation. However, uncovering a Black Swan can be difficult. Many employees, especially unengaged employees, don’t know what’s really motivating them. If you try to just ask them outright, you’ll likely get very simple answers that don’t convey the whole story. If you want the truth, you’ll need to engage in what Voss refers to as tactical empathy. Tactical empathy is understanding the feeling and mindset of another in the moment and also hearing what is behind those feelings so you increase your influence in all the moments that follow. It’s bringing our attention to both the emotional obstacles and the potential pathways to getting an agreement done. It’s emotional intelligence on steroids. — Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference Use tactical empathy We all fall victim to the fallacy that everyone else thinks and feels the same way we do. We balk when others are offended or upset by something we consider to be completely benign. Unfortunately, instead of trying to understand each other, we often just assume the other person is an anomaly and continue believing everyone else is on our side. As humans, we don’t like things that are different. It’s a primitive reflex leftover from our caveman days where anything that was different was likely going to hurt or kill us. However, you have to overcome this aversion to differences if you have any hope of discovering your employee’s Black Swan. The moments when your employees do or say something you don’t understand or think is “crazy” are some of the best moments to discover their Black Swan. Engage them in conversation. Ask them for more information until you start to understand how they think and feel, or what their “I want” statement is. The following tactics will help keep your conversation flowing: Mirroring — Repeat the last (or most important) 1–3 words the other person said in the form of a question. For example, if your employee said, “I’m going skydiving this weekend.” You would simply respond, “Skydiving?” This indicates you heard what they said and are interested in hearing more. Labeling — If you notice a pattern in the conversation, label it. People feel validated when you can describe what they are feeling or thinking. If you misinterpreted something, it gives them the opportunity to correct you. To continue the previous example: Employee: I’m going skydiving this weekend.You: Skydiving?Employee: Yeah, it’s kind of a tradition I have with my sister. You: It seems like you have a good relationship with her.Employee: I don’t know if I’d say that. Skydiving is really the only thing we have in common. You could then continue the conversation by mirroring again or asking a follow up question until you understand the motivation behind your employee’s actions. If your goal is to find your employee’s Black Swan, they should talk more than you. There will obviously be times in the natural flow of conversation where you say something about yourself or tell a related story. It can help form a connection between the two of you. But if you’re talking about you, you’re not learning about them. Keep the conversation focused on your employee. Engage in casual social interactions Black Swans rarely appear in formal meetings. Remember, Black Swans are unanticipated “I want” statements. They’re less likely to surface if you have a preset agenda. Make the time to talk to your employees outside of your office. Stop to talk when you see them in the hallway or breakroom. Take a few minutes before and/or after a one-on-one to talk about something not-work related. It’s the casual, unguarded conversations where Black Swans are easiest to spot. It’s important to note that many people become nervous around those in positions of authority. They feel like they are going to be reprimanded or get in trouble somehow. It may take time and effort before some of your employees feel comfortable enough to have a casual conversation with you. Don’t get discouraged. If you continue to show genuine interest in your employees and their personal interests, they will eventually become more comfortable. Once you discover your employee’s Black Swan, you can start to successfully negotiate their active engagement. Negotiating for engagement Discovering your employee’s unanticipated “I want” statement turns the situation from you wanting something from them (“I want you to be fully engaged in your work”), to a situation where you want something from each other. For example, one of your employees really enjoys competition. They regularly get involved in activities like March Madness brackets or ping-pong tournaments. Even if the only prize is bragging rights, they seem to enjoy the challenge of competition. This could be a hidden “I want” statement: “I want to participate in competitions,” or even, “I want to win.” You now have the opportunity to provide your employee with something they want in exchange for what you want. Talk to them about how you could create competitions out of their daily tasks to make work more rewarding for them. Depending on their interest, maybe even have them organize and track weekly, monthly, and/or quarterly goals for your team. If you negotiate properly, you should see an increase in your employee’s productivity and they should start to feel more fulfilled. Don’t make promises you can’t keep It is absolutely crucial that you can fulfill whatever deal you make with your employees as soon as possible. If you’re using phrases like “I’ll see what I can do,” or “Depending where we are next quarter,” you are not done negotiating. Keep discussing what can be done until you have something you can act on and deliver within days. Making grand promises might motivate an employee for a week, but they will become actively disengaged as soon as they realize you cannot fulfill it. Let’s say you discover an employee’s Black Swan is that they want to become a graphic designer. They’re even going to school for it, but their current position has nothing to do with design. Promising to get them a job in your design/marketing department is obviously not going to work. Neither will promising you’ll “talk to the manager” to see if your employee can help out on a few projects. More realistic options would be to help your employee set up networking opportunities within your company or associates. Schedule a meeting with the head designer so your employee can ask questions about career growth, education opportunities, etc. Find small projects within your team or department that give them an opportunity to practice their skills. Have them design meeting handouts or training materials. You are not always going to be able to deliver exactly what your employee wants. But that is the point of negotiation — to collaborate with each other until you find a solution that both parties can realistically deliver. Investing your time There is no “quick fix” when it comes to employee engagement. Even plug-and-play employee recognition programs and software won’t change company culture overnight. Talking to individual employees and discovering their Black Swans takes time and energy. Progress may be slow, but as employees become more engaged you should start to see the benefits positively impact your business. Step-by-step, you’ll get back to where you want to be.