The contextual factors that result in a person deciding to engage at work are exactly the same when people are remote from each other as when they’re together, however they’re much less likely to be present naturally as they are in a close office environment and they’re more likely to be negatively impacted.
According to the seminal work of William Kahn, there are three fundamental conditions that need to be present for people to feel engaged at work. It’s worth being aware of what they are, how the lockdown situation may be making it harder for people to stay engaged, and what managers can do to keep people engaged.
Psychological safety (I work in a secure, trustworthy and supportive environment)
There’s an obvious existential threat in terms of job security but even without that, working remotely risks a feeling of ‘out of sight, out of mind’: does anyone even care where I am or what I’m doing?
It’s easy to see how this thinking could lead people to worry about whether they’re being told all they need to know about what’s going on centrally, whether bosses are talking about them behind their backs or whether decisions are being made without them.
Psychological meaning (my work is worthwhile and is valued)
With the focus on day-to-day and local productivity rather than big picture results, it is less obvious how what people are doing is contributing to the broader team or wider business.
If individuals don’t get the usual positive affirmations or sense of belonging they may be used to getting from their team-mates in a physical working environment, it’s more difficult for them to make and measure progress.
Psychological availability (I have the emotional, physical and cognitive resources I need)
There may be more distractions and demands on people’s time remotely (particularly now with home schooling or trying to juggle the logistics and technological challenges of home working) and many people are dealing with anxiety about the broader situation in the world.
Finding time to focus properly on pieces of work is also more challenging as people tend to be spending more time in back-to-back virtual meetings and catch-ups. This can be stressful and exhausting, directly impacting the likelihood of someone fully engaging.
What managers can do to help
1) More than ever it comes down to managers taking steps to understand what individuals in their teams are experiencing and what they need to thrive, accepting that one size does not fit all
2) Managers must be thoughtful and deliberate about setting goals and breaking them down into milestones, measuring and acknowledging progress
3) Help people prioritise the things that can really make a difference to the business and remove the extra busy-ness that eats up their time and effort
4) Ensure that the focus is on the things that can be controlled rather than wasting headspace on the things that they are unable to influence
5) Coaching the team to manage their time effectively is hugely important. This can involve breaking the tyranny of back-to-back Zoom (or similar) calls and meetings and setting clear expectations on availability – it is not necessary (or healthy) to be fully accessible online every minute of the day.
6) Interpersonal connections within the team matter more than ever, so managers should be doing what they can to maintain a feeling of belonging for all team members
Caroline Boyd is director of management development company themanagerhub.com