Workplace Issues

Driving Engagement in a Remote Work World

Here’s how to inspire your team no matter where they are located.
Chris McChesneyApril 22, 2021

Well, we’re living it, again and again, and again. Still stuck at home and still working from home.

And even as more of us receive vaccinations, a return to life in the office as we used to know it is doubtful. A remote and socially distanced workplace is the new normal or huge part of it.

Knowing that your team won’t be together in the same space anytime soon, how can you drive engagement — also known as a passion for the job — that will guarantee optimal execution and inspire excellence?

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Debunking the Engagement Myth

First, let’s debunk a misconception that it’s impossible to have sustainable workplace engagement if there isn’t a shared workplace.

In fact, it’s possible to garner the highest engagement ever when your team is remote. The trick: Don’t confuse engagement with comradery or employee satisfaction.

You need to jettison the notion that people must like their bosses, be friends with co-workers, or love their benefits packages to be engaged about their jobs.

Sure, these have all been shown to improve employee satisfaction and even reduce turnover. But they have little effect on employee engagement (or how passionate a person is about work).

Here’s what does drive engagement: progress and purpose. In other words, do your employees feel they are making real progress (individually or as part of a team)? I call this winning. Do they feel they are winning at something that matters?

Cultivating Engagement

As a leader, you cannot give your people the gift of engagement any more than a farmer can give life to a seed. But just as farmers create the conditions for seeds to grow, your job as a leader is to create the conditions for engagement.

You don’t need a shared work environment to create these conditions. You just need to identify an important and achievable objective for your team. I think of it as giving your employees a winnable game. This winnable objective doesn’t have to represent a majority of what the team does. Employees can tolerate — even thrive — when their jobs still require many uninspiring tasks as long as one aspect of the work meets the two critical aspects of progress and purpose.

Here is the question a leader should ask: “Do the people on my team feel they are winning at something that matters?”

If the answer is yes, you’ll have engagement. Don’t take my word for it. Google the research done by Fredrich Hertzberg in the 1960s on the two-factor theory, or you could just consider your own experience. Think about a time in your career when you were most excited about what was happening, a time when you couldn’t wait to get out of bed in the morning. I can promise you that you were making progress on something that mattered at that time. You may, or may not, have been making good money, liked your boss, had a friend at work, or liked your benefits package. But you were winning, and it was important.

Creating the Winnable Game

As many of us continue to work remotely, will it be harder to develop trust? Yes. Will it be harder to give your people a sense of belonging in the short term? Yes. Are you missing body language, a vibe that can’t be picked up on a screen? Yes.

These are challenges and disappointments for many of us. But the most important thing is still in play; the activities that drive human engagement are as accessible through Zoom as they are in person. As a leader, you need to be willing to put disproportionate energy against a measurable objective that is attainable in a specified time. It may be three months out. It may be nine months out. But there has to be a line in the sand.

The leader should have the final say on what to pursue. But the team should have a bigger voice on how this winnable task should be done. The team also needs to see visible progress on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

As the leader, you’ll need to prioritize the work tied to this objective, even if it competes with urgent activities of your day job. Most people are quite good at knowing what’s important to their bosses. You’ll have to show them with your actions as well as your instructions. With this high-stakes, winnable game, it’s less about how you launch it and more about how you play it.

Does this work take a real effort? Yes. Does it take real effort in a shared work environment? Yes. Does this work take more effort in a virtual environment? I don’t think so.

Chris McChesney is a Wall Street Journal #1 national best-selling author of “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” and the global practice leader of execution for FranklinCovey.