There is currently no bumping into each other by the coffee machine or brainstorming over lunch. As our environment changes and we step outside of our confined offices, open floor plans or cubicles, we may worry about losing the qualities of in-person engagement we had in the office.
And apart from the physical distance from each other, there is a question over engaging with the work itself. Engagement can be reached as a team, but also alone. If you are engaged with your work, you will perform better and have more energy to succeed during more challenging times.
Many things happen in our brain and body when we are physically engaging with other human beings. From commuting to sharing a working space with other people, our mental and physical state reacts to these stimuli quite automatically. But much of this has fallen away and we are challenged to create and spend energy collaborating in a more limiting environment. Tasks that might have been exhilarating before might seem exhausting now.
An important aspect of engagement to me has always been “to be present at a specific time.” In order to be present, we must trust our ability to contribute towards a team’s objectives, feel a sense of satisfaction while contributing, and be in a state of focus in order to perform optimally. Engagement results in more creativity and capacity for ideation, strategy development, testing and action.
So, what have we learned about engagement that we can use now? What is the “new norm”? How do I communicate with my team? How do they communicate with me? How are my employees feeling? How is it affecting them? How will this change our projections? Where do we go from here?
Even prior to COVID-19, I was being led by a remote leader, and I now lead a virtual team. From my own experience, these 5 qualities are a good starting point to determine if you’re achieving this strong level of engagement amongst your teams in order to successfully deliver on projects.
1. Does the team represent a safe space?
A safe space can be physical or metaphorical, but one word underlines both – trust. Most employees have now entered a new and less stable working mode, both practically and mentally. There must be a level of mutual trust while we are all adapting and finding new personal habits and strategies. (To dive deeper into the topic of “trust”, check out the article my colleague, Marcus Hitzberger, wrote on trust among virtual teams. )
Many leaders, I’m sure, are wondering if their employees are being as productive as they would be in an office. Many employees, I’m certain, are aware of their boss’ curiosity. I’ve had a remote boss for close to 2 years now. One thing I’ve learned is that I am my most productive and creative self when I have the freedom to run my own projects. While at times I may feel like I’m unqualified or don’t have all the experience to be successful, we must trust our ability to thrive with a long leash. By creating a healthy space for feedback and failure, your employees will feel trusted and push beyond your expectations.
The responsibility, therefore, doesn’t solely lie on the leader, but on the team members as well. If an employee feels confident working with this long leash, they must participate in active collaboration and conversation, being open to speak out when help is needed. At the end of the day, it’s a collective team effort. While we may call it “remote work”, remote collaboration is an accurate oxymoron.
Everyone is going through something new, thus, leaders must give permission to fail. If given this space, employees will feel they have the freedom to be creative and try new things – resulting in engagement and greater organizational impact.
2. How quick is your team to accept challenges?
Engaged teams are accepting change and are willing to step outside of their professional comfort zone. Challenge-accepters are creating the opportunity for new innovations to present themselves.
Part of being a challenge accepter is to be honest about what the challenge means to the team. By having a collective awareness, we are recognizing and acknowledging the risk. This is especially important when it might affect certain team members more than others. When a team isn’t comfortable to articulate what the new future could look like, there is less room to find solutions.
This is easier said than done. As unemployment is growing so quickly, businesses are forced to find ways to cut down on labor costs and many of their employees find themselves with extra weight and responsibilities on their shoulders. Organizations need to respond by developing and supporting these individuals as they are asked to adapt so unexpectedly. A supportive and honest team is the first immediate environment where these challenges can be discussed and overcome.
3. Is your team self-driven?
While being self-driven may come off as a more individualistic quality, it still ties back to a team’s collective efforts and goals. Self-drive equates to efficiency. In turn, this results in more time to help others, upskill, isolate an hour of uninterrupted ideation, and more. A self-driven employee is a loyal employee. They see the collective purpose and feel compelled to engage at a greater degree.
The number of distractions during the working day has increased – children, pets, home gyms, and a fridge in arms-reach. While the new freedom might have been motivating at first, anecdotal evidence shows depending on your circumstances it is not easy to stay motivated and manage time (and timelines) effectively.
We must find ways of establishing a routine and set responsibilities while still giving each teammate the opportunity to find flexibility within their own schedules. As long as the work gets done effectively and efficiently, employees will feel trusted and self-motivated to complete their projects.
This sense of individual motivation can be a beautiful opportunity to encourage accountability and reliance. You’ll find projects being completed by more than just one person, but a true and collective effort.
4. Is there time to talk purpose?
Throughout our strategic learning programs, “purpose” always emerges as a crucial but slightly under nurtured topic among C-suite decision makers.
Startups are good at this. They spend time defining and living their purpose because they know it focuses efforts and makes them more efficient. It’s a productivity tool in itself. In larger organizations, purpose is too often seen as an instruction from above.
Treat your individual teams like a startup. Share a common purpose with them. Take time to talk about what this means for everybody’s efforts. Purpose is not a slogan to put into a brochure or hang up over reception. A team can also have a more tangible purpose than the organization as a whole. There is a huge value in discussing each role’s contribution to a team’s purpose on a very practical level.
Everyone wants to find meaning in what they do, especially when times are as uncertain as they are now. Chances are, there are multiple roads to reach a destination. It’ll free up a lot of creative freedom and engagement if you let your purpose be the guiding light for a team to achieve its ambitions.
5. Are you inventive in the way you collaborate?
We’ve seen the biggest rise in online collaboration platforms! From Zoom and Microsoft Teams to Miro and Mural, the possibilities to collaborate are endless.
It would be foolish to think that there isn’t a difference between a virtual collaboration session and one where everyone is brainstorming in the same room – with sticky notes everywhere.
Engaged teams are able to mitigate this difference as much as possible – mimicking the environment of being in a creative space of ideation and brainstorming. Team building must be baked into your team culture and values. (My colleague Killian wrote an article about what he has learned about virtual engagement tools here.)
Within a safe space, an even playing field and sense of distributed leadership responsibilities will emerge. People will be autonomous and take ownership to make key decisions. People will be willing to assist others, schedule time out of their day to help a teammate with a brainstorming session.
In summary, if you create a safe space, build a team of challenge-accepters who are self-driven and can envision a shared purpose, and collaborate effectively, your team is on track to be an engaged team.
Whether we are living through a pandemic or looking at the future of work 5 years from now, these qualities will not only leave your team feeling empowered but determined to continuously contribute when faced with future, inevitable shifts in our complex and ambiguous world.
If there are other qualities you strongly believe contribute to an “engaged team”, I would love to hear them – write to me via email.