A few months into the “new normal” of 2020, a young friend of mine graduated from university, and after years of preparation and anticipation, accepted their dream job at their dream company – a large, well-established, global organization, which has won many awards for being a great place to work.
In the middle of a pandemic, he moved across the country, bought a new house, and filled with pride, drove by the company’s large office building prior to his first day of work.
But a drive-by was as close to that building as he would get.
Shortly after he had accepted his offer, everyone at the company shifted to a remote work strategy. Like a well-oiled machine, the onboarding team sent office supplies, a new computer, a desktop monitor, and a mobile phone to his home address prior to his first day. New hire paperwork was delivered and signed electronically, and new hire training was completed via a series of virtual training modules that were available on demand.
On his first day, he got up early, dressed professionally, made a cup of coffee, and made the 25-step commute to his new home office. First on the agenda was a video call with his HR representative, and then a quick connect call with his new boss, neither of whom he’d ever met in person. Each person was friendly, welcomed him to the team, and instructed him to reach out via instant messenger or email any time he had any questions or concerns.
As work days turned into work weeks, “going to work” didn’t feel much different than going to play video games, or going to watch TV, or going to bed – because all of those things happened in the same place, and without other people.
After a couple of months, the initial excitement around starting a new career in a new city began to wane. There was plenty of work to do and clear goals to achieve, but there was not connection with his boss, his team, or the company. The virtual training had been thorough, but with no opportunity to get to know anyone beyond video calls and virtual team meetings, he felt disconnected – and disappointed. As a new hire, he found it difficult to ask questions in virtual team meetings, and it felt intrusive to send people multiple messages to follow up, or to learn more about a topic that was discussed.
By the time I reached out to him to ask how things were going, he was already taking calls from recruiters and responding to job offers on LinkedIn. When I asked why he would want to leave such a great opportunity at a company well known for having a great culture, he shared that he didn’t feel like the work he did mattered, and he didn’t feel any connection to the company. He said, “I don’t even know what the company’s culture is. I can read about it, but I don’t feel it.”
Unfortunately, the experience described above isn’t something that happens just with new hires or remote employees. The importance of creating connection is critical, whether you’re working together in an office, separately in your own homes, or both. And the job of creating connection falls squarely on us as managers of people.
As people leaders, we’ve long been obsessed with improving employee engagement, but we’ve also often missed the mark by equating high levels of engagement with perks like free food, ping pong tables, or bringing pets to work – you know, things that we perceive can make people happy. The truth is that employee engagement is an outcome of whether or not employees truly feel connected to the company and its purpose.
As a leader, creating connection for your team members is one of your most important, most difficult, and most rewarding jobs. Employees who feel connected to the company’s reason for existing can successfully navigate through challenges, difficulties, and frustrations (or a global pandemic), because they feel the work they do matters.
So what can you, as a leader, do to ensure your employees experience that kind of connection to their work?
Leaders must be visible, available, and approachable.
Over the last 20 years, Gallup has reliably measured employee engagement. The percentage of employees who are actively engaged at work hasn’t really veered that much from about one third, plus or minus a couple of percentage points. However, according to their surveys, about three months into the global pandemic, employee engagement reached record levels.
Why did employee engagement go up during such a challenging time? While there were many reasons, including gratitude for even having a job, one of the key reasons was increased visibility and communication from leadership.
Think back to March of 2020. Whether your workplace laid employees off, transitioned to remote work, or navigated the challenges of providing a safe place to work for essential employees, communication efforts likely increased exponentially. There were daily check-in calls among team members and managers, and frequent “all hands” Zoom calls where leaders would share plans for the day (that was about all we could handle at that point), as well as how they were addressing the unknowns. The increase in communication and check-ins created a shared experience with a common goal – to safely get through the challenges while meeting customers’ needs.
If employee engagement is what leaders are looking for, it’s critical to continue communicating consistently, focus their teams on a common purpose, and to connect with employees individually on an ongoing basis, not just in times of difficulty or great challenge.
Employees need to be seen, valued, and cared for.
As encouraging as it was to learn that employees felt more connected to their work that ever during a time of global upheaval, unfortunately, it didn’t last. Gallup’s measurements revealed an “historic decrease” in employee engagement just a month after the unprecedented rise.
As the pandemic response dragged on, and the “new future of work” became more routine, leaders likely backed off of their daily communications and check-ins. The U.S. also experienced significant cultural upheaval and strife following the killing of George Floyd. Employees felt less prepared for the daily challenges in their work lives, and often unsupported in their personal lives as they experienced collective trauma and uncertainty following such a horrific event.
Unfortunately, during this critical time when many employees were experiencing a flurry of complicated emotions, many leaders did not feel qualified or educated enough to address their employees’ emotions, and as a result, may not have addressed them at all.
Dealing with humans – and human emotions – can be tricky, but as leaders our job is to care for those that we lead and serve. Often, one of the best ways to show that you care is to ask how someone is doing, and then to actually listen. No answers or solutions required.
So, what happened to my friend above?
After struggling for several months working for a leader who was unavailable and difficult to approach, another leader reached out to him and simply asked, “Are you okay?” This leader created a safe space for him to share his struggles with feeling connected, respected, and valued and offered his support. He also connected my friend with an empathetic HR leader who provided positive coaching and helpful resources to assist him with addressing the poor relationship he had with his direct supervisor.
Ultimately, he applied for another role in the company after a few months and accepted a transfer to another division. Now, working for a different leader, he’s found purpose in a role where he feels he’s really making a difference. Before moving into this new role, he made a point to reach out to the manager who asked him how he was doing that day, as well as the HR leader, to thank them for their help and support.
Each of us has the power to make a difference in someone’s life, and leaders who prioritize communication, connection, and caring can create real value in their organizations, as well as in the lives of those that they lead and serve.
About the AuthorMore Content by Jennifer McClure