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Cracking the Code of Remote Employee Disengagement

How to keep employees engaged, enthusiastic and effective.

Increasing employee engagement has always been hard. But even with a growing optimism about a return to the workplace, a great number of employees continue to work remotely because of the pandemic, including many onsite teams, making engagement harder than ever.

It’s so hard that, according to a Swift Bunny survey, less than half (49 percent) of employees believe their companies care about their well-being. And they’re saying they feel more disengaged and neglected now that they’re working from home.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, according to Jill Christensen, employee engagement expert and best-selling author of “If Not You, Who? Cracking the Code of Employee Engagement.”

“If you lead with optimism and action and help employees feel secure about the future, they will not be distracted and check out,” Christensen said during NAA’s APTvirtual session, “How to Crack the Code of Remote Employee Disengagement.”

“If you create a culture where your remote worker’s needs are met, they will give you their all and then some,” she said. “In other words, if a worker thinks you are making them a priority, they will make you a priority and stay engaged, enthused and effective.”

Making workers feel like they are a priority requires fulfilling three basic needs that all humans have — connection, communication and collaboration, according to Christensen. 

Connection

Getting connection right requires understanding why people are motivated to get out of bed and go to work every single day. Studies have found that 80 percent of people want to be connected to something bigger than themselves, according to Christensen, but it’s harder to accomplish in a virtual work environment.

“I want to have meaning, I want to add value, I want to make a difference in the world,” Christensen said. “It is no secret that when you physically disperse people, the sense of connection diminishes. The vast majority of my neighbors and friends working from home have said to me they cannot believe how disconnected and isolated they feel from their workplace and from the people whom they serve.”

Managers can address these feelings of isolation with seven suggestions from Christensen. Among the suggestions are creating a buddy system, hosting virtual happy hours, running a troop tour, setting a team goal, developing a mini book of bios, recognizing the team more frequently and implementing role and soul.

“One of the easiest ways to make people feel connected is to create a team goal that everyone is responsible for achieving together,” Christensen said. “If you create a team goal that is aligned around the vision of your CEO, people will really feel like they are walking together arm in arm toward the same North Star, toward the same vision, toward the same mission, toward something much, much bigger than themselves.”

Communication

In order to create effective connection, managers have to communicate in a way that resonates with their workforce, half of which are Millennials and Gen Z today. By the end of 2025, Millennials and Gen Z will account for more than 70 percent of the workforce.

Millennials and Gen Z communicate more often and comprehensively than any generation in history and have grown accustomed to receiving and sending communication almost non-stop on their mobile devices.

“These people are armed with a smartphone coming out of their mother’s womb in their hand,” said Christensen. “They love to communicate, and they love to bombard people with communications. When they go into your organization and people don’t communicate with them that’s absolutely not going to cut it. How can your managers fill the need for communication?”

Christensen suggests seven possible techniques to do this: Video and phone calls, team huddles, weekly one on ones, Q&A sessions with leaders, poll questions, an email box for ideas and focus groups.

“Gone are the days when it’s OK to communicate to employees,” Christensen said. “In order to keep employees engaged, you need to communicate with employees. We call that creating a two-way communication culture.”

There are a number of reasons to cultivate a two-way communication culture, according to Christensen, but the main reason is that people have a lot to contribute to every decision that will improve results.

“Your employees are in the trenches, they are the people closest to your residents,” Christensen said.  “They know exactly what’s going on in your communities. They have creative ideas on how you can improve solutions to fix processes that are broken. They have ideas on how you can produce additional revenues. They have ideas on how you can reduce expenses without reducing head count. They probably also have amazing ideas on how to market creatively in your local cities and towns.”

Collaboration

Two-way communication is a precursor to collaboration, which is when a group of people come together and contribute their expertise for the benefit of a shared objective, project or mission. This enables employees to better problem solve, learn from one another and communicate even more often, which boosts morale, knowledge, productivity and engagement, according to Christensen.

Collaboration isn’t as easy in a virtual environment, but it is possible and necessary. Christensen offered seven suggestions for rental housing operators to create more collaboration: Lead major projects, assign problems to fix, utilize state of the art collaboration tools, create a team charter, host a team innovations meeting, mind the time zone and reward collaborative behavior.

But to be effective, great collaboration requires letting every associate lead collaborative projects.

“There’s this phenomenon that happens in business where typically employees who sit right beneath the manager’s nose, or the highest performing employees, are the people who get asked to fix the high-profile problems,” Christensen said. “It’s a very negative situation and it’s called the halo effect. When you choose the same people over and over again to lead high profile projects or fix high profile problems, you are completely disengaging all of your other employees. As managers and as leaders, you have got to trust all of your remote workers to fix projects.”

Trust coupled with connection, communication and collaboration will result in a more engaged remote workforce. But the decision to create an engaging culture has to be deliberate.

“If you are not deliberate about creating an extraordinary workplace culture that meets or exceeds people’s needs, you’re going to end up with a culture by chance and it’s not going to be pretty,” Christensen said. “It’s going to be mediocre at best and we all know that mediocrity is not going to breed success in your communities or resident satisfaction and renewals.”

Peter Jakel is the Vice President of Strategy for LinnellTaylor Marketing.