Purpose, People, Progress
Seminar Discusses Re-Engaging Employees Post Pandemic
Imagine you and your coworkers are traveling in a rowboat. You’re trying to get to a shore in the distance. Are you constantly paddling and maybe shouting encouragement to your team? Or perhaps you’re occasionally rowing, but also taking breaks at times to enjoy the scenery. Maybe you’re not helping the effort move forward at all and in fact are hauling in buckets of water to weigh down the boat.
Chances are we’ve all been in each position at one time or another in our careers. In the past 2 years of pandemic worklife, however, it may seem harder than ever to get our group to the other side of the lake together.
“When we feel ourselves slipping down the engagement level, how do we re-engage?” asked guest presenter Dr. Cathleen Swody at a recent virtual installment of the Deputy Director for Management Seminar Series. “How do we bring ourselves back so that our work is meaningful and we’re contributing in the right way?”
With close to 20 years of experience in coaching and professional development across various industries, Swody, partner and director of assessment at Thrive Leadership, offered insights on “Engaging employees as they transition to the post-pandemic workplace.”
Just what is “engagement” in the workforce? The speaker, an organizational psychologist, gave context to the term.
“Employee engagement is focused energy, emotional commitment, giving that extra effort to support the organization’s needs and goals,” she said.
Engagement is not about happiness, job satisfaction or compliance—although all of those elements are valuable in getting the work done, Swody explained.
“But what drives emotional commitment? [Engagement] is about the bigger picture, about something bigger than the task itself,” she continued. “How do we drive that psychological desire to do what’s right for ourselves and the organization?”
Swody described three categories of workers—highly engaged, ok/satisfied and disengaged.
You’ll recognize the highly engaged employees right away. They’re making recommendations on ways to approach or improve the project. Focused on the goals, they’re cheering on or offering feedback to colleagues.
“Their actions show us that their heart and souls are in it,” Swody said.
The ok/satisfied folks may not be actively moving the initiative ahead. They may be distracted sometimes or doing the bare minimum. Sometimes, they are not adding a ton of value, but they are also not working against the mission or “rowing backward.”
The final category—detractors—are the folks who need the most immediate help, Swody pointed out. Disengaged employees are not only underperforming, but also dragging down the effort or project.
Regaining Mojo at Work
“It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be highly engaged—that’s impossible,” Swody noted, “but we want to increase the number of highly engaged people and at the very least convert some of the actively disengaged people into that satisfied/ok category.”
Improving engagement produces tangible results in the workplace, she emphasized. Research data suggests that disengaged employees are 70 percent more likely to make mistakes than their engaged counterparts.
“The more highly employees are connected and engaged, the higher are productivity levels,” Swody reported. “They have better outcomes as well as better patient care and customer care…When people are doing their best work, it shows.”
The executive coach identified three themes that drive employee engagement across all fields—purpose, people and progress.
Employees perform better when they feel connected to the larger mission, Swody pointed out.
“We’re really talking about creating meaningful work for people” that they can see clearly contributing to something bigger than the task itself and bigger than themselves, she explained.
Also, people need to be seen as valuable—both as individuals and as teammates.
“This means managers treating employees as human beings each with their own challenges, situations, personalities, strengths, tendencies and preferences,” Swody said. “People want to be acknowledged as individuals and they also want to know they are not alone—they are working with other people who want the same big picture item.”
Finally, progress is “the feeling that we’re chipping away at something, that we’re all contributing to forward momentum,” she said. Such changes can be incremental and don’t have to be seen as huge gains. It’s the sense of accomplishment that matters.
Find Your ‘Why’
In the last 2 years, a lot of folks have felt disconnected, given the global pandemic and its widespread, residual effects. Forty percent of surveyed employees say their professional development opportunities decreased over the past 2 years.
To re-energize yourself and others, practice behavior that may seem like common sense: Remind yourself and your team of how the work connects to the bigger purpose, connect to people one-on-one by asking them how they’re coping and recognize both individual group milestones—no matter how minor.
“What gets me out of bed each morning is believing in the mission of our center and of NIH,” said NCCIH executive officer Ginger Betson, who participated on screen in the virtual seminar. “NIH is massive and knowing that I contribute in even a small way to making things better and moving things forward really drives me every day.”
NIMH executive officer Ann Huston, the third NIH’er to share on screen along with NIH deputy director for management Dr. Alfred Johnson, said colleagues motivate her, above all else.
“I have to put the people first,” Huston said. “I have terrific people that I get to work with every day…I work with a really innovative staff and the innovation drives us. We’re always looking for new ways to make progress.”
Swody said, “Engaged teams have higher levels of creative problem-solving and that creates a positive spiral in the workplace.”
Participants also shared tips for moving forward when they feel “stuck.”
Take a break and maybe go for a walk, advised Huston. Call a colleague to commiserate and perhaps strategize, Ginger offered.
“I have to physically exhaust myself,” Johnson said. “It’s like pushing the reset button. That totally clears my mind.”
Often new outlooks and different approaches reveal themselves afterwards.
“The key message is find what works for you and what gets you out of your own head,” Swody summarized. “That’s a theme I heard from all of you—different techniques for getting out of your own way and regaining that perspective so you can bring your best to yourself and your team.”