3 Ways to Avoid Virtual Employee Engagement

Dr. Jason Jones

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has altered our way of life in many ways. Nowhere is this more true than in how we accomplish our work. For better or worse, virtual work is how we must get business done. 

Before the crisis, roughly 35% of employees were fully engaged in their work while 65% of employees are either partially engaged or fully disengaged. In the new reality of virtual work across every industry, employee engagement will become one of the key differentiators between companies as it will greatly impact everything from product and service quality to productivity, operational costs, and innovation. 

 While some may predict that virtual work will increase engagement, the evidence tells us that the distance between team members and a change in work processes will result in a higher percentage of disengagement among employees. A decline in engagement will lead to lower work satisfaction, quality, and performance for three reasons. 

Disconnection. A dispersed team is more likely to be disconnected emotionally. When we are not with people, we miss the unplanned talks about topics that involve our personal lives. These conversations build a sense of similarity and likeability. Dispersed employees also miss some of the simple and often overlooked behaviors of colleagues like smiles, facial expressions, body language, and impromptu interactions that quietly build trust and camaraderie. 

 In virtual work environments, communication is only when necessary and therefore less often than it occurs when people are in the same location. Likewise, disconnection can occur between the leader and employee as interaction typically happens less often and for a shorter amount of time. 

Distraction. The majority of workers are now working from home where distraction is the greatest challenge. Multi-tasking during a conference call has been reported as one of the biggest manifestations of distraction for virtual workers. Distractions are now more complex because workers have to balance their jobs with the demands of being at home with kids who can no longer attend school or daycare. Many people have additional responsibilities further increasing distraction and the need for flexibility. 

Deactivation. Our brains are currently focused on managing two great threats from Covid-19. First, the threat to our health and the health of our family members. This threat potentially leads to hospitalization or death. A second threat is of losing our jobs and life-savings due to an economic meltdown. Brain studies show that when we attend to threats, our brain activates neurochemicals like adrenaline and cortisol that exacerbate negative thinking cycles and catapult us into a state of fight or flight. When this happens deactivation occurs in the areas of our brain that are responsible for creativity, emotional control, critical thinking, and hinder positivity, motivation, and engagement. 

It’s important that leaders understand that employees are battling these three D’s in their virtual work environments (disconnection, distraction, and deactivation) and take action to mitigate them as much as possible. Leaders that are serious about combating the 3 D’s can take intentional action by employing the 3 C’s.

Connect People. Help your employees feel connected by holding consistent one-on-one meetings and team meetings. Being a facilitator is a critical role of a virtual leader. Facilitate meetings in a way that helps team members connect with each other and continually build trust. This can be done by asking ice-breaker questions and encouraging everyone to give input. Make it a goal to help everyone feel safe, supported, and significant. A great resource for ice-breakers is teampedia.net.

Leaders can utilize technology and applications to stay in close communication with each employee and encourage them to use the technology to stay in close communication with their teammates. Your availability is critically important during times of uncertainty and stress. Leaders that are aloof and slow to respond will have employees that will quickly become disengaged. Your attentiveness to supporting employees will be reflected in your employee’s attentiveness to their work. 

Coach Performance. Use a conversational approach to communicate with employees. Conversations help you create a partnership between you and your employees. Ask questions that will lead the employee to be more self-directed in their goals and work. 

Set an expectation that you will be providing feedback along the way during your one-on-one meetings because you want to support their success in the new work environment. Then, hold them accountable for their work output and quality. Even during a crisis, employees need to be guided by goals and held accountable for achieving them.

Calibrate Culture. High-performing individuals and teams have leaders who are constantly shaping the culture. Not by themselves, but by working with their employees to set and uphold clear standards of behavior and results. One of the quickest ways to disengage people -- especially high-performers -- is to allow your culture to become undisciplined and void of accountability. This happens easily when people experience an abrupt change in the work environment.

In your virtual meetings, discuss the priorities and goals of your team. Take the time to create standard operating procedures for collaboration, communication, and how work gets done. This has likely changed significantly now that everyone is working remotely. Then, challenge each employee to tell the group how they will contribute to the team’s success this week. 

We are living in a time of great uncertainty that has the potential to lead to greater employee disengagement. Maintaining employee engagement will likely require more time, intention, and ingenuity on your part. Focusing your leadership on connecting people, coaching performance, and culturing standards will result in employees that are motivated to engage, collaborate, and perform at a high level. Good leadership and guidance today, and throughout this Covid-19 experience, will pay dividends for many years to come.