Employee Engagement Podcast

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Employee Engagement

On this episode of Workplace Matters we looked at how managers and employers engage their workforce. Especially with remote workers, engaging employees has become more difficult. So what about engagement should change regarding remote work, and what can stay the same?

We talked with University of Iowa experts and staff to address employee engagement.


Michael: You’re listening to Workplace Matters. How we work is changing. Hybrid and remote workplaces are here to stay for many employers, and that creates challenges for engaging employees both professionally and casually. This does not affect every industry or every job function. Some jobs always need to be in person and some workplaces want to leave remote work behind. If a workplace wants to continue with remote work arrangements engagement is a key part to any workplace. So, what should change about how we engage remote and hybrid employees?

(Intro Music)

Michael: Building strong relationships with employees is good for everyone. Harvard Business Review found that highly engaged organizations have double the monetary success rate of lower engaged organizations, lower turnover, fewer safety incidents, fewer patient safety incidents, and fewer quality incidents. (Baldoni, 2013). 

Eean Crawford: I think a strong employer/employee relationship is defined by mutual trust and respect.

Michael: Eean Crawford teaches Management and Entrepreneurship for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business.

Eean: That you have a shared purpose, shared goals. The employer wants you as an employee to be successful and you as an employee want the company to be successful. That high quality relationship feels like you are supported as an employee, and as an employee that you want to give your very best to your employer. So a high degree of trust, of mutual respect, shared goals, and willingness to give your best, as an employer to your employee and vice versa as an employee to your employer.

Michael: Creating workplace relationships like this can be difficult when everyone is in the same building, never mind if employees and managers are remote. Issues like creating equity, navigating when to be operational and when to be casual, monitoring productivity, building trust, or motivating employees all become more difficult with remote employees.   

Eean: Equity is not treating everyone the same, everyone doesn’t need to have the same work arrangement. So as an employer, treating people equitably I think starts with asking people what works best for you and then evaluating people on their results. Again, relaxing the assumption that what we care most about is where we see people working. And how long they’re working and caring more about what value are you creating in the time and place that you are working, wherever and whenever it is. And that’s going to take managers shifting in what their management style is. For those that are already comfortable managing towards a results-oriented outcome, this will be natural. For those that are managing more to schedules and in physical locations that that will be more difficult, I think.

Michael: Engaging remote employees equally is about asking how much check in they need and attempting to adhere to that. “How much check in do they need to be productive?” and managing around the results. Leading remote and hybrid employees can easily create productivity concerns for managers, which makes sense when previously managers could see the work getting done in office. For managing hybrid and remote employees, focusing on results and challenging the assumption you need to see work being done is what’s important.

Eean: I think the biggest concerns from an employer standpoint are related to will my employees be productive if they’re not in the office and how can we collaborate if we’re not face to face? Those are some of the big concerns. Is quality of collaboration going to drop if not everyone’s in the same room? And a simple rejoinder is well has the quality of our collaboration dropped over the last year that we’ve been working one hundred percent remote? If we’ve been doing it successfully for the whole last year, what will limit our success in the future? There are many companies that are experimenting with having employees off site, do virtual collaboration or have employees on site on different days for different purposes. And I think it’s OK for companies to experiment and learn what works and learn what doesn’t.

Michael: Joe Hetrick leads a team for Advanced Computing Support at University of Iowa.

Joe Hetrick: I ran a conversation with my team in our last meeting about- I just asked everyone to spend a couple of minutes and think about things that they were proud of, either themselves or that we had done as a team. And I was amazed. And I mean, I knew that we would get I would get good engagement, but it was 10 times more than I expected. And it was one of these sort of feel good sessions where everybody said something and a lot of people said things that surprised me. They weren’t things that I felt they would say because I didn’t know how important it was to them. Again, it sort of opened up more conversation.

Michael: As everyone has learned over the past year, engaging remote and hybrid employees is much different than in person employees, but many employers have learned how to change their engagements.

Marcus Seaton: So, one thing that I was doing wrong that I’ll share with everybody,-

Michael: Marcus Seaton manages an ergonomics team at the University of Iowa.

Marcus Seaton: was emailing people to let them know that I’m going to give them a call to have a discussion. Which seemed appropriate at the time, but when you think about that’s not how things work in the office. So now I have, whether they know it or not, I’ve adopted more of a schedule where I’ll either shoot them IM and have a chat informally or just simply pick up the phone, which seems novel in this day and age, but to have a direct discussion without having something formally surrounding it.

Eean: So one thing we’ve lost in going almost one hundred percent virtually in our work is those happenstance interactions in hallways or around the mythical water cooler that you just stop and talk about. How was your weekend? What did you do? And how are your kids, and what else have you found interesting or what books or things like these right. Many people will see these as just social niceties that are a waste of time, but it’s actually a subtle and simple way to build quality relationships in a team. So that shouldn’t be overlooked. And so one thing that people can do with their employees is dedicate a small portion of virtual meeting time to just straight up chit chat. Shoot the breeze, talk about whatever, and people can change their perspective about what is happening in the meeting when we are completely off topic. That that’s an actually an intentional way to get to know each other and become integrated as a team, even if we’re not in the same room.

Joe Hetrick: Changing the type of engagements away from strictly sort of operational work related and having more conversation about how they’re doing, what’s bothering them, that really helped create a connection so that we could have more conversations later. One of the things that that our team had done previously, but we really did a lot more is more asynchronous communication. So rather than having meetings that were one on one and Zoom or as a group and zoom, we would do a lot of outside communication. We didn’t have as many meetings because we had these sort of- we had 80 percent of the conversation offline and people’s own pace based on how they were working around family or whatever.

Michael: Engagement, while having important operational purposes, is crucial for creating trust between the workplace and employees. So, if engagement becomes difficult with remote or hybrid employees, how much harder is it to build trust remotely?

Eean: Yeah, so building trust in the workplace, I don’t think is a function of where the employees are, whether physically located or remotely. People make judgments about trust worthiness based on whether someone is competent; they have the ability to do what they say they’re going to do. Based on their integrity; which is that they actually do what they say they’re going to do. And based on judgments of benevolence, meaning I have the belief that you have my best interests in mind when you take action. Right. And when you have established that judgment, like I perceive that you are competent, you’re going to do what you’re going to say you’re going to do and you’re doing it for my benefit, then you are able to trust people. So, demonstrating those three things I think is important to building trust.

Marcus Seaton: So, what I like to start off are- I have a small staff, admittedly, but our staff meeting is I’ll just share how I’m feeling for that day, whether it’s positive or negative, and then just approach it with, you know, I’m feeling this way. How are you doing today or how was your weekend or things like that. Just modeling that behavior of sharing and being open, I think creates trust so that you can be able to more readily see those red flags if they’re- if they’re showing up.

Eean: Another thing that managers can do is demonstrate just a willingness to be vulnerable and open up with their employees about challenges that they are facing or the companies facing. We’re all so afraid of showing our weakness. It actually takes great strength to do that. So, one way to develop trust among people is just be willing to be vulnerable and acknowledge that weaknesses aren’t fatal flaws, but they are a crucial part of our characters. And by opening up and showing people what our weaknesses are, it builds and engender trust. Trust is ultimately the experience of being willing to be vulnerable to someone else who has control over some aspect of your life. And so for you to be willing to be vulnerable, it helps to see that other person be vulnerable to. It’s like an invitation to trust.


Michael: Workplace Matters is supported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. To listen to more podcasts, view our ongoing video series, or for more information about us visit healthier workforce center (dot) org. Thank You.

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