How can leaders cultivate and maintain engagement across teams?
Ensuring your teams are engaged and motivated can be a challenge at the best of times, not to mention maintaining those levels of engagement and enthusiasm longer term. While many organisations continue to work remotely, this is only exacerbated. In fact, since the outbreak of the pandemic and the rise in remote work, 75% of employees in a recent study said they feel more socially isolated from their team. And for leaders, when you are a physical step removed, picking up on potential issues can be even more difficult. Whether within a group of employees, project teams, or client contacts, parties who are disengaged can have a significant impact on the team and the project. One report even found that companies with a highly engaged workforce are 21% more profitable!
Being engaged and motivated in the workplace is about far more than your own mood that day. Personal temperament is obviously a contributor, but it is one of many factors that can influence how engaged and involved a person feels within a team or a workforce. When we talk about engagement, we are really thinking about a person’s dedication to an organisation or a project, how involved they feel, and the level of effort and energy they put in. One of the main driving forces that can quickly engage or disengage your people is agency. Do they feel empowered and invested in what they are doing? Do they feel they have the autonomy to make decisions and contribute freely? In one study, it was found that 32% of employees don’t feel appropriately involved in decisions that directly affect their work, and this can be incredibly demotivating. When people feel powerless, it is easy to switch off and simply coast, and this can be deadly for project success or individual efficiency.
Another closely linked factor when it comes to engagement is management style and workplace relationships. Communication can be the key to making employees or team members feel part of a team, and their efforts fully recognised. Not feeling that contributions are recognised or appreciated is a very common problem and can lead to a demotivated and disengaged team. One study found that 37% of employees consider recognition the most important part of their job, and yet another study found that 40% are unhappy with the frequency of recognition they achieve. Open and transparent communication on all levels is vital, and it can be as simple as creating email groups or instituting daily meetings to ensure that everyone is aware of project or team developments, even if they are not directly involved or affected. This offers opportunities for feedback and discussion on project progress and any challenges, and can encourage involvement from all team members.
Feedback and development is also important on a personal level – one survey found that 30% of people are unsatisfied with the amount of feedback they receive. Without offering feedback and discussing personal challenges, employees and team members can be left feeling that they lack the opportunity to learn and develop new and different skill sets. Leaders should look to make performance reviews a regular part of their process, whether it is working with a project team, or managing direct reports; indeed, greater regularity can make the feedback process les formal and more of an iterative discussion, acknowledge personal goals and offer a glimpse at possible career trajectories.
So, how can you identify any issues early and respond to them quickly to prevent this happening? And, more importantly, how can you set teams up for success from the outset?
Set Expectations Early
A vital first step is to set expectations with your team from the very start. Without a baseline of what is expected, you are setting teams up for failure. Ensuring your team have a full understanding of these expectation is also important – many people work quite differently and so laying out expected ways of working and processes can help ensure teams are aligned.
Keep Contact Regular
It is crucial to have regular check-ins with the project team, be it monthly, weekly, or even daily. It could also be helpful early on in a project to make meetings even more frequent – starting each day with a 15- or 30-minute session will allow teams to become familiar with each other and the internal procedures. This is particularly useful with remote teams, who perhaps have not worked together in the past. The more contact you have, the easier it is to build relationships, both professionally and around work. As projects progress or become more demanding, the frequency of these can be reduced, but they should not be removed entirely. Keeping these catch-up sessions consistent and regular, will help catch any issues as early as possible, and keep teams engaged.
Spot Early Warning Signs
Equally important is giving space to all team members to individually express concerns about their own role and their team members. It is much more likely that they will raise problems with individuals on a one-on-one basis, rather than in a group session. It can also help leaders to get a sense of how people are contributing and performing on a day-to-day basis. Disengagement from a job or project is not an instantaneous thing, instead it tends to be something that grows over time. Checking in with each individual will offer the change to look out for early warning signs that an employee is seeming less motivated or engaged. Look out for changes in behaviour: people who usually contribute or share ideas may reduce their input and isolate themselves form the rest of the team. You may also notice deadlines being missed, mistakes being made, or significantly slower reaction times than is usual for that person. These signs may start out as one-offs or irregularities, but catching them early can help you identify what is demotivating your team. As these develop you might find very serious signs of disengagement appearing, for example someone doesn’t have answers to questions that you would expect them to know, and they openly resist change and visibly have a poor attitude to the work and the rest of the team.
Keep communication channels clear and open. Allowing your teams to be familiar with every aspect of the project, even if it does not directly relate to their role within the team, will ensure that people feel fully involved throughout. This can also help projects succeed, offering wider teams the change to offer input and suggest ideas.
As crucial as it is to identify problems, it is also important to recognise and celebrate success. Especially when working remotely, it is easy for people to feel isolated and removed from their teams. Everyone wants to feel that they are contributing to the wider project and that the achievements are recognised. Even small wins can feel big, so make it a matter of course to highlight successes, from making a tight deadline, to solving a particularly thorny issue with a client.
In an ideal world, all these steps will have meant leaders are alerted to any issues early, and have a chance to remedy any problems, and re-engage the team. However, in reality things are never quite that simple. So, how do you react when you encounter a seriously disengaged team member who is potentially putting the project at risk?
If it is widely held that the team is risking the project, then a rapid response is vital. Firstly, monitor the situation closely to see whether there is a chance of resolution. Replacing a team member can be detrimental both to client relationships as well as to project progress, as it can mean losing a key knowledge holder, and it should really only be a last resort after careful consideration. The primary concern is to ensure you cause as little disturbance as possible to your project or existing team dynamic. If you are left with no sensible alternative but to replace a member of the team, firstly consider the messaging around this: how will you communicate this with your team, and how can you make the transition as smooth as possible? Having a ready replacement (where required) can be very helpful, and the recruitment should be a top priority.
Externally speaking, client communication and relationship management will be key during the period of transfer. While it may feel like a disaster to need a change of team, it is very important to pitch the change as a positive response to the situation. Honesty is important, so do not be afraid to explain the decision, whether it is as a response to changing requirements or even that the team member wasn’t working out, but it is crucial not to be negative.
Keeping a positive outlook is also beneficial for communicating with the internal team, particularly with a new or replacement team member. Consider a session with the existing team to clear the air and draw a line under previous challenges: continuing to moan about the past will neither help morale nor welcome any new people to the team.
Remote working only throws these scenarios into sharper relief. Whether it is working with a brand new team, or externally with clients, leaders require a certain amount of trust in their teams to carry out work effectively. This should not mean relinquishing control, rather it is about empowering people and setting up a system of checks and balances to build a culture of openness and involvement. As with any process, a feedback loop is what enables effective decision making and change. Use the challenges of the past to set up for success in the future. Make building relationships a priority and keep clear and open channels of communication to help spot the early warning signs of disengagement within your team.