With the recent shift of many employees working remotely, employee connection seems to be universally craved now more than ever before. Connection is, in fact, a basic human need, residing on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs just above physical safety. And yet, research shows that 40% of employees feel isolated at work, leading to lower employee engagement.
Connection in the workplace is the feeling of being part of a community engaged in something bigger than any one person. There’s a sense of belonging to the organization and the people around you. There’s a deep sense not only of social camaraderie but of kinship, shared culture, values, customers, and mission.
When employees feel a deep, strong connection, they are more likely to expend extra energy for one another, to give more to the job, and to be more positive in the things they say both at work and away from it. Effort, attention to quality and detail, and morale go up . . . and generally, so do profits. Connection can make a team more than the sum of its parts.
Stages of Connection that Drive Employee Engagement
Connection doesn’t happen all at once. It’s rare for a new employee to join an organization and immediately feel they are fully integrated as part of a team. Instead, people typically pass through a few preliminary stages before achieving connection:
Fit. Fit is similarity to, or a congruence with, an employer’s culture or environment. This might manifest as an appreciation for the physical artifacts in the work space, a connection to the social structure, an appreciation for the work environment (digging your cubicle, the break room, etc.), job fit, or a fit with the organization as a whole. People who fit with an organization may find that the people working there have a career or educational background like their own or that the work being done is the kind of work they trained for and enjoy. They fit in with the organizational culture.
Belonging. If fit exists, then employees may move on to feel that they belong with the organization. Belonging includes sharing the same values as the company, enjoying work, and experiencing motivation and reward.
Integration. Once employees feel they belong, they become an integral part of the company culture. Rather than being just a part of the company, the company is a part of who they are.
Case Study: The Ritz Carlton Demonstrates The Results of Full Integration
We can learn a lot about connection and fully integrated employees from The Ritz Carlton and the following experience. John DiJulius was a guest at the Ritz Carlton Sarasota in Florida. While leaving in a rush for the airport, he forgot his laptop charger in his hotel room. DiJulius said, “I planned to call when I got back into my office, but before I could, I received a next-day air package from The Ritz Carlton Sarasota. In it was my charger, with a note saying, ‘Mr. DiJulius, I wanted to make sure we got this to you right away. I am sure you need it, and just in case, I sent you an extra charger for your laptop.’ The note was signed by Larry K. Kinney, in Loss Prevention.”
The Ritz Carlton customer service stories are legendary and for good reason. They demonstrate what it means to have fully integrated employees. Larry Kinney was not just a Ritz Carlton employee; The Ritz Carlton and its “Gold Standards” became a connected part of who he is.
Employee connection is an essential factor for whether an employee chooses to engage or not. Consider your employees’ experience at your organization. Where might they fall in the stages of connection? How could you foster a greater or more meaningful connection for your employees? Finding answers to these questions will help your employees become fully integrated and connected to the mission of your organization.
“Will half of people be working remotely by 2020?” That was the title of a prescient article written in 2014. Another report stated that between 2005 and 2018 remote work increased 173%. Still, no one could have predicted what the business world is experiencing right now.
When it comes to the current work from home (WFH) reality, many are enjoying the change. However, working remotely, especially when sudden and required, comes with challenges. For example, one report noted that face-to-face requests are 34 times more successful than email. And while many employees are saving on commute time, they are missing in-person interactions and the sense of belonging that comes from social connection.
While we long for normalcy after this earth-shaking event, the trend toward working remotely is likely to continue to some degree or another. A 2019 survey revealed that about 75% of workers consider flexible working to be “the new normal.” That was in 2019! Now, more than ever, leaders need evolving strategies for leading remotely.
Our DecisionWise research of more than 40 million employee survey responses has shown that “connection,” which we define as “a sense of belonging to something beyond yourself,” is one of the five keys of employee engagement. In fact, it is the key found to have the greatest impact on the overall employee experience(as well as engagement outside of work—in community, family, social groups, etc.).
So, that raises the question: assuming we will see a greater push towards a WFH population, how do we continue to ensure connection? Based on our research into engagement, we have found that a few baseline items must be met.
Ensure Baseline Communication
Leading remotely for high performance certainly includes enabling healthy communication. Communication goes beyond simply issuing an email memo from the top of the organization. Communication also serves a social purpose, especially when leading remotely. In other words, communication propels connection and collaboration but also is needed for basic efficiency. When face-to-face interaction is limited, communication can suffer. Below are three suggestions to help keep information flowing for remote teams:
1. Encourage Proactive Upstream Communication
Reduced communication, especially in terms of frequency, means that understanding who is contributing to which initiative can be challenging. What’s more, leaders who want to understand how employees are doing now lack the time to reach across the wider “digital hallway.” Similarly, employees may feel that their individual efforts go unnoticed. They may also wish to share findings from the front line but lack the structure to do so.
Encourage your team to proactively communicate with you and their team. In addition to social updates (well-being check-ins), help them report relevant and timely operational information on progress, roadblocks, and weekly lessons learned. There are technology tools that can help. For example, DecisionWise created the Manager Weekly Check-in Tool. It’s a free tool based on the 5-15 framework developed by Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard. Technology can be a valuable tool in upstream communication, but whether the solution involves technology is less important than the idea that information (and, therefore, trust) is a two-way flow.
2. Cultivate Organic Information Sharing
Basic communication often flows organically—up, down, and across the organization. Colleagues encounter each other in the hall or stop after a meeting to collaborate on projects. These interactions are generally unplanned and unintentional, although extremely valuable on many fronts. Many of those informal interactions are now suddenly non-existent in a remote setup. Without these natural interactions, employees may hold onto questions and concerns or delay sharing ideas until the next structured encounter—or not bring them up at all.
In order to mitigate this loss of organic information sharing from direct reports, managers must make these previously unintentional interactions intentional. For example, we know of some leaders who hold “virtual open-door hours,” which involve optional call-in times, held on a regular basis. These managers leave a conference or video line open so that team members can easily hop on and share their feelings.
There is also something to be said for peer-to-peer touchpoints –– one author called it “serendipitous collaboration.” Recently, a colleague scheduled a short remote call with me to catch up on projects and maintain social connection. We shared ideas, benefited from connecting, and then went back to the day’s tasks. There are simple ways to reach out to colleagues in a spirit of “What are you working on? How can I help?” We often discover the solutions to our own issues just by talking them through with another person. This is not to say that we should drastically increase the count of weekly meetings. It is simply that a little effort to touch base can go a long way.
3. Lower the Social Cost of Speaking Up
“Does everyone agree?” We often hear this phrase just before the close of a meeting. This approach for building consensus and getting the best ideas may work when everyone is physically present and contextual clues and body language are easy to identify. When leading remote teams, however, louder voices will likely dominate those who exhibit a stronger preference for introversion. Additionally, managers can lose track of who hasn’t contributed to a conversation because team members aren’t within their customary line of sight. Without a prompt, some employees simply won’t risk “taking over the screen” and speaking up.
The concept of psychological safety play into all of this. Our current DecisionWise benchmark database suggests that one-third (34%) of employees indicate that they are “hesitant to speak up for fear of negative consequences.” That, in itself, is a problem. Compound this concept with the idea that online meetings tend to reduce interaction, and you can see the problem. Managers must be intentional in lowering the social cost of speaking up and be mindful that remote communication may naturally stack the deck against openly contributing to meetings.
To lower the social cost of speaking up over digital media, managers might encourage individuals to post comments in simultaneous text chats. Online voting and polling tools offer anonymous solutions for those who prefer a low-key approach. Keep in mind that more time for silence may be needed after asking a question to a remote audience than would otherwise be the case.
Encourage Energizing Connection
Leading remotely doesn’t just mean efficient information sharing. With basic communication in place, leaders can interact with teams in a way that drives a sense of belonging to something beyond one’s self. That sense of connection leads to greater engagement in the workplace. In fact, a Decisionwise analysis revealed the positive correlation between connection, as defined above, and employee engagement to be .83 (which, in layman’s terms, means that there is a strong relationship between feeling I belong to the organization and my overall engagement). This also means that employees who experience a sense of connection are far more likely to be productive, innovative, and remain with the organization. Here are three aspects of belonging and engagement to consider for leading remotely.
1. Maintain Regular Recognition
Without regular face-to-face interactions, and while in the throes of the current pandemic, employee recognition is more likely to slip. For remote teams, and especially those operating at high speeds, the communication that does take place is often limited to issues surrounding the work itself. Just as organic communication decreases in remote environments, so does the habit of recognizing the work and efforts of others.
Letting recognition slip can slow things down. One classic study showed a strong link between recognition and motivation, claiming it to be the second-highest intrinsic motivator for employees. Recognition is important from supervisor to direct report but may be of more value when coming from peers. Recognition is also closely tied to those core feelings of belonging and engagement mentioned above. Consider how a phone call only to offer recognition might help an employee feel engaged.
2. Manage Workload and Engagement
“Meaning” and “Impact” are two additional keys to engagement, as found by our engagement research and recent book, Engagement MAGIC (spoiler alert: these keys spell “MAGIC”– Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection). Engagement will drop when teams don’t feel their work has purpose or impact, or when there simply isn’t much to do. On the other hand, many employees report feeling over-stressed and near burnout.
Recently, a colleague shared the story of a client who, in an overwhelmed state, abruptly phoned his supervisor to say, “I quit!” Although the client ultimately chose to remain, the pressure had built up and exposed the underlying issue: severe stress, to the point of burnout. Such are the current circumstances of many who are silently suffering. Current pandemic concerns are hitting employees in their personal, non-work roles as well. In addition to wearing us out, such stress can lead to reduced effectiveness in our decision-making functions (when we need them most)! Being afraid of stress is not the answer, but managing severe stress is vital.
So, we have a bit of a conundrum to be aware of; too little meaningful work means disengagement, but too much can mean burnout. Being aware of that line between challenge (the “G” or “Growth” key in MAGIC) and stress is a critical skill for today’s leader, particularly with the inability to physically interact with employees multiple times a day.
Here’s Where to Start
While there are things we can do ourselves, in order to positively affect this aspect of engagement, supervisors play a decisive role. The right help begins with awareness of each team member’s current state. Compassionate awareness will lead to empowerment, delegation, reshuffling of tasks–whatever helps achieve rebalancing. Sometimes simply listening is the answer. When burdens cannot be lightened and tasks simply must be done reminders of the meaning of our work can help us find the wherewithal to press on.
But managers do face barriers to even being aware. Consider (1) the common fallacy that a supervisor’s most important contribution is his or her individual contribution (rather than working through the team); and (2) the remote status of teams, which can breed fewer one-on-one meetings and far less attention paid to overall engagement and workload. These and other forces can draw managers away from the people and mentoring dimension of their roles. Nevertheless, deliberate work to compassionately be aware of the workload and emotional states of employees will lead to a state of engagement and flow, not to mention longevity.
3. Trust Versus Command and Control
Finally, amidst the chaos of the present COVID-19 pandemic (and even before), some are asking whether old-school directive leadership models are more relevant than ever. We have heard this question arise in circumstances of confusion as teams adjust to new environments. Many current employees face completely novel issues; many are yearning for direction.
Leaders should consider providing more explicit instruction while facilitating quick decision-making to move things forward. Nevertheless, a command-like approach has potential long-term consequences. After all, who likes to be controlled? If employees perceive managers as mistrusting, they will likely not feel that they belong and consequently not fully engage in their work. On the other hand, our research tells us that trust and autonomy (the “A” in MAGIC) energize employees to use more of their discretionary thinking to accomplish their work.
Keep in mind, however, that autonomy fails without clear boundaries and expectations (on both sides). We refer to this as Expectation Alignment. Autonomy is not anarchy. Trust is not simply laissez-faire. Both trust and autonomy come via clear expectations. The goal is to grant autonomy while requiring accountability. To strike this balance we have seen instances when the aforementioned Manager Weekly Check-in Tool has helped. Another group we know of relies on daily check-in and coordination calls with the whole team (for which the team has been grateful). Whatever the approach, make it routine and direct (vs. subtly checking on employees to see what they’re up to). An indirect approach can communicate I don’t trust you—we have seen this approach lately too.
With more frequent check-ins, supervisors may feel they are bordering on micromanagement, but if done with transparency and in order to empower your team with direction, increased structure need not be mistrust or micromanagement.
Besides getting results, leading remotely calls for fresh thinking around how to get those results. Such thinking will include how to mitigate new barriers to communication. Remember that communication is also for spurring engagement and that managers will greatly benefit their teams as they cultivate belonging and connection. We have found repeatedly in our research that connection unlocks engagement, and thus increased innovation, organizational citizenship, and productivity. We are confident that success in our current circumstances will be achieved by the everyday work of individuals, working remotely, but empowered by their managers to solve our current challenges.
Connection is a key to employee engagement because we connect with our organizations through the people with whom we work, the mission and values of the organization, and the work we perform. Our work and our company are a part of who we are. The job, then, becomes more than just a set of tasks we perform.
When employees find connection, they work as a team, generate ideas, solve problems, take care of customers, and act with the organization’s best interests in mind. They’re proud of where they work and what they do, and they’re quick to share their experiences with others. They are fully invested. Employees become ambassadors for the organization—they see themselves as part of the organization, and others see the organization through the eyes of the employees. Leaders understand that employees aren’t just part of the company—they are the brand.
Why is Connection Important in the Workplace?
Connection is one of those under-utilized elements of the ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® keys. We always think about having meaning in our jobs, about the having an impact, about continuing to grow; but we don’t typically think about connection. Do I have a connection with the company? Does the company have a connection with me?
Having a trusted adviser or confidant is, for me, the essence of connection. There is nothing, in my mind, lonelier than spending 8-10+ hours at work each day and not having some type of connection, whether it’s personal, social, or with the organization.
Having a Confidant at Work
Does it matter if I have a best friend at work? Some would say no, but for me, having someone with whom you can trust and connect with is significant. In my case, I have a preference for introversion; however, even as someone who prefers introversion, I thrive on having someone that I can go to in the organization.
I remember when I was working at a company where one of my co-workers and I developed a wonderful relationship. We started around the same time and had both moved to a new city. The company was experiencing many difficulties at the time. They were not making money, which resulted in massive layoffs. There was a feeling of fear and doubt around our survival.
Through this difficult time, it was nice to have a confidant at work a few desks away. While working on several key initiatives, we would grab lunch, bounce ideas off each other, talk about what we were hearing from others, and how we were going to manage through the challenges. Neither of us were caught up in the reductions, and we could talk openly about our concerns. Having that connection was absolutely essential.
Comparing that to my experience with another company where I worked, which had a culture of introversion. At first, I thought I would fit really well inside this company, but I had just the opposite experience. All the engineers would keep their doors closed. You’d walk in these buildings with thousands of employees and it was very quiet. I would think to myself, “Who am I going to talk to today? Am I going to interact with anybody?” I remember having a conversation and casually mentioning, “Hey, should we just do that over lunch?” The response was, “No, that’s my time and I don’t want to.” It was really difficult to build any type of relationship in that company compared to my previous experiences.
Now I’m not saying that you have to have a best friend or that you have to go to parties after work and always be social. You have to have a life outside of work. But for me, having someone at work that can be trusted and with whom I can have conversations, is extremely important.
Values and Connection
At DecisionWise, we talk about engagement as a 50-50 proposition: 50 percent of the responsibility lies with the organization and 50 percent lies with the individual. Part of the value the organization can bring is clearly stating its values and giving employees the chance to align with those values. But more importantly, the company needs to demonstrate those values.
One company I worked for had a disconnect between its demonstrated values and my personal values. This caused a significant enough strain on the relationship that it was no longer a good fit for me. The decision to leave was not an emotional decision; it was actually quite refreshing.
By comparison, my first job, working for Marriott Hotels, was an absolutely wonderful experience from a cultural alignment and values alignment standpoint. It was very emotional when I left. I had wonderful friends that I have stayed in contact with for many years, whereas with the other company, I have not remained in contact with anyone.
So, when we think of an organization’s value proposition, employees must understand their own values and how they align with the company. The company needs to have policies, practices, and procedures that would make the employee want to stay.
Personality and Company Culture Fit
We often talk about having a good fit with your job; connection is one of those elements where fit is absolutely critical. The key question to ask yourself is, “Do I fit within that cultural construct that allows me to bring my whole self to work in a way that says, ‘yes, I’m really connected with the company and the company is really connected with me?’”
For me, although I have a preference for introversion, I can’t work in my office alone for the entire day. I have to get out and talk to people, not necessarily for the social interaction but for the thought connection. I need somebody to bounce off an idea. Having that connection adds tremendous value. At the end of it, I’m able to say, “I just helped somebody, or they just helped me,” which creates another kind of the intimate connection.
Regardless of whether your company has preference for introversion or extroversion, there are interactions that are critical in making a connection. These connections happen with idea generation, problem solving, or simply having a supporting confidant during a challenging time. Having a company culture style different from your personality type isn’t necessarily an inhibitor to connection; you just need to understand how to navigate through it.
Should I Stay, or Should I Go?
For those that are thinking of moving from one company to another company, remember it is much harder to leave friends than it is casual acquaintances. When we have someone at work that we would consider a friend, there is an emotional reaction when we leave an organization, which is an indicator of the connections you’ve made at work. Connection takes time and can transcend organizational boundaries.
An Environment for Connection
When I was living in the suburbs of Chicago, I had a three-hour commute to and from work every day. I would spend the first hour and a half on the train-I’d leave my house around 6:00 in the morning so I could be in my office in downtown Chicago at 7:30. During that train ride, I created a task list for everything that I was going to do for the day, so by the time I got to work, I was ready to roll. I would head straight into my office and start working immediately because I mentally had already begun work while sitting on the train.
Well, there were members of my office staff that lived in downtown Chicago who had a five-minute commute. They would come into the office, start talking to each other, grab their cups of coffee and have this social interaction before they got ready to do the work. The feedback I received as a manager from my employees was, “It sure would be nice if you would just walk into the office sometime and say ‘hi, how are you?’ and grab a cup of coffee with us before we get started in the morning.” It was great feedback from my staff on the different types of connections that they wanted. I was ready to go, and they needed more of a warm up; an interaction.
I still arrive early to the office, but now when my team arrives, I walk out of my office and have a conversation with my team or I’ll stand outside an employee’s cube and just talk. Not to waste time, but to create a connection. I would encourage us all to remember the power of connection and the value that it can have in association with all of the other elements of ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®.
We connect with our organizations through the people with whom we work, the mission and values of the organization, and the work that we perform. Our work and our company are a part of who we are. The job, then, becomes more than just a set of tasks we perform.
When employees find connection, they work as a team, generate ideas, solve problems, take care of customers, and act with the organization’s best interests in mind. They’re proud of where they work and what they do, and they’re quick to tell others about it. They are fully invested. Employees become ambassadors for the organization—they see themselves as part of the organization, and others see the organization through these employees.
Leaders understand that employees aren’t just part of the company—they are the brand.
In this insightful conversation, Dan Hoopes, Principal Consultant at DecisionWise, explores the importance of connection in the workplace and how managers can use it to drive engagement.
“Communication––the human connection––is the key to personal career success.” –– Paul J. Meyer
Connection with others is a basic human need and one that is essential for lasting employee engagement. It’s the feeling that being part of your organization makes you part of a community of people who are engaged in something that’s bigger than any one person.
Connection, is the sense of belonging to something beyond yourself.
The Walt Disney Company is renowned for the experience it creates for its guests at theme parks around the world. One of the reasons for that seamlessness and quality is the employees that the company calls “cast members.” With its many rules and strict appearance and behavior codes, Disney’s not an easy place to work, but it’s easy to find communities where former employees talk fondly about their time working for the Mouse. How many companies can say that?
When employees feel a deep, strong connection, they are more likely to expend extra energy for one another, to give more to the organization, and to be more positive in the things they say both at work and away from it. How does your organization promote CONNECTION internally to build employee engagement? Here’s what some leaders and employees had to say:
One thing that my work does that helps build connection internally is via Slack and Motivosity. We have different channels on slack to connect with people across teams; we use a lot of gifs and emojis to keep morale high and to encourage each other. It’s also a great way to share articles and best practices in our field.
Motivosity is a helpful tool that we use to recognize each other. We have Motivosity dollars we can give to our co-workers and the dollars we receive we can use to buy stuff at our company store, like hoodies, coffee mugs, concert tickets, etc. It’s a fun way to recognize each other’s birthdays, work anniversaries, and accomplishments!
Here at The Advocates we know the importance of building human connection within the organization. For example, during the solar eclipse, our entire company went to a park to enjoy a company-sponsored lunch and the solar eclipse with all our coworkers. This was a simple activity that brought all employees together and was very beneficial for employee engagement.
Our company is big on human connection. We’ve been accused of being a 50-person family. We build this by enjoying time with each other both inside and outside of work. We have generally flexible work schedules, which allows us to interact regularly with our team members. We also do a significant amount of team building and bonding. We do theme days where we all dress alike. We have fun events around meals (potlucks, specialty drink days, etc.), and we generally create great bonds and human connections within our team.
Digital marketing can become extremely lonely because there can be large distances between a client or no immediate need to meet face to face. One of the best ways I’ve found to add human connection is to provide a personal, custom video for each client. Emails can often lack true meaning and sincerity, but when you are on webcam, and showing over your shoulder exactly what can be corrected, it adds a layer of humanity previously lost to cold premade packages and templates.
Within the company, we took the same approach. Although most of the team members work remote, we all hop on Skype video chats, or Facebook Facetime. It’s allowed for team members to understand they aren’t alone in trying to build a great company, but rather part of a larger team, all with the same goal. It’s much harder to tell someone you didn’t value their input via video, versus a cold email, and forces team members to work out solutions to problems, working towards the best possible course of action.
A Key Driver of Employee Engagement
As mentioned in the book, ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®, Connection may be the key driver of employee engagement. Why? Two reasons. First, it’s the only element of ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® that employees project outward toward others. Meaning, autonomy, growth, and impact are introspective qualities arrived at through personal processes.
The other reason that connection is so important is that connection is the only engagement key that can directly encourage people to choose meaning, autonomy, growth, and impact. A culture that encourages engagement and communication can give employees the push they need to seize growth opportunities, choose to find meaning and impact in their work, and be more autonomous.
Culture could be described as the social operating system of the organization, the underlying environment that shapes social interaction and shapes the emotions involved in the company and its work toward a specific end. Simply put, it’s “the way we do things around here.” The culture of Apple is based on beauty and creating incredible experiences, while the culture at Google is built around personal autonomy and solving the world’s problems. Employees connect around those cultural assumptions. They are a fabric that everyone can grab a piece of, binding the organization together and building the overall Employee Experience.
If your organization were a person, how would you describe it? Conservative? Edgy, with multiple body piercings and tattoos? Compassionate? Hardworking? Fun? Stuffy? How would you evaluate its culture? If we think of organizations as people, we get a clearer idea of the implications of culture. Employees do think of their organizations as organisms (there’s a reason both words share the same Latin root). They do have personalities, needs, and desires. Culture is a potent force that can become a driver of engagement on all levels…if it’s done right. People must connect with that culture, whatever it might be.
Doing Culture Right
How do you do culture right? I’ll try to lend a bit of wisdom to a gigantic topic. First of all, culture depends on narrative and story. What is the narrative of the organization? How did it begin? What were the motivations behind its creation and what are its motivations today? How does it impact the world? How do its customers feel about it? What’s its purpose? Do the employees play a role as custodians of the organizational story?
At one extreme you have Apple. At the other you find companies that develop software offshore. These organizations rely on contract programmers who often dwell in places like Lithuania and Russia. They’ve never met, often don’t speak the same language, and have little shared culture. So, while they’re great at following instructions, there’s no collective story that connects them. These virtual teams will never surpass their instructions, never innovate based on collective inspiration. It’s not in their DNA.
Another factor is pride. Is there pride in the organization? Any organization must have pride in its people, mission, and identity. History and brand also matter to culture. Where has the organization been? How has it lived up to its stated values in the past? What is its brand promise? What words are widely associated with its brand according to surveys of its customers?
The formation of a strong culture also requires the placement of “anchors”—social, intellectual, environmental, inspirational—that serve to consistently communicate the culture to employees. These could be things like Google’s free cafeteria food or 20 percent personal time policy—ever-present features of the office that send a specific message about the nature of the workplace and the employee’s place in it.
Physical signs that reflect the personality of the organization are some of the most powerful anchors. No, we’re not talking about Ping-Pong tables; we’re talking about meaningful pieces of the physical space that make a statement about the nature and character of the workplace and the people who work in it. These are satisfaction elements, not cultural artifacts. In some companies, that might mean edgy urban warehouse design with exposed concrete and corrugated metal. In others, it might mean an open, bullpen-style office where brightly colored couches and “playpens” have replaced cubicles.
Take audio-products maker Skullcandy. A few years back, after they went public, management realized that the company was losing the youthful, streetwise aspects of the culture that got them where they are today. They needed to figure out their new corporate values and determine their narrative, physical environment…and the cultural artifacts that would embody their culture in that environment.
They created an amazing workplace environment based on a hip skate culture, outfitted it with things like functional skate ramps and skateboarding memorabilia, and crafted a culture built around performance-based flexibility, an open environment for collaboration, and lots of incentives. Today, it’s not uncommon to see Skullcandy employees skateboarding around the offices, fully connected to a culture that “gets” who they are. Skullcandy also allows its employees to take a half day off each time it snows more than a few inches—a regular occurrence in its home base, the beautiful mountain town of Park City, Utah.
This doesn’t mean that your company culture has to mimic the hip cultures we just described. In fact, for many organizations, a shift toward similar practices as those we described would be seen as disingenuous—at the very least, out of place and inappropriate. Perhaps most important, culture must be authentic, and employees should be able to play a role in shaping it.
Imagine the clumsiest corporate attempts at creating employee culture you’ve ever heard about—theme cruises, the famous Hawaiian-shirt-day scene from Office Space—and it’s not hard to imagine the internal monologue of employees dealing with management’s attempts to “keep it real.” Lame. Clueless. They just don’t get us at all. Cue the eye roll and knock some points off the engagement score.
If culture is to be a tool for connection, then it can’t be akin to one of those awful faux downtown “entertainment districts” you find in some cities. You know the ones: collections of dining and entertainment venues organized into a streetscape that was designed by committee to look “edgy” and “urban.” They’re awful. They’re the furthest thing from a real urban district like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg or LA’s Silverlake. And everyone who goes there knows it.
Inauthentic, canned culture does more harm than having no culture at all. It tells employees that not only does management not understand who you are and what you care about, management would rather hire a consulting firm to come up with a canned “culture plan” than spend time learning who you are and what you care about. Employees aren’t able to connect.
Cultural shifts work because they are based on a deep, personal understanding of what makes employees tick. When you build that kind of cultural environment, connection flourishes.
A Matter of Trust
The final core component of connection is trust. In the most engaged organizations that we work with, trust is deep and mutual. Employees trust management and vice versa. Trust is the currency of connection. It’s a basic building block of culture, because an effective culture is one that evokes thoughts like “I can trust this company to align with my tastes and interests and to represent me, and what I care about, to the larger world.” The organizations in which we all work are proxies for us; saying, “I’m an employee at [insert your company name here]” means something. For culture to be positive, employees need to trust that the organization’s “halo effect” will continue to be something they can be proud of.
Trust is the absolute knowledge that your words reflect your future actions. It’s the unquestioned belief that you will do what you say you will do; the seed for the “band of brothers” feeling that informs the best teams. It’s the unshakable belief that you have my back. It precedes connection. You can’t have connection without it. In looking at Microsoft and its stack-ranking debacle, we’ve already seen what lack of trust can do to an organization.
Because of this, trust requires evidence. I need you to prove to me that I can trust you. Once you prove to me that I can trust you, I will have a connection with you as long as you continue to meet my expectation of trust. So, trust is transactional. You must continue to perform. You have to keep earning it. Sorry, that’s the way it goes.
There is also a difference between earned trust and granted trust. Earned trust is built over time and is based on your experiences and interactions with a person or an organization. If, over time, the other party has given you reason to believe that it will back up its promises with deeds, you will begin to develop trust. Granted trust is given based merely on position or circumstance. It’s not earned. Parents grant trust to an emergency-room physician who’s working on their child. A man accused of a crime grants trust to the public defender assigned to keep him out of prison. We all grant trust to the pilot when we fly in a plane.
What destroys trust? Hypocrisy is one way to do it. Failure to do as you say—to fulfill the promise behind your words with action—is another. The loss of trust due to nonperformance can be incremental. If you drop the ball once, I might let it go. I might still trust you. If you do it more often, I might start to question whether I can trust you or not. Of course, the upshot is that if you have to question whether or not you have trust . . . you don’t have it.
In our surveys, when we’ve asked about trust, the answers often boil down to “I can trust this person to represent my interests, even when I’m not around.” That’s the level of trust that breeds a deep sense of connection, when individuals trust that their fellows will function as a “proxy self” and do what is best not only for themselves but for everyone, for the team.
Another behavior that kills trust is purely self-interested behavior, where people look out for their own interests before that of their colleagues.
Trust is Vital
Trust is vital where people are expected to put team needs above individual needs. Take the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that sportscaster Bob Costas called the worst team on paper ever to play in the World Series. Still, the seemingly overmatched Dodgers beat the superior Oakland Athletics in five games. How? In part, trust. Apart from its outstanding pitching staff, the team was mostly a ragtag collection of wild-eyed role players epitomized by the bench corps known as the Stuntmen. They joked, rode other teams’ players, and played with a reckless abandon that inspired the entire squad.
With a team composed mostly of regular Joes, the Dodgers knew they had to have one another’s backs. They had to trust that if one player failed, another would lift him up. That’s exactly what happened.
Contrast that with the U.S. Olympic basketball team’s shocking loss to Argentina in a semifinal game in the 2004 Summer Olympics. The so called Dream Team was made up of the best players from the NBA, and was expected to cruise to a gold medal. However, they were not a team in the true sense. Players who had never played together before were hastily thrown onto a squad and expected to dominate. They didn’t. They couldn’t.
How do you trust someone you’ve never worked with to have your back? How do you act with confidence that if you run to Point A, your teammate will have the ball there waiting for you? It’s no wonder that Argentina beat the U.S. team, 89–81.
Trust, like connection, needs to be cultivated and grown over time. It’s fragile. That’s why it’s so important to create an ecosystem where trust, culture, communication, and connection can flower.
Finding meaning and connection when it’s 100 degrees outside, one o’clock in the afternoon, not a cloud in the sky, and 38 pallets of sod are waiting to fill in an acre of land, isn’t necessarily ideal. If you haven’t laid sod before, just imagine lifting a couple thousand 20-pound slabs of pre-cut dirt and grass one by one and carefully placing them on the ground in a brick-stack pattern to create an instant yard. Not only is the sod heavy like thick rolls of carpet, but there is A LOT of it! And the heat! This may seem like a crazy idea to most but this is what the DecisionWise team did recently for one of our own…did I mention the heat?
At this time last year, I was eating lunch with my good friend and co-worker. It was just me and him at a small Mexican joint when he received a call from his wife. By the look on his face I could tell it must be something serious. He politely excused himself from the table and took the phone conversation outside. As I ate my food I watched him pacing back and forth outside the window. He had a deep crease in his brow indicating serious concern for whatever his wife was telling him. He returned to the table, picked up his food, and without explanation he was gone. I finished my meal wondering what the news could be. It would turn out to be worse than I thought.
I returned to my office and completed my work for the day not paying much attention to what had transpired earlier with my buddy at the Mexican restaurant. As I drove home I dialed his number to see if everything was all right, not knowing what to expect. He picked up and proceeded to tell me that his 7-month-old daughter had just been diagnosed with leukemia, cancer of the blood cells. My heart sank. My baby boy was the same age and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I didn’t even know children that young could be affected by cancer. What could I say or do that could ease the stress, pain, and worry? No one knew the journey that lay ahead, the long conversations with doctors trying to understand the sickness, the sleepless nights next to their sick child laying in a small hospital crib, the side effects from chemotherapy that can bring even the strongest of adults to their knees, and the constant, pounding stress. Since that day, many people have reached out to offer help and any type of assistance possible to my friend and his young family, and frankly that’s about all we can do.
Eleven months later, his daughter is still undergoing treatments that cause loss of hair and other painful and uncomfortable side effects. She has a difficult time keeping solid food in her body so she receives nutrition via a tube that she wears constantly. After all her small body has been through, she still maintains an infectious smile and the energy to want to play with her big sister outside on the grass under the big blue sky. One problem though, there is no grass. Well, not yet.
Using every spare moment where he was not in the hospital, my friend has worked tirelessly to get his yard prepped. Single-handedly installing a sprinkler system he now has a permanent trucker hat tan on his scalp. But I haven’t heard a single complaint as he prepared for the new grass his two daughters could enjoy together.
A week before the sod was to arrive, the DecisionWise team approached my friend with an offer: allow the team to come together and install the sod in his yard so his daughters could have an enjoyable place to play. And that’s exactly what we did. Twenty DecisionWise team members got work done early and changed into their grubby work clothes for an afternoon to serve one of our own. We gathered work gloves, wheelbarrows, hats, sunscreen, water, and of course pizza, and separated into assembly lines of sod layers. With sweat dripping, slab after slab of instant grass was laid in an organized manner until the entire front and back yards were green—ready to be played on by two young sisters. It was hard work, but it was our pleasure to be able to put our own teachings into practice, especially for one of our own team members and friends.
At DecisionWise, our team of consultants guide corporate leaders on how to lead staff and build successful teams. We even wrote the book on employee engagement, ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®: Five Keys for Engaging People, Leaders, and Organizations, in which we teach about meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection. Helping a sick child obviously taps into MEANING.But that wasn’t the only key in play that day. In just a few short hours, we went from a dust bowl to a lush yard; the IMPACT of our presence was unmistakable. Not to mention seeing the eyes of those sweet little girls. In fact, the CONNECTIONwith those girls, my friend and his wife, and all my colleagues sweating it out that day has gone through the roof. And you know what? Working for a company that gave us the AUTONOMY to take work off and help out both empowered me and increased my CONNECTION to it as well. Touching on all these ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® keys might explain why, despite the physically uncomfortable nature of the task, nothing but smiles shone through the dirt and sweat stained faces that day.
It was MEANING and CONNECTION, two of the five keys of employee engagement, which brought the DecisionWise team together that day. My friend and his wife were effusive in their gratitude to everyone for showing up and giving of their time and effort to help out that day. The DecisionWise team in turn thanked them for giving us the opportunity to serve, connect, and find a deeper meaning in our jobs. They received more than a yard and we received more than some time off of work.
It’s easy to show up for work every day and complete tasks, but that will never keep us authentically engaged. Finding meaning, making an impact, and building connections in both our job and with the PEOPLE we work with produce authentic lasting engagement.
I recently wrote a post explaining why perks aren’t sufficient for employee engagement and long-term retention, and it got me thinking – then what is sufficient? What really causes an employee to be engaged and dedicate many years of service to an organization?
As I was finishing up grad school a few years ago and searching for that perfect post-MBA job, I interviewed with a wide variety of companies across the country. One of my favorite sets of questions for my interviewers was, “How long have you been at your company?”, followed up with, “And why do you stay?” I found that most hiring managers had been at their company between three and seven years, and they all gave answers about a good variety of work, growth opportunities, or some kind of benefits. In recent months, I learned that almost all of these hiring managers have since moved on to “greener pastures” at new companies.
After months of searching and more interviews than I care to remember, I found a job that looked promising. The company was the right size, in the right industry, in the right area. The variety of work, growth opportunities, and benefits all looked fairly positive, and I was looking for one last thing to finally tip the scales. As the interview process continued, I finally flew out for an on-site interview. I met with my potential manager, answered a few more behavioral interview questions, and finished up by asking her my favorite questions.
“So how long have you been at the company?”
“Let me see… almost 25 years now. Yeah, I guess it really has been that long.”
Stunned silence, as I thought to myself, “She’s been here since I was in diapers.”
Finally I managed to reply, “That’s quite the accomplishment. I’ve got to know – what is it that has kept you here all these years?”
“I absolutely love the people I work with, and I love what I do.”
It was that simple. She had built a strong connection with her team, and she was in a role that played to her strengths and allowed her to have a positive impact on the organization. It had nothing to do with benefits or promotion schedule; it was about the people and the job.
A few years later I found myself looking for another job and began my interview process once again. I found a position that looked interesting in a growing company and went in for a round of interviews. This time I found that all of my interviewers had been at the company for a minimum of eight years, ranging all the way up to nineteen. I was shocked, especially because this job was in the tech world of Silicon Valley where average tenure tends to land around four years. I asked each interviewer what was keeping him/her at the company. And every single one of them responded similarly: “I love the people I work with, and I love what I do.”
The best strategies for long-term engagement and retention have very little to do with stock packages, perks, or bonuses, but much more to do with building connections and providing impact and meaning for employees.
If you’re wondering why your employees aren’t engaged . . . look at your leaders.
In my work with groups and organizations striving to create an engaged and effective workforce, I have witnessed a common trend: a team’s engagement rises and falls with the engagement of their leader—and for good reason.
Because leaders and managers are the direct drivers of change within an organization, their teams and direct reports naturally mirror the leaders’ levels of engagement. Managers are the conduits of information from the top of the organization; they set the tone for how information is received by their team.
More important still, leaders in any organization have to make a crucial choice: they can either be advocates for the company’s vision and goals, or be detractors from the company mission. A leader’s choice here directly affects his or her direct reports, peers, and supervisors—essentially, a leader’s decisions affect the entire organization.
Of the many different powers that leaders inherently possess, influence power is perhaps the most potent. While often this influence is productive, it can also be destructive. By leveraging this power to influence others inappropriately, leaders can create resentment, dissatisfaction and, ultimately, disengagement by what and how they communicate.
Recent DecisionWise research conducted with 252 managers and their direct reports in a multinational manufacturing organization provides striking support of the notion that a manager or leader’s own level of engagement has a direct connection with the engagement levels of his or her team. Consider the following:
Fully engaged managers had the highest percentage (38%) of fully engaged employees in the organization
Fully disengaged managers had the highest percentage (22%) of fully disengaged individuals on their teams.
Further examination of leadership engagement within this organization shows that regardless of the engagement level of the manager, each team consisted of at least half of the employees fitting into the category of “key contributor.” These individuals tend to possess basic levels of satisfaction with the job and working conditions, but are not in a state of mind making them either fully engaged or fully disengaged. In other words, it takes a fully engaged leader to drive full engagement.
In our webinar How Managers Can Drive Employee Engagement I’ll further explore the connection between leader and subordinate engagement. In addition to these interesting statistics, I’ll show you more evidence that a team’s level of engagement generally has direct correlation to the level of engagement of that team’s manager. I’ll also answer other crucial questions about a leader’s effect on his or her team’s level of engagement.
Due to an abundance of natural resources and a successful tourist industry, Fiji has one of the most developed economies in the South Pacific. Known for beautiful scenery and warm people, the more than 300 islands—most of which are not permanently inhabited—are home to just under 900,000 residents
Each morning, local fruit vendors awake before Fiji’s beautiful sunrise to pack their wares to small marketplaces throughout the islands. They toil at the local market until their supply of goods for the day is exhausted, or until the market closes for the day.
Despite its “better-than-most economy,” it is estimated that as many as 25 percent of Fijians live below the poverty line. Fijian fruit vendors know all too well that their ability to support themselves and their families is dependent upon their ability to peddle produce. So, each morning they line up amongst the other vendors, each seeking to sell enough fruit to, in turn, purchase other goods.
HELP International is a not-for-profit organization that was founded to assist individuals, such as those in Fiji, in fighting poverty. Each year, HELP sends volunteers—most of them college students—to various locations throughout the globe to work with locals on various development projects. One area in which HELP lends support is in teaching basic business concepts, so that people such as Fijian fruit vendors are able to support themselves more effectively.
HELP Program Director, Arturo Fuentes, recounts the volunteers’ experience in working with a group of mango sellers in one of these markets: Upon arriving at the market, it quickly became apparent that all vendors of like products or produce situated themselves next to others selling very similar products. All banana vendors set up stands and carts next to other banana vendors, all fish vendors next to others selling fish, and so forth.
As the HELP volunteers worked with the mango merchants to help them become more effective, they taught the vendors a basic concept which was, surprisingly, a new piece of knowledge—that of differentiation.
The concept of differentiation was basic to most of the young volunteers, who grew up in the U.S. After all, everyone knows that you don’t build a McDonald’s next to another McDonald’s, right? You must find a way to differentiate yourself from those around you—location, product, price, etc. Yet, in this marketplace, the mangoes sold by one vendor were identical in price, quality, size, and every other way to the mangoes sold a mere four feet to the right or four feet to the left. And, next to those carts, were similar carts, each selling identical mangoes—most of them from the same origination points. Zero differentiation. Limited sales.
The volunteers had a simple, yet powerful idea. What would happen if one of the vendors set up shop the next morning in a location separate from his produce compadres? By simply moving out of the “mango section” and into another area, the vendor might gain some differentiation by having mangoes available to those who were purchasing, for example, fish. It certainly seemed like a good idea, and they found a vendor who, hesitantly, agreed to try it. The next day, he moved his cart to another location, and the strategy appeared to be working. That is, until the next day.
Upon arriving at the market the following day, the volunteers noticed that the mango seller had again returned to the area in which his colleagues were located.
“Surely the new location was better for the hawking of mangoes than was the location with all the other mango vendors,” reasoned the volunteers. However, they also learned something important. For these vendors, their daily stint at the market was not simply limited to produce transactions. It was about connection.
The volunteers learned that the market was, for these individuals, a place where they could connect with others, even if they were, technically, competitors. They were more engaged by the social connection—one that had been there for many years—than they were by a monetary exchange, even if it meant less Fijian dollars went home that evening. Interestingly, the volunteers did not indicate whether the lone vendor’s day-long move had been profitable; it didn’t matter. There was something of greater importance. For the mango sellers, connection is a powerful motivator.
This need for connection isn’t limited to Fijian mangoes. Earlier this month, the UN released some interesting findings. According to the report, of the Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants, 6 billion have cell phones. Possibly not surprising, until you learn that only 4.5 billion have proper sanitation. Is that right? 1.5 billion people have cell phones, but no toilet or sanitary waste disposal? What does this say about the importance of being connected?
Employee Engagement and Connection
We find similar results in our employee engagement work when it comes to the importance of connection. A significant majority of employees cite a social connection to the workplace as a major factor in why they choose to remain with their current employers.
Is connection really that important? Ask your employees (or your local mango vendor). You can probably reach them by cell phone.