Leading and managing teams stands out as the top response when business owners and leaders are asked to nominate the toughest part of their job. Which is no surprise given the workplace is made up of individuals who tend to respond differently to similar sets of circumstances. And it’s those differences that makes achieving and maintaining high levels of engagement a real challenge.
It’s well established that clarity of purpose and a demonstrated commitment to it by their employer is an important determinant of employee engagement at work. There’s no shortage of evidence around the world that shows employees are more engaged and productive when they understand the bigger picture in a business and how their role contributes to the achievement of the business purpose.
While that’s true at the best of times, the health and economic challenges we’re facing right now and their impact on how business physically operates, elevate the importance of ensuring your business is clear on its purpose and actively demonstrates its commitment to that purpose.
Just how important is purpose right now?
We spoke with Dima Isaac, Director of Essential HRM (essentialhrm.com.au), a specialist in human resources, about this and other issues related to employee engagement during times of crisis.
Dima puts clarity of purpose high on the list of priorities for business at all times and says its importance is magnified during times of crisis and noting some specific crisis-related challenges. She puts it this way:
“Business purpose and clarity of expectations are more crucial now that never. In a traditional environment, businesses could often rely on their physical space and workplace interactions to embed and reinforce their purpose. Because we’re operating in a remote environment and soon to be hybrid office, we have to find new and deliberate ways of connecting leaders and employees to business purpose.”
Start with a plan
It’s that “deliberateness” that many business owners and leaders can sometimes struggle with. To help with this, we recommend businesses have a clear action plan for embedding purpose and making it part of their employee value proposition. That action plan should encompass three key principles:
Ensure the stated business purpose is genuine and in line with the overall values of the business. It needs to be authentic and clearly reflect what the business stands for. At its core, your business purpose is the reason the business exists beyond the desire to turn a profit. What customer challenges does the business resolve? How are customers better off because of what you do? If your purpose statement doesn’t reflect these core questions, it’s nothing more than a slogan and will do nothing for employee engagement.
To foster employee engagement all messaging should be driven by your business purpose. This is especially important where employees are working remotely because it will drive consistency of communication across and within teams. That’s vital when you don’t have employees physically “present”.
As they say, actions speak louder than words and if you’re not seen to be purpose-driven in everything you do in the business, your employees will likely reach the conclusion you’re paying lip service to that purpose. Granted when employees are working remotely it’s not as easy for them to witness what’s actually going on day-to-day. That said, employees don’t stop talking to one another just because they’re not in the next cubicle. Water-cooler chat still exists and nothing spreads faster than dis-engagement. The message is purpose should be your decision-making framework and drive every action in the business.
Dima Isaac says that businesses that are showing signs of emerging from the current crisis in better shape than others are those where “…employees have seen first-hand that their employer genuinely cares about their health and well-being.”
What about the impact of remote working?
Going forward, Dima says, “the key now is to continue on that journey and create an environment where employees can thrive. That includes leveraging the benefits of remote working (and any other changes implemented during crisis control) and making them part of business as usual.”
How to do that?
Dima suggests that “businesses need to embed this new way of working part through communication, training and setting clear expectations around operating rhythms.”
Businesses that are clear on purpose will find this easier than others because, again, it’s their purpose that provides the direction and framework within which both strategy and operational decisions can be made. How so? Where employees are working remotely, it’s not as easy to “check-in” to validate a particular course of action. The clarity that purpose can provide removes much of the stress associated with being remote from “instant validation”.
Let's be clear on the scale of the challenge.
The current crisis has forced enormous numbers of employees to work remotely from their leaders and colleagues. Without a sustained effort on the part of business owners and leaders, it’s easy for employees to disconnect.
What’s more, it’s tempting to believe the shift to remote working we’ve seen throughout 2020 is a temporary thing and all will return to “normal” at some point. There’s increasing (and powerful) argument and evidence to suggest this won’t be the case.
Engaging new employees
Because of extent of remote working and the likelihood that it will continue, a new business challenge has surfaced. An increasing number of people are finding themselves working with colleagues they’ve not met face-to-face.
On this issue, Dima is clear. “So much of how we normally gather information about the business we work in is done in a physical way. Businesses have not yet had the opportunity to replicate or replace those data points for a remote setting and are probably a long way off doing so.”
How then, do businesses convey those incredibly important cultural clues to new hires, both during the hiring process and in the early days after a new employee’s arrival on the team? Dima says, “This needs to be a deliberate focus for business leaders to ensure the experience for new employees leaves them feeling engaged, supported and clear on purpose and expectations.”
As we suggested earlier, the remote working phenomenon isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Almost every day we hear of businesses making decisions around permanently allowing employees to work either partially or totally remotely. As that trend continues, there’ll be additional and unforeseen challenges in maintaining healthy levels of employee engagement.
We asked Dima for her view on what those challenges might mean for business. “More than anything, it has challenged the notion that (some) work cannot be done remotely. So, we have had to throw some long-standing assumptions out the window”, she says. Further, there will be challenges, “…primarily around the reduced effectiveness of collaboration, building relationships and keeping employees engaged.”
Clarity of, and a clear commitment to, purpose will help businesses address those challenges.
As we said earlier, we know from global research the power of purpose when it comes to employee engagement. Data that continues to be collected as the current crisis continues shows purpose as a factor in engagement becoming even more impactful. If you’re a business owner or leader, you really do ignore it at your peril.
If you’re simply not sure how your employees are feeling, the best way to find out is to ask them. While employee engagement surveys are big business these days, it seems some businesses are a little reluctant to take the plunge for fear of what they might find out. We believe that’s a short-sighted attitude.
We’ll let the expert, Dima Isaac, have the last word on the matter:
“I have seen business be brave and ask for feedback during this challenging time so my view is it depends on the strength of the leadership as to whether they want the feedback or bury their heads in the sand.”
How strong is purpose in your business?
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