Employee Engagement and the Future of Work: What’s Next?

By Geraldine Woloch-Addamine

“A time machine fast-forwarding the future of work through new workplace experimentations” is my vision for the 2020-2023 era, with the chaos feeling like icing on top of the cake.

What is your vision? 

Richard Branson would say: “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing and by falling over.”

Above all, we have learned a lot along the way from this disruption of traditional work settings.

And not in any specific order:

  • Work is not our whole life
  • Knowing how to manage remote workers is not an improvisation but a matter of stellar leadership. 
  • Social capital (networks and professional relationships) is essential in the corporate world to spur innovation or learn by mimetism.
  • A people-first culture won’t prevent mass layoffs.
  • Individual productivity is not enough.

But, in the end, the Human Touch still matters in the hybrid or remote workplace, so much that soft skills and Talent Management strategies are at the forefront of leadership discussions to offset the ramp-up of AI.

And due to the economic downturn and societal crisis, we might have shifted our perception of what creates collective performance.

While individual productivity rose by 4.4% in 2020 and 2.2% in 2021, according to the BLS, the trend is now over, with productivity falling by 1.6% last year in 2022. For the first time since 1948, the US economy has experienced five consecutive quarters of declining worker productivity. The productivity rate improved slightly in the second quarter of 2023, but a huge question mark remains as to what factors could boost productivity.

Indeed, there’s no guarantee that more investments in new technologies, particularly AI, will compensate for the decline. According to the Economist Robert Solow, this economic theory is called the productivity paradox.

So, what other factors besides Technological advancements affect productivity?

  • The working environment, including the quality of management and supervision.
  • Employee health and well-being/Motivation and Engagement.

In short, Employee Engagement and Motivation are the first programs to increase productivity.

My take on this as an HR Tech entrepreneur and virtual leader is that focusing only on productivity without considering its human aspect would be a mistake.

The Relationships between people and teams -aka social capital – and corporate culture (the work environment) channel into employee engagement. As Peter Drucker put it: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

So, how can we tackle the new managerial challenges of remote and hybrid working to better engage the workforce? 

New leadership challenges

Employee engagement can create high performance through all the extra efforts (involvement and enthusiasm). But only 21% of employees worldwide and 33% in the US feel engaged.

And Gallup found that companies with engaged employees have:

81% lower rates of absenteeism – 43% lower turnover rates – 10% higher rates of customer loyalty, and 23% higher profitability.

Workforce disengagement is a global phenomenon, with only 15% of employees engaged. Overall, people don’t feel any emotional connection to their work and mostly do what’s expected.

But have you noticed that common challenges in the hybrid workplace are, in fact, also barriers to Employee Engagement? Indeed, remote workers’ challenges are all detrimental effects of employee disengagement.

Employee/Team Engagement

In other words – We can increase business productivity by creating an effective Employee/Team engagement program focusing on the following:

– Meaningful work 🆚 Lack of motivation

– Career growth 🆚 Lack of opportunities/lack of transparency

– Empowerment 🆚 Micromanagement/lack of autonomy

– Sense of Belonging 🆚 Isolation

– Recognition 🆚 Not feeling valued/appreciated, or respected

– Effective Leadership 🆚 Lack of communication

– Fulfilling work relationships 🆚 Unsupportive work environment

The Five Cs

Effective leadership must also focus on and learn to engage employees by building a culture of trust through what we call the Five Cs:

1- Care

2- Connect

3- Coach

4- Contribute (encourage ideas and impact)

5- Congratulate

The first three Cs are pretty transparent. Managers can drive engagement with a Coaching posture through continuous feedback, development and recognition, and a team approach.

Encouraging a results-driven approach to performance can also improve employee engagement by giving enough autonomy to achieve goals. Salespeople know this well.

But it doesn’t stop here. Managerial Research also shows that the more latitude people have to craft a job based on their strengths – the more motivated they will be.

The fourth C, “Contribute,” might be the most complex to grasp. Contribution won’t come without enabling a supportive environment.

Creating meaningful work depends on company culture and individual impact on teamwork and success – and how much you contribute to company goals/performance.

Traditionally, in employee surveys, people with direct customer relationships are more motivated and engaged than those in administrative roles.

This is why it’s essential to link company goals and values to individual roles – jobs, and tasks. Knowing why you work – what the big picture is and how you can contribute to the company vision at your modest level encourages the impulse to engage in the process.

But beyond these new leadership challenges, the critical question is how can we address change to adapt to the new world of work?

The fifth C is crucial to continued commitment and engagement. Congratulating employees and acknowledging their contributions can only be overlooked at your peril. Thanking someone for a job well done or a good idea must be woven into the fabric of any team-building efforts.

How to become a change agent for the future of work

Changing the culture at the company level is hard, but it’s easier to start with your team to build an agile organization. Change agents are, ideally, leaders or HR people who can be the best facilitators to lead by example.

According to the Agile leadership principles for embracing change, it’s paramount to privilege cross-team cooperation to adjust the work frequently. Leaders can also personify and impulse change through a flexible mindset and dedication to the team’s success.

We know the stages of change management – the first one is about awareness and vision, and this phase can last through all the multiple challenges to create buy-in.

In his change management model, I like the analogy of the rider and elephant image from the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. You must direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path to address behavior change. We need to address the following.

1- To understand the new world of work, the rational mind requires statistics coupled with vision.

“Working on the awareness,” as marketers say, is understanding from an HR tech perspective how the new post-pandemic workplace has changed and which of the adjusted formula will create high performance and increase productivity.

This new workplace is about leading a global and decentralized network of teams composed of global talents. In practice, our world doesn’t allow us to work in the same place with the same teammates to ensure efficiency.

It’s the contrary.

We constantly have to learn how to work with new people and teams, and we may never see each other in person. But we want to build trust with them as quickly as possible. Everyone must follow the same rules and principles to speed up decisions and execution processes.

Indeed, the skillset for success is in the leader’s hands at the team level. And for all employees. It requires a new proactive approach and mindset. Facilitating work and sharing info and knowledge is everyone’s responsibility in our new workplace.

2- The emotional brain

People won’t decide to change unless they find an emotional connection. What speaks best to people in our new world of work is flexibility, autonomy, or opportunities for professional growth.

The best meaning in work and life will remain continual growth, learning, and autonomy to fulfill our role and gain as much freedom as possible to design our work-life balance, which goes with a flexible schedule to support our well-being.

3- The mission/How

HR Tech and processes come only after vision and intent and adhere to the business core values for effective and inspiring leadership.

One of these core values is Fairness, and its protection is the foundation of HR policies.

The value of fairness is also a cornerstone of the new generation, which is more diverse than ever.

For this reason, effective and credible technology can only serve ethical leadership. The challenge for all emerging technologies, especially AI and Web 3, is demonstrating a robust data foundation with a fair and ethical data collection process.

Indeed, we repeatedly bump into the same obstacles. How can we ensure the removal of biases from the career management process? How can we capture workforce data from different sources over time?

Qualitative workforce data should:

-Capture every team skill consistently over time

-Remove biases in the talent management process through different data sources

Through AI and Web 3, HR tech can solve this massive business problem to increase productivity by leveraging ethical talent management datasets to engage employees.