Chatting over lunch in the office kitchen, friendly banter as everyone gathers in the conference room before a meeting starts, face-to-face one-on-one meetings, even just popping by someone’s desk to say hello—is what we expect if we all worked in an office setting. But, many companies experienced having to reinvent what culture and team-building looks like virtually due to the pandemic.
In a time when Zoom calls have replaced every day in-person interactions, how do you create a team that leans on one another, develops a sense of company culture and stays engaged?
Employee engagement started taking a hit even before the pandemic began, according to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report. Gallup defines employee engagement as employees that are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.
In 2016, engagement hit its highest number in Gallup’s 15-plus years of tracking, yet that pinnacle was only 33% of employees. The majority of employees, 51%, were not engaged and 16% were actively disengaged. And since the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, Gallup says, global employee engagement has dropped even more.
Seems pretty hopeless…right? It’s not and we can regain that engagement with our workforce. To do this, we need to do two things: 1) look long and hard at ourselves as leaders and ask “are we being our true, authentic selves” and 2) be willing to change and pivot.
As the leader of Inspire Agency, where we’ve had a remote core team composed of full-time employees, part-time employees, contract workers and freelancers, since the inception of the company in 2013–I’ve had to learn how to keep virtual teams engaged and excited even though we can’t see each other every day.
One model that’s a particularly helpful starting point is PERMA, developed by Dr. Martin Seligman, a leading authority in the field of positive psychology. According to this model, there are five essential elements that we all need to be happy:
You can see how each of these elements relates to work. So how do we make people feel positive about their job, get them engaged, build positive relationships, and instill a sense of meaning and accomplishment for your team members? Here’s what I’ve learned:
Put your people first. We call our people, “Inspirers”. They aren’t just another cog in the wheel of our business, but their purpose on our team has greater meaning. Our inspirers know their aim is to inspire each other and our clients through how we work and live. This, is meaningful. We put in the time and effort to really get to know our people, so we can exemplify and amplify who they are.
We seek out our team’s ideas and the specific aspirations of our team member–making them feel valued, appreciated and respected. Learning about their lives, understanding their bucket lists both professionally and personally, and helping them set goals gives our people a feeling of significance and purpose at Inspire.
Empathizing with their frustrations, life struggles and challenging situations helps them know they are heard and seen. Rarely does a week go by that I don’t talk with a team member about something on their heart or mind. Sure we have work to do but I believe that can wait if a team member of mine needs to unpack something in their life. It’s really all about prioritizing the needs of you people over work.
One way to do this, as we do here at Inspire, is asking for prayer requests and praise reports to end a weekly team meetings. Those 10 to 15 minutes each week give us the time to think about ourselves and others as fully realized people, not just as worker bees. In one-on-one meetings, I take the time to ask how my employees are doing before diving right into the work at hand. By investing in employees through awareness, time and intention, your team feels genuinely valued and respected—what the Gallup report says the best managers do.
Inspire responsibility through ownership and autonomy. Through getting to know your team members, you’ll learn where they want to take ownership. For example, if you have an employee who expresses frustration with a process, ask them for suggestions and then let them own the agreed upon new process, including defining how accountability is enforced. Then give them space and autonomy to do the work. An employee retention report by LinkedIn found that companies where employees felt they had influence were much more likely to retain employees for at least three years compared to companies where employees felt less empowered.
When your team feels they have influence over the areas that they’re accountable for, it makes them feel like it’s safe to fail, partially because they’re responsible to themselves and their own plans. This helps with an incredibly important component of team-building: psychological safety. That means allowing for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off, as Harvard Business Review put it. A two-year study on team performance by Google found that high-performing teams all have psychological safety in common.
So if your employee takes ownership and their plans fall flat, the frustration that an unempowered employee can feel, which sometimes leads to finger pointing, is more easily displaced by an introspective determination to revisit, rework and improve the process. If their plans succeed, employees gain that feeling of accomplishment and achievement that Dr. Seligman points out. And if they discover something new that they enjoy doing, they may even gain a feeling of meaning—a sense of what they’re really good at, and wanting to do more of it.
This nurtures feelings of self-efficacy, the judgment of one’s own abilities to successfully cope with future demands according to a 2020 research paper published in Frontiers in Psychology. That paper points out that self-efficacy is positively associated with increased performance. So by inspiring responsibility through ownership and autonomy, you’re boosting retention, psychological safety and self-efficacy. Your team members are more likely to undertake in-depth thinking about how to improve and contribute to your organization as a whole—in other words, not order takers but Inspire Makers!
Positive and meaningful feedback. Maybe you feel like a broken record when you praise employees and that your team is tuning you out. Or maybe you find it hard to call out wins when you feel like there’s so much to do. Perhaps it just feels uncomfortable or unnatural, or you’re worried that by providing too much positive feedback that constructive criticism won’t be heard. Whatever reasons you may have for holding back, you’ve got to put them aside—positive feedback is essential to good team building.
If you think you’re not comfortable giving regular positive feedback, you’re not alone. Behavioral statisticians Joseph Folkman and Jack Zenger created a self-assessment taken by more than 8,600 leaders, and found that 56% of the leaders had a stronger preference for giving negative feedback, 31% preferred giving positive feedback, and 12 were equal in their preference. That’s backed up by the aforementioned Gallup workforce report, which found through a survey that only three out of 10 employees strongly agreed that they received recognition or praise for doing good work.
These numbers are all backwards! Gallup says that by bumping that ratio up to six out of 10, organizations could realize a 24% improvement in quality, a 27% reduction in absenteeism and a 10% reduction in shrinkage. In other research, Folkman and Zenger found that employees ideally need 6 positive pieces of feedback for every negative review received.
As previously mentioned, at Inspire we set aside time in our weekly meeting for praise reports, which allows for public, positive feedback from everyone on the team. When I give one-on-one positive feedback, I always try to be as specific as possible, showing that I’m engaged and aware of their hard work, and making it more likely the feedback will resonate in the future during similar assignments or events. I also point out how it directly links to business results, reinforcing that their work is an important contribution to our larger shared goals. But even a quick “hey, I reviewed that project, great job!” when you jump on a call or before a meeting begins can make a big difference.
None of this is to say that negative or critical feedback should always be avoided. Sometimes you need to take corrective action, but always keep it constructive. When I see an issue that needs to be addressed, I always have that conversation face-to-face (so in our remote world, on Zoom). It’s too easy for tone to be misconstrued over email, and on the phone, you lose the facial expressions that convey feelings and intention. Stay specific to the issue, try to listen and empathize with the employee’s concerns, and try to provide solutions.
Go forth and inspire!
These are just a few of the factors that go into creating inspiring teams. I’m looking forward to sharing more here on the Inspire website, but I hope these ideas give you the confidence to go forth and inspire your own teams!