Remote Work Best Practices Part 8 – High Well-Being & Engagement

Engagement and wellbeing are essential for happy, productive employees, especially when working remotely.

We discuss why looking forwards, rather than backwards, increases people’s willingness to discuss their workplace challenges.

And we cover the importance of empowerment – a sense of control – and where 80% of people’s wellbeing in the workplace REALLY comes from.

Watch the first video in the series here:

Part 1 – Remote Work Trends & The Great Resignation

and the previous video here:

Part 7 – Why Role Clarity is Essential for Remote Work Success

And if you know of anyone who would benefit from this video, please share it with them.

 

Video Transcript

Engagement and wellbeing

Hi, Andrew from SACS and welcome to video number eight, lucky last, in our eight video sequence on the psychology of leading employees who are working remotely.

In this particular one, we’re going to be talking about engagement and wellbeing, how to keep it high when people are working remotely.

And these are the topics that we’ve covered so far. We’ve looked at things like whether people are suited to work remotely. We’ve looked at the question about whether remote work is good for people, communication in remote working, skilling people up to work remotely, role clarity, and now engagement and wellbeing.

“Feed forward” vs “feed back”

So one of the things that you’re going to have to do if you have people working remotely is to check in with them.

And in Australia, we have a campaign called, RUOK? And there’s even an RUOK day. And RUOK is a good idea, but it’s not the perfect idea.

It can be difficult for an employee to say I’m not okay, and the difficulty can be out of personal embarrassment. I mean, some people, male and female, simply have difficulty. They’ve been taught that it’s not a good thing to say to other people I’m vulnerable or I’m struggling or something of that nature.

The alternative is instead of asking for feedback, you ask for “feed forward”. And the idea of feed forward is that when you couch things, when you focus on the future in questions, you’re turning on a part of the brain, which is called the prefrontal cortex, and it’s a more creative part of the brain and a less defensive part of the brain.

If you focus on the past, you tend to turn on what we call the old brain, and you run the risk of turning on the amygdala. And that’s when people become defensive and you get the fight, flight or freeze response.

So the alternative to “Are you okay?” – and don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying don’t ask, “Are you okay?” – but one of the things that you may do on occasions is ask the alternative, a feed forward question and feed forward is

  • “Is there anything that I can do to make this work better for you?”
  • “Is there anything that would make it easier for you?”
  • “Is there anything that would cause us to have more success?”

Those kinds of questions can be easier for a person to answer. In other words, what do you want to have done in the future in comparison with how do you feel about the past. That can get better answers.

So give it a try. Feed forward to get information about people’s wellbeing.

The two factors that affect wellbeing

Wellbeing in human beings is affected by a range of different things.

So one of the things that’s been demonstrated in this research by Van def Doef and Maes (refer to the video), and confirmed by a range of other researchers, is that if you have stress in your work, and let’s say it’s negative stress like conflict or difficult workloads or difficult customers or isolation or any of those sorts of negatives.

It can be high, it can be low, it can be medium. But there’s also the question of control. And what we know is that there’s an interaction between stress and control. And the basic concept here is that if I’m under stress and I have no control over my circumstances, then it’s worse for my wellbeing, my wellbeing is lower because of that.

Just to populate some of these quadrants (refer to the video).

If you’re low in stress and low in control, let’s call that a sleepy kind of a quadrant, and that’s not good for people’s wellbeing, in any event, because stress can be too low and low control means okay, I’m being led in a very top down fashion, but the workload is not challenging, and the issues I’m dealing with are not challenging.

Then you have the situation where people are high in stress and low in control, and that’s where you should be aware of burnout.

This is why it’s a good idea to measure levels of stress in your workforce, because if you have top down leadership, and that can be easily measured, and you have high levels of stress, then you run the risk that what you’re going to end up with is where people become negative, cynical and burnt out. And clearly that’s not good for them. And it’s not good for the organisation.

And then you have the situation where an employee is high in control and low in stress. And what that means is that they’re going to be feeling comfortable.

And then you have a situation where people are high in stress and high in control and that’s likely to be a peak experience.

One of the things that I do in my presentations sometimes is that I ask people to think about the most exciting and fulfilling time in their work life. And it’s amazing how often that it wasn’t an easy experience.

It was quite often a challenging experience, but they would have had high levels of autonomy, they might have been empowered quite heavily. And it’s a peak experience.

But the one thing that we know is that neurologically people can’t be parked in peak forever. And what you really need is a situation where the optimum is peak experience from time to time and then dropping down in terms of stress and then going back up for a while and dropping down again.

And so you can oscillate between this peak experience and a more comfortable experience (refer to the video).

The importance of control and empowerment

In a practical sense, control from leaders comes from empowerment.

And I’m going to suggest to you that the research into the world of engagement and wellbeing suggests that without high levels of empowerment, without satisfactory levels of empowerment, you can’t have optimum levels of wellbeing.

Human beings benefit enormously from being empowered about what they do and to be the kind of command and control obedient employee of yesteryear, simply is not good for people’s levels of wellbeing or productivity for that matter.

Now one of the other things that’s really important in all of this. Of course, it’s important for leaders to be supportive. In other words, kind, friendly and helpful to staff.

The three factors that affect work engagement

I just want to talk about a thing called work engagement.

And here are the three components of work engagement (refer to the video) – Vigour, which means that people are energetic and they’re mentally resilient.

Dedication, so they consider their work to be important. They think it’s significant, and also they try to get better at it.

And absorption is where people are kind of engrossed in their work. It’s what might be described as a flow state. This is where employees come to work, they get involved in their team. They start doing stuff, they look up at the clock. It’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Hey, where did the day go? They’re happily engrossed in what they do.

If people have these three characteristics, this is kind of the research definition right now of what engagement means, because when people do have these characteristics, they’re more productive, both in terms of quality and quantity of work.

They tend to have higher levels of personal wellbeing, they get sick less often, you have lower levels of absenteeism, higher levels of profit and revenue growth.

So this is one of the reasons why people in organisational leadership roles across the world pursue this version of engagement. It’s good for the individual and it’s good for the organisation.

So when people have this, they maintain higher levels of wellbeing. So you could say I was mentioning earlier the concept of stress, where people have an appropriate level of stress and high levels of engagement. That’s almost the best combination that you can have from a wellbeing point of view.

Where corporate culture really comes from

So this diagram (refer to the video) tells us some very important truths about what people call corporate culture. And the most important truth is that culture is not really corporate at all.

Culture is team by team more than anything else. And this diagram (refer to the video) shows you that 80% of people’s wellbeing comes from their job, their team and their leader. And that’s a really important point.

So if you measure levels of corporate culture engagement, wellbeing, stress, team by team in organisations and you measure it between organisations, the greatest difference is not between organisations.

The greatest differences are between teams within the one organisation. So this team can be heaven. This team can be hell for its employees.

Now, why?

The two levers of corporate culture

Well, the levers that you have to create the right corporate culture are really twofold.

Lever number one is who you recruit. If you recruit people who are naturally inclined to be resilient, positive, energetic, committed, non-cynical. If you recruit people like that.

And lever number two is lead them well. If you do those two things, you’re going to have an optimum corporate culture.

But the reason that I think this diagram (refer to the video) is important, is that the proximal effects, the things that are close to me, like my job, my team and my leader have much more impact on my wellbeing than distal effects like my organisation.

If you’re a leader of a team of five people, you’re going to have 80% effect on the wellbeing of those employees. Very responsible, isn’t it?

But I think that the key thing is many leaders underestimate the impact that they have on employees, and they can have a massive positive or negative impact by virtue of the communication that they offer.

So how in a remote leadership situation do we keep this stuff high?

The role of focus in wellbeing and leadership

An incredibly important aspect of leadership is focus. This quote here, “The secret of life is what you focus on,” that’s a quote from me, actually.

What I meant when I wrote that is that if you look at people who seem to be successful in life from a wellbeing point of view, very often it’s because they focus on things that will be helpful to them.

Now, personality, genetic influences will determine what you’re likely to focus on to a certain degree. But you can learn to shift your focus. After all, that’s what mindfulness activities are.

They’re where you focus on the here and now in order to turn off the narrative that runs through your head, that might be telling you negative things. That’s one aspect of mindfulness, anyway.

So focus from leaders is absolutely crucial because what you focus on turns on the productive parts of the brain, and it can therefore turn off the unproductive parts of the brain like the amygdala, which tends to give anger, fear, or depression type emotions.

Optimism in leadership and solutions

Leaders should focus on optimism and positivity rather than pessimism and negativity. Good leaders are optimistic.

Diary research shows that if you get 2to keep a blessings diary, and 2 keep a challenges diary, and you measure the levels of wellbeing of those people as they write every day, their diary entry about either challenges or blessings, what you’ll find is that the people who keep the blessings diary, their level of wellbeing will increase.

The challenges diary will cause people’s levels of wellbeing to decline. This has been demonstrated in research over the decades.

Now, the important message, and I gave this in another one of this video sequence, the important message is that one negative is worth probably five or six positives.

So in your interactions with staff, particularly if you’re interacting with them occasionally, it’s really important to make sure that you are optimistic, positive, and particularly that you’re affirming that you believe they can do what is necessary for them to do to achieve the outcomes that it’s necessary for them to achieve.

And that balance is really crucial. That’s one of the things that creates positive corporate culture, the balance of positive experiences and the balance of negative experiences.

And so things like a focus on solutions rather than emotions. I’m not saying you should never focus on emotions, but as quickly as possible, if somebody is upset, provide them with the comfort, support and guidance that you can.

But then what you need to do is you need to work with them to work out an ideal future, work out a destination if you want to put it that way and create an optimism that we’re going to solve whatever the problem is.

If somebody’s got a problem, sympathising with them, comforting them, that gets you so far. But if you are to be able to show them that there’s a way of solving this problem and work with them to solve the problem that will stimulate optimism.

By the way, I should mention, I’m not talking about the kind of optimism where leaders say, don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine. People do not believe that.

The type of optimism that works well is what we would call a self-efficacy kind of optimism. Self-efficacy means, “I believe we can,get this done.” So the type of optimism might be okay, we’ve got a challenge. I know we can get through this. Let’s make a plan about how to do that.

That’s the kind of optimism that will work for most people.

Another issue of focus is to focus on what you can control and ignore what you can’t control.

Right now, in Australia, we’re going through a series of lockdowns for COVID-19 and certainly around the world those have been experienced.

They’ve been left behind in some parts of the world.

The ideal place to focus our attention

But whatever the issue is, if you focus on the things that you can control, like the quality of our work, like the quality of our interactions with each other, like the way we help each other and try to ignore things like the economy or whatever is going on outside our door.

One of the things that that does is it makes people feel more powerful. It gives them what counsellors call agency. When they have agency, they feel more optimistic.

They have higher levels of wellbeing, because they feel more in control of their environment.

Going back to the Van der Doef & Maes diagram about control and stress (refer to the video), one of the things that can be really powerful is a focus on the future. In other words, it could be as simple as what are we looking forward to this week? What’s the stuff that we’ll be doing that we’re really looking forward to?

A focus on the future doesn’t have to be a focus on the future three years down the track. In fact, shorter-term focus can be more meaningful. Tomorrow, I’m doing X, and I’m looking forward to it. In a week, I’m doing Y, and I’m looking forward to it.

That kind of stuff can be really helpful to keep people’s levels of engagement and morale high.

Three effective models for remote leadership

Now, leaders have a range of leadership options. Leaders in interaction with staff can be bosses, and you have to do that.

So you’ve got a telephone meeting with somebody or you’ve got a Zoom meeting with someone or something like that, and you’re going to say to them, Look, Mary Smith, I need you to do this. That’s good leadership. You have to be able to do that.

You also need to be able to consult with people. This is where I would ask people their opinions. So maybe in a series of phone calls or emails or Zoom meetings or something, I would get their opinions about a particular issue. That’s consultation as a leadership technique.

And then I go back to my office. Or maybe I turn off my camera and I think about what they’ve said, and I make up my mind, and then I communicate my decision back out to people.

Now, the risk of this technique is that if you consult people and let’s say you consult this person and she says you should do X, but you decide ultimately taking all of these viewpoints into account that you’re going to do Y, she will think, “Well, you’ve just been top-down.” And in fact, she may even be a little resentful because she might say, why did you pretend to consult me on the matter?

You really made up your mind. You were really just pretending to consult me. And by the way, I’m sure that anybody who’s ever done change management in this method will have had this experience.

The alternative is facilitated leadership where a leader doesn’t make the decision at all. A leader facilitates a process where the staff get together and discuss an issue and they come up with a range of possibilities.

And what they do is that they generate ideas and the leader is going to back their ideas. Now to be an effective leader, I think you need to be able to be top-down, a consulter and a facilitator.

But it would be fair to say that most leaders spend the bulk of their life between option number one and option number two.

How to be an effective facilitator

Option number three takes some skills, where you will set the conversation up, you will sponsor a conversation. It’s a really good idea to do small group activities.

So if you’ve got these five people, you might have two in one group and three in another, and you might rotate the group as you ask your questions.

What you’re trying to do as a facilitative leader is that you’re trying to sponsor a situation where a group of employees will creatively, ideally in small groups, come up with as many clever ideas as they possibly can to solve the problem or to access the opportunity, whatever it is.

Now, when they’ve created those ideas, a facilitated leader will stimulate a process where maybe they talk about what the ideas are and vote for them, and then the leader is going to do, let’s say the top two or three things, going to support the top two or three things that have been voted for.

Now, good facilitative leaders also don’t do the two or three things that have been developed automatically. They may well cause a less senior employee to take on responsibility for leading an initiative and being helped by colleagues. That’s a really powerful way of getting to solutions. And it’s a fantastic methodology for change management.

But this works beautifully for remote leadership. You’ll notice from this diagram (refer to the video), this doesn’t have to be a physical room.

This could be a Zoom room or Teams breakout rooms or something like that where you’ve got everybody together but you send them off to have small group conversations.

By the way, the small group is important, because if you have people who are not comfortable to talk in front of a larger group and you have your interactions only in a group of let’s say 20 people, there will be people that you’ll never hear from.

But if you send them off into small groups, they’ll at least get to voice their ideas in the small group. And quite often what will happen, then is when those small groups report back, the more confident people will report the ideas of the less confident people, and that causes everybody to feel engaged and involved.

The point that I’m making here is remote leadership often devolves into model one leadership, where you just end up running around telling people what to do in a series of phone calls or Zoom meetings or whatever.

I think if you’ve got an issue and let’s use this as an example, how about you get a group of employees together and you set them the task of coming up with really good ideas about how to optimise working from home. So that’s a task.

We’ll get a group of 20 employees who work from home and we’ll say to them, our task today is to make this work as best it possibly can.

And so what you might do is that if you’re running it on Zoom, for instance, you’ll split them into, let’s say, four or five breakout rooms, and you task them to come up with clever ideas and you get them together and you’ll run a Zoom whiteboard and get them to you’ll type the ideas onto that whiteboard and you’ll get them to annotate the whiteboard to vote for the ideas that they think improve things.

This is empowerment, which we’ve already demonstrated is really important for reducing stress, increasing levels of engagement and wellbeing.

But also what you’re doing is you’re getting some really practical solutions out of this.

How to optimise remote leadership

So in summary, here are some key thoughts for optimising your remote leadership.

Firstly, recruit for it. Recruit hardworking, optimistic, cheerful, and generous people who respect the rules.

Lead for it. Things like plan your interactions with staff, how often and what?

Because you don’t have an opportunity for the water cooler conversations you need to plan these interactions and in particular, plan the more proximal versions of interactions. That is to say, rather than just dropping somebody an email, phone them. Rather than just phoning them, have a video conference, one-on-one with them.

If you can do that kind of thing, you reinforce the bond and relationship between the two of you.

Secondly, do your employees have structure in their week? One of the things that people complain about when they become remote employees is the structure tends to disappear from their week.

Why not use a facilitated leadership exercise to decide and get the employees involved in deciding how you’re going to structure the week as people are working remotely.

Empowerment, resilience, and productivity. You’ve heard me talk a lot in this sequence of videos about empowerment. There is no more powerful thing that you can do for engagement and wellbeing than to empower people.

So that’s why we’re saying that we can link this with resilience. The two things go hand in hand.

Maximise the positive in your interactions with staff. Remember, the quality of your corporate culture is very much the balance between positive things that happen and negative things that happen. So you’ve got to aim to have more than six positive things happen for every negative thing.

That way, you’ll have a sound and effective corporate culture.

You can use facilitated leadership to cause people to team up. And what I mean by that is the risk that you run in remote leadership is, Mary Smith does this, Bill Jones does this, and they don’t know each what the others are doing.

Why not ask them? Bill and Mary, can you work together to come up with a solution? That can be a really powerful way of ensuring that you get less isolation out of the remote work situation.

And, of course, do the usual social things, such as birthdays and those kinds of things. I really don’t need to tell you that everybody understands the necessity of doing that. It’s good to do that. And in particular, if you have one or two employees who are really keen on that kind of thing, get them to organise it.

So what’s more, use facilitative leadership to unboss and cause things to work.

Well, so that’s really what the world of research in psychology tells us about remote work working and remote leadership at the moment.

I hope that this sequence of videos has been helpful to you.

Please let us know if we can help in any other way.

Watch the first video in this series here:

Part 1 – Remote Work Trends & The Great Resignation

Or watch the previous video about remote working:

Part 7 – Why Role Clarity is Essential for Remote Work Success

And if you’d like some help assessing whether your current employees or your future hires are suited to remote work, contact us for a free trial of our Remote Worker Test.