Image by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

It’s Time to Rethink Employee Engagement for Work From Home (WFH)

Maybe it’s not so important…

Perhaps employee engagement — the holy grail for a winning corporate culture the last 15 years — is not so important for the recent new wave of employees who have been pushed into performing their jobs from home. I know — it sounds like heresy. It might even sound counter intuitive.

Maybe we should be thinking of a return to “job satisfaction” instead of employee engagement for WFH folks. Or, as some recent research suggests, the focus should be on “employee well-being.” Both are different from engagement.

Some context. For the last bunch of years, employee engagement has been seen as one of the keys to employee high commitment and high performance. Desirable outcomes of engagement include high discretionary effort by employees; higher employee retention; higher levels of innovation. Many organizations religiously measure it with surveys and a consulting industry has grown up around it. For some, it’s the gold standard. The sine qua non.

And from a personal perspective I’ve always embraced and valued engagement both as an employee and as a leader. The nature of my consulting and leadership work and the management support I’ve been given over the years has engaged me. It’s provided that extra bounce in my step. Being engaged was what compelled me to often check work emails while waiting in line on weekends at the check-out line somewhere. I didn’t have to — I wanted to. I was engaged.

Gallup, often considered one of the thought leaders in the engagement space defines it this way: “The extent to which employees [managers are employees too] are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

It would seem that in these pivotal times, with unprecedented changes to our work lives and personal lives, engagement would be more important than ever to give meaning to what we do. To help us maintain focus, alignment, energy. Right?

Well, yes, but…

For work performed anywhere but home, engagement is still highly important. In the office. In the factory. On the road. In-person interactions provide myriad opportunities for engagement. But not, I believe, for Work From Home (WFH) jobs. For WFH employees, perhaps job satisfaction — not engagement — is the right standard. Or employee well-being.

“Job satisfaction” has been around as a concept for 70–80 years and can be defined as: “The extent to which an individual is content with their job, whether he or she likes the job or not.”

“Content” with the job or the work. Not “driven” or “energetically motivated” as engagement would suggest. Wait — Isn’t this lowering the standard? Isn’t this moving the goal post closer?

Here is the distinction and why it’s important during the pandemically-induced WFH reality.

Think back to Maslow’s pioneering Hierarchy of Needs pyramid model which dates back to the early 1940s and which every college student who has ever taken a business or psychology class has seen. To recap, his albeit overly-simplified model posits that there are five levels of human “needs” shown below in order of importance and primacy:

  • Physiological (air, food; health)
  • Safety (security; safety; security)
  • Love/Belonging (friendship; family; intimacy)
  • Esteem (confidence; achievement; respect from others)
  • Self-Actualization (need for development; creativity; becoming the best you can be).

Because it is formulated as a hierarchy, Maslow suggested that we humans naturally need to satisfy our most basic physiological “survival” needs first before we become interested in moving “up” the hierarchy and satisfying our safety needs. Once that level is moderately satisfied, we become interested in the Love/Belonging level and so on. So, his pyramid as shown below, depicts the needs and their layering.

Image by Simply Psychology

With employee engagement, it’s almost assumed that the bottom three levels are already largely satisfied. The focus then becomes — but not exclusively — on the top two levels: Esteem and Self-Actualization. That’s the arena of high work commitment, going above and beyond and the other aspects of engagement. One could argue that engagement is a luxury pursued once one’s basic needs have been met.

Put another way, would an employee (or manager) voluntarily jump through hoops on a work-related issue (an “engagement” behavior) if he/she is on the verge of being evicted or doesn’t have enough to eat (physiological needs)? Or does not feel physically safe and secure? Not likely.

But I think the pandemic has disrupted our sense of cadence. It’s made the familiar less so. It has introduced uncertainty and volatility. It’s made our personal lives less predictable which has an impact on our work lives. See my related piece on “VUCA” — Volatility; Uncertainty; Complexity; Ambiguity.

Our focus, our energy, our passions, our mindshare — especially if we are working at home and balancing/juggling multiple priorities and demands — have probably drifted over the last few months because we have become more concerned about those more foundational layers of the hierarchy of needs: Health (Physiological); Security (Safety); Belonging (Love/Belonging).

For many employees, they can no longer take for granted any aspects of the pre-pandemic “old normal.” There are new and sometimes distressing objects on their radar screen:

  • “The company I work for is not doing well — will I have a job next week or next month? Will my spouse? If my grown kids lose their jobs will they want to move back home?”
  • “I’ve got to be on the phone taking customer calls for the next 4 hours and my kids are doing learning from home in the next room and they’re loud and not paying attention to their poorly administered lessons. It’s so hard to concentrate on what these customers are asking about. I often feel I’m not doing my job as well as I did before.”
  • “Lots of people say they like the WFH model but for me it seems I never leave my house. Work and home life overlap so much — I sometimes feel like I have cabin fever. Combined with my state’s social interaction guidelines and restrictions, I’m turning into a recluse.”
  • “We’ve downsized again and I’m feeling stretched and stressed. Three of us are doing at home the work that five used to do at the office.”
  • “Two of the people at church I was talking with last week have tested positive. And I don’t feel well today. Should I get tested or am I just being psychosomatic? My worrying about it is getting in the way of my prep for tomorrow’s Zoom meeting…”
  • “I really don’t understand this new product change the company implemented last week and my boss can’t sit across the table from me to walk me through it and train me properly. And I’m supposed to be explaining it to customers as part of the product virtual support team.”
  • “I’m an introvert and I’m happy that my job has switched to WFH. I like my teammates and customers but I don’t need the close social touchpoints that others enjoy. My overall needs are better met in this new working arrangement.”
  • “I’m very close to some of my teammates and I miss being able to talk things out with them both work-related and personal stuff. I know how to use this video technology but it’s just not the same…”

The focus on foundational needs and wants like those above crowd out the desire to be achievement oriented (Esteem) or to exercise creativity (Self-Actualization). It’s a focus and appreciation of the fundamentals of human needs and have little to do with being “engaged.”

If engagement, then, has a focus on the top of the needs pyramid, job satisfaction, on the other hand, has a broader reach. It penetrates deeper into the levels of the hierarchy pyramid. Consider this fictional composite scenario:

So, maybe I don’t have the kind of job nor the motivations or attributes to be engaged. But the job is okay and it pays the bills. I’m working from home so there is no commute hassle or costs and I’m not daily exposed to the virus. It’s not physically or mentally taxing and it’s not super-high stress or dangerous in any way. I sometimes learn a few new things and that’s good.

Once in a while I get positive feedback from someone or from the job itself. I’m okay telling others what I do for a living or who I work for — it’s a pretty good company. I’m never going to be a VP but then, I don’t want to be a VP.

So, all in all, I’m reasonably satisfied with my job. It’s not the best of all worlds or my ideal job but it checks a number of boxes that are important to me in this pandemic period. And it’s a job! And because of all that, I put forth good effort and take some pride in what I do. I wouldn’t run through a brick wall for my job or my employer but I’d probably run through a thin panel of dry wall.

The point here is that perhaps for a lot of employees and a lot of companies and their customers “satisfaction” works well enough in this challenging period we are in. It keeps the lights on for everybody.

All of this is not to say that employee engagement has become unimportant. Or that some or many WFH employees/managers are not engaged and thriving in this new world order. In fact, Gallup in a recent research report covering the period July-September suggests that engagement scores have “reverted to pre-COVID levels.” However, I wonder whether because of the extended pandemic period and the resulting frazzling fatigue it has fraught, a December re-measure might produce very different results. Just speculating…

HR consultant/researcher Josh Bersin, in a November 26 publication avers that because of the pandemic and its impact on the work world “wellbeing has crawled out of the Benefits department and landed on the desk of the CEO.” It’s become vitally important. He defines some of the elements of “wellbeing” as flexibility, belonging, safety, pay, benefits. Sound familiar? Yup — The foundational strata of Maslow’s needs hierarchy. Physical well-being. And yes, let’s say it: mental health well-being.

And there is anecdotal evidence in published articles and word-of-mouth that mid and senior level leaders are responding and making efforts to help employees not only cope with the current conditions but also to be successful at their jobs. After all, as the case has been presented here and elsewhere, those two factors are very often intertwined. More flexible work arrangements; more flexible benefits and compensation systems; a greater emphasis on employee recognition; increased training — these and other helpful mechanisms have been employed for the employed.

And those efforts will likely contribute to employee satisfaction. But let’s not mistakenly believe that it will do much for employee engagement unless someone is already feeling engaged.

In sum, is employee engagement still important for many people and for many jobs? Yes! But especially for WFH employees, a new mindfulness and heightened appreciation is necessary for ensuring that their more basic human needs are met. The ever-changing playbook for what works at work needs some revisions with a nod to a 75-year-old model that hardly anyone thinks about anymore. Until now, perhaps.

About the author: Mike Hoban is a leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics, sometimes in a whimsical way. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and also wrote a business column for 12 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at mjhoban99@gmail.com.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

Mike Hoban is a West Michigan-based leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics.