A lot of energy has been devoted to ways leaders can keep remote employees engaged. Don’t get us wrong – that’s important and worthy of attention.

However, it’s also important to be thinking about those employees who are working remotely and aren’t engaged. They may be masquerading – smiling at you on Zoom, and doing their assigned tasks. But unbeknownst to you, they aren’t the focused, present, energetic person they once were.

How do you spot an employee in disguise?

The short answer is you don’t. It’s easier than ever to be in disguise when working remotely, and that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic.

That doesn’t mean leaders are empty-handed. This is where a platform like Engagement Multiplier comes in handy – the act of fielding an employee engagement survey is an invitation for people to reflect, and think about how they feel about the organisation and compared to others.

The challenge for leaders becomes less about identifying individuals whose engagement may be waning, and, instead thinking more broadly about the company culture, and whether the organisation has the conditions in place that encourage and enable employees to be present, focused, and energised.

Culture is an outcome 

2021 has been the year we all realised the importance of a sense of belonging. Lockdown and isolation challenged our ties to each other, and one of the most significant employee engagement trends that emerged this year was how crucial that sense of belonging is – to both people and organisations – whether or not people are remote, in the office, working a hybrid schedule or on the front lines.

After all – corporate culture is what you create – it’s an outcome. Done well, a healthy culture fosters engagement, provides employees with a sense of belonging. People feel cared for, listened to, and valued.

This leads us to the present day. What effect has the last year had on your culture? Assuming your people are fine, and the culture is intact, is dangerous. As we’ve written previously, in our paper “New Threats to Company Culture Post-Covid,” chances are good the exact opposite is the case.

Here’s why. Unless a culture is deliberately conceived and guided by company leaders, the organisation will be carried instead along the path of least resistance, resulting in a “Lord of the Flies” type culture that’s derived simply from what’s rewarded and what’s punished.

That may sound dramatic, and to be honest, the “Lord of the Flies” reference may be a bit overblown in this context, but the point it makes is not. Without some guiding principles from leaders, culture will be defined by power, influence, cronyism – all of which can rapidly stray away from the ethics and values the organisation purports to live by.

The guide rails for company culture – the organisation’s purpose 

So how do leaders develop those guide rails, and create a culture that is centered upon the organisation’s purpose, and provides that crucial sense of belonging?

Purpose: It starts with the organisation’s purpose, which either needs to be created if it doesn’t exist, refreshed if it’s grown stale, or re-communicated if it’s gone by the wayside.

Now, if you’ve just lost interest because the concept of purpose seems soft, we encourage you to read the findings McKinsey offers in their article titled, “Help Your Employees Find Purpose – or Watch them Leave.”

“People who live their purpose at work are more productive than people who don’t. They are also healthier, more resilient, and more likely to stay at the company,” the article’s authors state. “Moreover, when employees feel that their purpose is aligned with the organization’s purpose, the benefits expand to include stronger employee engagement, heightened loyalty, and a greater willingness to recommend the company to others.”

Simply put – purpose is a powerful driver of sustainable employee retention, productivity, and overall engagement, and is more durable and impactful than short-term perks.

The leaders’ challenge is to articulate the purpose in a way that connects with their people. One surefire way – involve them in the creation (or refreshing) of your organisation’s purpose.

Connecting employees to purpose: 

How can leaders get employees to connect to the importance of purpose?

  • Connect them to the “why” behind the purpose and ensure the purpose is visible throughout the organisation.
  • Ensure leaders are responsible for everyone understanding how their role feeds into the purpose, and how their contributions ladder up and connect to delivering on the purpose.
  • Make purpose a habit. Include it in reviews, meetings, make space for it in one-on-ones, in setting goals, in company communication.

A compelling purpose that makes people feel like they are part of something bigger and more meaningful is the foundation of a sense of belonging. This is a critical component of the engagement conversation, because belonging has emerged as a leading driver of employee engagement as humanity recovers from the strife and isolation 2020 wrought, and it’s also an important element of a healthy culture.

Whether you’re leading a team that’s working on-site, remotely, or anything in between, the psychological impact engagement (or lack of it) has on people at every level of the organisation is profound. Organisations that are engaged have the hallmarks of energy, vibrancy, enthusiasm, and the feeling of forward progress that ultimately contributes to job satisfaction and overall wellbeing. Those whose people are disengaged are exactly the opposite. One of our colleagues put it particularly well this week, noting that “Engagement is like herd immunity” for the workplace.