This article was originally published by Entrepreneur.
Many leaders are increasingly troubled by remote work. What was a lifeline during Covid has now started to look like an anchor. Of course, this isn’t the employee perspective. Most employees love remote work. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a system that allows you to avoid commuting — at least some if not all of the workweek — and to spend more time near family, friends, pets, your own kitchen, etc.?
While different organizations face different issues with remote work, there is always one common concern: employee engagement.
Satisfaction vs. Engagement
I am not talking about employee satisfaction, although many people use these terms interchangeably. Employee satisfaction is about an employee liking their job. Employee engagement is about how engaged in the work that employee is.
It’s engagement with the work that raises the most concern when it comes to remote work environments, not satisfaction.
Common misconceptions about engagement only exacerbate the problem. For instance, if I believe my people skills or powers of persuasion as a leader are critical for creating engagement, then I will probably be very concerned about having to lead in a remote, two-dimensional reality. I may feel like I’m trying to lead with one hand tied behind my back, since creating a human connection in a remote setting is more difficult.
Also, if I feel it is essential for people to connect with each other in person to create engagement, I will be equally concerned about having my team in a remote environment.
Right now, you may be thinking to yourself, Wait a minute, is he saying a human connection is not important? I am not saying that. Connecting with one’s boss and co-workers is often critical for employee satisfaction. However, based on my team’s experience over the last 20 years and the research of acclaimed clinical psychologist and management professor Frederick Herzberg, in-person connection is not actually necessary for engagement. Engagement comes down to just two things: progress and purpose. Think of these as, “Am I winning?” and “Is it a big deal”?
You can test this on yourself. Go back to the time in your life when you were most engaged at work. Think of a specific time when you were so into the work, you couldn’t wait to get up in the morning. At that moment, the many elements that drive employee satisfaction may or may not have been present. You may have been well compensated, or you may not have. You may have liked your boss and your co-workers, or you may not have. But those factors — so critical to satisfaction — weren’t statistically relevant when it came to that moment in your life when you were most engaged.
Progress and Purpose
The two factors that I can promise you were present at that time in your life? Progress and purpose. You were making real progress on something you considered to be important. Engagement isn’t dependent on working side by side. It isn’t about happy hours, a weekly free lunch or even an inspiring boss. To create engagement, you must create a winnable game.
The good news is, for a person to engage, it doesn’t require every aspect of that person’s job to feel like a winnable game. In our experience, even if 80% of a person’s job is just the hard work of sustaining the current operation, you’ll have their engagement if just 20% of their energy is spent making progress on something that matters. This does not require everyone to be working in the same physical environment.
I worked with LeAnn Talbot, an executive at a Fortune 20 company, who executed an impressive turnaround. Her region went from dead last out of 20 regions to No. 1 in the country on the company’s overall performance power ranking. Long before this turnaround felt remotely possible, she confided in me her biggest concern: “I’ve got a group of leaders who seem to be addicted to losing. Before I can do anything with this region, that mindset must be broken. I need them to get some wins. Even if they are small wins.”
This was the first time I had thought about my team’s work on execution as a way to help create winnable games and believe this to be the most important professional insight I’ve ever been given.
If you’re in a situation where your employees can work remotely, I am not saying you won’t have challenges. What I am saying is that, if you can help them feel like they are playing a winnable, high-stakes game, engagement will not be one of those challenges.