Five “P”s for Inspiring Employee Commitment and Engagement in Today’s Hybrid World

Plus a “C” for weaving them all together.

Managers, there’s more you can do to help your workforce succeed in today’s hybrid, remote world.

But done right, the approach I outline below won’t just serve your employees and boost your team’s performance—it might just ease your mind and lighten your load.

In my last blog, I talked about three vital practices for managers in this moment. The three were based on the collaborative practices that high-performing leaders use to build agile, successful teams: paying attention to the structure of the team, the quality of relationships on the team, and how the team fits within a wider ecosystem.

Today I offer another view of what effective management looks like.

I’m going to focus more on the ways managers work directly with team members to foster engagement and high performance at a time of remote and hybrid work arrangements.

I’ve read many business articles tackling remote workplace culture, reviewed relevant research funded by IRC4HR, and reflected on my career as a mostly remote employee at several large consulting firms.

Taking it all into account, I see five critical conditions managers can create to engage employees and drive better results. Call them the 5Ps: Psychological Safety, Purpose, Professional Development, Parity, and Power. Here is more on each:

This was vital to engagement and high-performing teams pre-pandemic. I’m talking about a climate where employees can bring their full selves to work, they feel included, and they are able to express themselves without fear of being mocked or marginalized. Where it’s safe to share an opinion, to not know something, and to engage in respectful debate. And psychological safety is even more important now. A climate where it is Ok to say you’re not Ok is especially critical, in part because of the stresses that built up for so many people over the past two difficult years.

There’s another facet of psychological safety that applies as companies move to bring at least some employees back to the office: speaking up about physical safety concerns. If your organization doesn’t listen to employees who raise questions about COVID-19 masking protocols or inconsistent application of safety rules, you can count on problems with morale, performance, and attrition.

In short, as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic shared in a recent Fast Company article, “however (and wherever) people work, it is essential that their voices are heard, and that they feel empowered to speak up, to disagree, and to ask difficult questions.”

This is another perennial piece of the engagement puzzle that has become more important during the pandemic. Purpose has been established as a critical driver of individual motivation, and we also have learned that meaningful work is vital for attracting and retaining employees. Over the past two years, people’s attention to purpose has intensified. Nearly two-thirds of US-based employees surveyed by McKinsey said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life.

Cultivating a shared vision and mission is challenging when employees are scattered across the city, the country, and the globe. But it can be done. As Rob Cross and Inga Carboni put it in a recent paper: “Use one-on-ones and periodic career discussion to establish drivers of purpose. Allocate up to a third of these meetings to understanding aspirations and priorities. Identify what purpose means to each team member and how it relates to the group’s work.”

It’s easy to skip or skimp on employee development during chaotic, turbulent times like the ones we’re facing today. But it is a big mistake. Learning opportunities have long been an underutilized retention and capacity-building tool—just before the pandemic, 94% of employees said they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their development. Amid the pandemic, employees continue to want to grow. Of the 26% of workers who are reportedly planning to switch jobs post-COVID, most are doing so because they’re concerned about career advancement.

How do you effectively develop employees when they work remotely? Thankfully, virtual learning technologies and online courses are widely available inside and outside organizations. And finding opportunities for your folks to work on assignments where news skills can be developed and/or applied remains a critical vehicle for development. I also suggest a tactic used by a major consulting firm I worked for two decades ago: expect employees to demonstrate their learning progress and their contributions to the learning of others as part of regular performance reviews. Ask employees to develop and share new areas of expertise, and then give them time and space to do it.

Such a policy both enabled and nudged me to build my reputation within the consulting organization and develop thought leadership, while also supporting the development goals of colleagues. It was a true “win” for me, my colleagues, our clients, and our business.

I’m talking here about paying attention to the fairness of your decisions and an equitable experience for all members of your team. Failing to ensure parity in the workplace has long caused employees to disengage and quit. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd, and heightened awareness of injustice overall, employees are even more attuned to bias in the workplace. To leaders playing favorites. To discrimination. To microaggressions.

Responding effectively when members of your team commit microaggressions takes discernment and courage. And overall, stewarding a culture where everyone is treated equally requires self-awareness and discipline. This is especially true in hybrid work arrangements.

Managers must remember that team members working from home or in other locations may be left out of important conversations. Even impromptu office discussion can lead to major opportunities that will impact someone’s career. At one of my former consulting firms, I had a boss who would walk over to our section of the office when he had a burning idea. If you were present, you got picked for the assignment. If you weren’t there, you missed out.  “Proximity bias” is a real thing. In addition to being mindful of this phenomenon, one thing a manager can do is schedule periodic “virtual watercooler” interactions: short video chats to mimic the ones that take place in person.

Employees need a real voice in decision-making. While managers providing direction in terms of defining objectives and purpose – the “what and why of work” – is helpful, people want and need to make decisions about how their work gets done, along with other aspects of their work environment.  For too long, many employees have received more “what and how” than “what and why” when it comes to manager direction. That approach makes little sense in the emerging economy, in which human attributes such as creativity, a collaborative spirit, and empathy are differentiators.

What’s more, younger employees, especially, expect to have a say in their organizations. But for all employees, having some authority and autonomy at work is part of a “good job,” as defined by scholars of this topic, including Jen Gresham, whose organization Work for Humanity is helping small businesses generate good jobs.

Work-from-home arrangements and other distributed forms of teams are intensifying the need for organizations to distribute authority more widely. And employees don’t want to give up the greater autonomy many of them experienced while working remotely during the pandemic—during which time much of the workforce demonstrated higher levels of productivity.

If there’s one specific practice that ties the five “P”s together, it is a “C.” I’m talking about coaching—managers evolving from top-down bosses who give directions to guides-on-the-side who encourage, inspire, develop, support, and listen to employees.

This shift in leadership – and employee – mindset is the goal of Jen Gresham and her collaborators in a new program funded by IRC4HR. Together with WORC, Work for Humanity has launched “Bounce Forward: Helping Small Businesses & Workers Thrive Together.”

Jen’s  “Bounce Forward” pilot is based on research that shows high-involvement work practices and increased coaching capacity not only result in more engagement, productivity, and satisfaction for workers, they also allow owner-managers to focus on more strategic aspects of the business. The result is that workers have a more fulfilling work experience and the ability to contribute more value to the business, owners are freed up to pursue more value-added tasks, and the business performs better.

As one participant shared, “I’m really grasping that it doesn’t take more time to coach than it does to tell. So, what I’ve been practicing is when somebody brings me a situation or a problem, I’ll ask ‘Okay, well, what do you want to do about that?’ And then listen to what their own problem solving came up with and just give feedback off of that. It’s worked very well because they always have some idea.”

This positive coaching relationship can take place virtually or in person. It leads to employees feeling empowered, developing new skills, and being more engaged in the business. What’s more, anecdotal evidence suggests employees are less likely to leave their “coaches” and their wider team for a different job.

And this gets to the all-around win of the five Ps and the single C. These steps don’t just benefit employees and boost performance. Managers, they also help you. Reduced turnover cuts down on the time you spend filling empty positions and reduces disruptions to team collaboration and productivity. More effective teams and individual employees mean more peace of mind for you. And by distributing decision-making through smart coaching, you free yourself up to focus on other value-creating tasks that support your own development and performance.

Good for your employees, good for your organization…and good for you.

Jodi Starkman is Executive Director of the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources.