How to Re-Engage Disengaged Employees

September 21, 2021

Bored woman at work staring out of the window

Let's start with the harsh reality that 70 percent of employed Americans are disengaged at work. Meaning that 70% of employees are at risk of either handing in their notice, or being unproductive and potentially distracting to their team mates. 

Neither of which are ideal when attracting, developing, and retaining a workforce are amongst some of the top challenges faced by both HR and leadership teams. 

So, what's the solution? What can you do to avoid this and increase engagement in the workplace?

Well, the first place to start is with the managers. After all, they have the most influence over their team's wellbeing and motivation. Which then of course impacts engagement and performance. 

But while there is no one single thing that can quickly transform a disengaged team or individual, there are steps that can be taken to put them on the right path to engagement. 

Steps that we've covered in this article.

How to handle disengaged employees

Step 1: Set clear and achievable goals

Engagement is about motivation. A great place to start is mastery - or progress. As Marcus Buckingham puts it, “Nothing makes a person feel better at work than being able to be highly successful.” So give employees (and the wider team) clear and attainable goals, that they can be accountable for.

Then, ensure your managers are providing constructive feedback to help them not only achieve these goals, but also their professional ambitions.

According to data from Willis Towers Watson, 43% of engaged employees receive feedback at least once a week, compared to only 18% of employees with low engagement.

Regular one-to-ones between your managers and their team members are therefore crucial for providing the time and space for providing this feedback. Although that's not all they're good for. 

One-to-one's also enable managers to establish good working relationships with the people they manage. What's more, when managed properly, they aid employee development and provide a safe space for open and honest conversations.

Which is exactly why one-to-ones shouldn't solely be focused on operational updates, but also on the wellbeing of their employees.

But what does this look like in practice?

Well, managers leading these one-to-ones should show a genuine interest in their lives outside of work and seek to understand how they're feeling. They should demonstrate empathy, and they should also make them feel comfortable about opening up about the things holding them back from performing at the top of their game. 

Which is another reason why feedback is so important, and employees should feel comfortable receiving constructive feedback, but also empowered to provide it themselves. 

Step 2: Ensure that goals are meaningful and that employees have a 'purpose'

Potentially the hardest of the three steps is connecting goals, or day-to-day tasks, to a meaningful purpose. Dan Pink describes purpose as the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves. Pink argues that people intrinsically want to do things that matter.

For example, doctors or health workers often work long and unsociable hours under stressful conditions because they want to make a difference. They’re intrinsically motivated to help others rather than to just take home a pay check.

If setting a team purpose sounds a bit fluffy, a good example of the financial impact of your company’s purpose is the stock price of oil companies in the first month of 2020. As Jim Cramer put it on CNBC, “young people these days don’t want to own fossil fuel stocks”. Now, a meaningful purpose doesn’t need to be a moral or political point - it just needs to allow people to connect their work to something that’s larger than themselves. That could be in the service of others or in the pursuit of profit for themselves - it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it matters to your team.

You can learn more about creating a team purpose statement here.

Step 3: give people freedom

According to the CIPD, one of the most established influences on motivation is autonomy or self-determination—being empowered to shape one’s job makes it more meaningful and enjoyable.

Your team want to learn, but they also want the freedom to decide how and when they learn.

Research has shown that retention of course materials from off-site training is incredibly low, and that learning in the flow of work is much more effective because people can access new information at the point of need and put learning into practice straight away.

On average, of the 6.5 hours people spend at a computer each day, 28% is spent on email, 14% on internal communications, and just five minutes on learning.

As Josh Bersin observed, the number one barrier to learning is time so, as a manager, it’s essential to help your team carve out time to learn. Encourage self-directed learning and then get out of the way.

Freedom isn’t just about the freedom to learn though, it’s also about flexibility in how and where they work. While today’s workforce is more diverse than ever, they have a shared desire to work flexibly.

54% of office workers say they'd leave their job for one that offers flexible work time. Flexible working can improve wellbeing and satisfaction in and out of work thereby improving employee engagement. In fact, workers who are offered the option of flexible working take less leave and work more productively.

Whether it’s offering flexibility in terms of hours or location or even in the way that they learn, if you already have a strong basis of trust in your team, you’re likely to see the benefits of flexible work very quickly.

Bonus step 1: Building trust or psychological safety

As we mentioned earlier, regular one-to-ones will help identify any problems early and build a trusting relationship between the manager and their team members. However, it’s also important to establish trust between team members. Most of the work we do today is collaborative and high performing teams trust each other both personally and professionally.

A good place to start is encouraging the team to work collaboratively to create team norms or team behaviours. A set of agreed behaviours can provide control and security within relationships. Norms can also help establish accountability and responsibility, encouraging healthy conflict and making it safe for anyone in the team to flag behaviour that is outside of these norms.

Bonus step 2: Embrace both digital and experiential coaching

80% of Gen Z students aspire to work with cutting-edge technology. As the demographic of the workforce changes so should business.

In order to coach a team to learn in the flow of work, organizations need to embrace technology. It’s no longer practical or possible to solely provide off-site training to a flexible or remote workforce. In fact, if you want to improve engagement, it’s important that coaching is available to everyone within your organization, not just senior teams.

So, how is this possible? How can you provide scalable and cost-effective coaching to everyone in your company.

In short, with a solution like Saberr. 

At Saberr, we specifically build bespoke leadership development and team effectiveness programs that change mindsets and improve performance. We do this by combining experiential coaching—think masterclasses and coaching sessions—with digital reinforcement

In other words, we can train your managers and provide them with the continued support they need to coach their own teams, and ultimately motivate and nurture even the most disengaged of employees.

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