Ken Akers

*Editor’s Note: CC Biz Buzz is a monthly column series that will feature insightful commentary from a member of the Columbia College Robert W. Plaster School of Business faculty

My earliest lesson about engaging with work occurred interestingly, in sport, when I was a teenager on a tennis court in southwest Virginia at a small, rural high school. I chose to compete in tennis because it was considered an individual sport, and I could simply go about meeting my personal goals without interference. Teams were not for me at the time, and I would approach my practices with casual exertion. After another lackadaisical and unfocused effort on my part, my coach, Steve Huppert, affectionately known as “the Hub” by former athletes in football and tennis, approached me for a discussion that forever changed my approach to sport and work.

The Hub was concerned about my tepid approach to workouts. I defensively pointed out I never missed practice and showed up on time. Besides, as a low-seeded player at the time, my effort really didn’t matter to the team. I was working on myself. After a thoughtful silence, the Hub replied “it is not enough just to show up for yourself, Kenny; you need to connect with your teammates and with me. You need to connect with the game – thoughtfully and fully. Those are the keys to success personally and collectively. Otherwise, you’re just going through the motions. Don’t you realize how important you are to us?” He then went on to talk about the team’s traditions, our strategy, and my place in the larger picture of the season. After some time, I did internalize the Hub’s message and enjoyed some personal, and more importantly, team success. I also learned an important lesson about employee engagement.

Employee engagement is described in a myriad of ways: involvement, enthusiasm, focused effort and motivation are among the frequent references. Regardless of the terminology, the benefits of employee engagement are many. Greater engagement with work strongly relates to commitment to the organization, positive citizenship behaviors, reduced intentions to quit, increased productivity, and the ever-important job satisfaction. High engagement also has been linked to vital skills for modern knowledge workers like higher levels of critical thinking and the ability to work independently.

While the research is clear, what has been more problematic is how organizational leaders can encourage meaningful engagement, rather than simple participation, in their employees. The current pandemic and renewed prevalence of remote work has made this effort even more difficult. There are, however, several actions managers can take to instill a sense of engagement even in remote environments.

  • Providing the big picture: Managers should take the time to communicate where an employee fits into the larger organization. It is natural that we sometimes focus on our immediate tasks rather than one’s individual contribution to the organizational mission. As a professor, for example, I tend to focus on best teaching practices and care for student academics. As remote teaching has demonstrated, however, I am unable to accomplish the Columbia College mission alone. I depend on the efforts of a multitude of skilled administrators and staff to deliver excellence in teaching. Managers who communicate this type of interdependence instill a sense of esprit de corps among workers, increasing engagement.
  • Communicating Value: Managers must take time to acknowledge employee contributions. This is particularly important when someone is working from home completing tasks day after day without significant face-to-face interactions with a manager. A simple email or web conference acknowledging hard work and value can go a long way. Will employees become instantly engaged? Not necessarily. But an employee will become quite disengaged without some acknowledgement of value.
  • Providing professional development: Investing in ongoing development demonstrates commitment on the part of the organization to an employee’s long-term career. Studies note that for modern workers, particularly Millennials, learning and growth are extremely important in the workplace. Options to continue development from home include internal organizational training via web conferencing, online tutorials and online courses.
  • Encouraging collegial relationships: Employees who have friends at work consistently report greater engagement with their jobs. A level of personal friendship encourages commitment and cooperation among work teams and often leads to greater employee engagement. In a remote work environment, the very interactions that enable collegial friendships are absent. Managers can enable and encourage collegiality by offering opportunities for co-workers to make those personal connections. Virtual “coffee hours,” for example, offer a chance for employee to reconnect with colleagues and provide a connectedness that might be missing in remote work.

This list of actions to increase employee engagement is by no means comprehensive. During these turbulent times, thoughtful leaders have generated a variety of creative solutions to engage and connect with dispersed employees. However, when managers communicate care, value and worth, the result is increased employee engagement.

Regardless of approach, managers would do well to answer a question the Hub may have asked: “Don’t you know how important engaged employees are”?

Dr. Ken Akers is a Professor of Business Administration at Columbia College and will serve as the Faculty Representative to the Board of Trustees starting on July 1, 2020. He holds a Master of Corporate and Business Communication degree from Radford University, and a Ph.D. in Organizational Communication from the University of Missouri. His research interests are in the areas of Gender in Organizations, Business Analytics, Organizational Behavior and Socialization.