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How to Reconnect with Disengaged Employees and Inspire Performance

December 6, 2023

There are various reasons why employees or an overall workforce may feel disengaged. This could include a downturn in business, communication challenges, changes to systems, the departure of a manager or specific events such as potential redundancy.

Imagine, for example, a destructive manager created a work environment that people didn’t like- or even described as toxic. In some instances, it may not be attributable to a specific issue but could be a more general lack of motivation or interest in what is happening in the organisation.

A further issue that can cause disengagement is when poorly or inappropriately performing staff are not dealt with, which sends a message throughout the organisation. Colleagues get frustrated when they are working hard, and other people aren’t – and without any visible consequences.

During COVID, many of us worked in a different way and often remotely from home. While there were many advantages gained from this, it was not good for everyone. Employers reported instances of losing the team spirit and communication being more challenging when not face-to-face. It is interesting to note that many organisations (including the digital sector) now require at least some on-site work. Whilst this is an understandable position, employers should think carefully about how to manage this process. It may be appropriate for this to be done in a staged manner.

How can we re-engage employees?

The response will vary depending on whether it is an individual (or small groups of individuals) or a larger group, for example, a team or Department. Organisations will all have differing levels of resources and availability for specific initiatives, and this may influence the number of options available to them. As always, when dealing with HR issues, managers must lead by example and demonstrate high levels of personal engagement.

The awareness of the manager of how to motivate individuals in the team (e.g. what approach are they most responsive to) is also a factor to consider as if the issue is an individual one, they can reflect on what response would be most effective for that person. Sometimes, simply talking to an employee and providing reassurances can be impactful.

If members of the workforce have been physically disengaged or are struggling to cope with change, it may be useful to repeat the onboarding process or content and provide a reminder of key processes that need to be followed. For example, a reminder of the mission, vision, and departmental targets. These types of refresher sessions can have wider benefits as they will help existing employees who act as mentors for new staff to share accurate information.

Where this is a group and/or significant issue, a useful first step is to understand the issues by communicating directly with the group or individuals. Once this is understood, an appropriate plan of action can be agreed upon. Where possible, the group or individuals should be consulted so that there is some shared accountability. It can be very helpful to openly recognise the issues that have been raised as sometimes just an acknowledgment will be warmly received and shows that the employees have a voice and are being listened to. However, this needs to be balanced against not breaching any confidentiality.

Where the issue is at the team level, if the issue appears to be related to a team performing ineffectively or finding it difficult to communicate, a team-building exercise may be beneficial. Many team activities are available online, giving flexibility for the exercises being delivered in-house if there are budget constraints. Where a larger budget is available, many training organisations could facilitate a program; they are most effective when tailored to the organization with appropriate examples. Social events provide a further opportunity for individuals to get to know each other and build a positive team spirit.

Some interesting research suggests that different age generations’ needs and expectations may differ. Whilst avoiding stereotyping it may be a good idea to collect some feedback to understand if there are different drivers and/or solutions that could impact on the success of different re-engagement strategies.

Re-engaging the workforce is unlikely to be achieved overnight, and therefore, it is appropriate to take some regular ‘temperature checks’ to ensure that all parties believe that progress is going in a mutually beneficial direction. Once interventions are completed – which may be over a long period- it is important to reflect on how effective the solution was and if any wider changes are needed. For example, are there any documents that need to be updated?

Finally, don’t underestimate the impact of small gestures, for example, in recognising achievements and good work, as this can motivate and encourage engagement. Similarly, ensuring employees know how their work contributes to the organisation’s overall success can also be effective.

Author
Professor Fiona Robson

Head of Edinburgh Business School and Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai

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