An Org Psych Professor’s Guide to Leading Remote Teams During the Pandemic
The author of this article is one of our Organizational Psychology professors at Alliant University. This article was previously published on The International Honor Society in Psychology.
As an industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology professor, Org Psych program director at Alliant and consultant, I teach and apply psychological principles and research methods to enhance the work experience and performance of individual employees, leading remote teams, and organizations as a whole. As a psychology undergraduate, I became interested in this branch of psychology because I realized the significance of work in people's lives. Adults spend at least a third of their lives working-about 90,000 hours. Consequently, questions about how to motivate people and ensure peak performance at work are particularly important to leaders when managing teams, especially when statistics show that only about one-third of American employees are engaged in their work. Moreover, during this pandemic period, a recent survey revealed that the proportion of actively disengaged people who are thinking of quitting or looking for other jobs is increasing (Harter, 2021).
Focusing on employee engagement is critical because it correlates with multiple indicators of organizational success (e.g., lower employee turnover, higher productivity, higher revenue, higher levels of customer service and satisfaction, better team performance and collaboration, greater organizational creativity and innovation, lower accident rates, and lower absenteeism). It has been estimated that a single disengaged team member can cost a company approximately $3,400 per $10,000 in salary in lost productivity (HRcloud.com, 2021). Indeed, organizations spend millions of dollars annually on employee engagement initiatives and leadership development programs. An I-O psychologist can often help the team leader and organization identify, plan, and implement the most effective interventions to motivate, engage, and retain their workforce.
A few years ago, I collaborated with organizational performance consultant and coach Dr. Pearl Hilliard who was equally passionate about this leadership skill topic. The result of our partnership was a book that took a scholar-practitioner approach to engagement, applying theories from psychology and leadership, and incorporating empirical research from the academic, consulting and industry realms. We combined these with our own consulting experiences providing practical tools, tips, and resources for leaders, managers, and employees.
In this article which was previously published on psichi, I will share our definition of engagement, and briefly describe our seven-component INSPIRE engagement model. I will also include additional thoughts on how to apply the model in light of the unique work issues arising from the current pandemic. Specifically, the biggest change has been the shift to remote work and virtual meetings, which significantly impacted the ways in which employees communicated and collaborated with others inside and outside the organization. Many employees, particularly working parents, faced remote work-life conflict and exhaustion—not just from the myriad of online meetings but the feeling of having to be on-call 24/7 (Teevan et al., 2021). The pandemic also ushered in major occupational health and safety concerns, layoffs, and other cutbacks, and a pervasive sense of ambiguity about the future.
Employee engagement can be defined as an individual state characterized by “enthusiasm, inspiration and positive energy, psychological empowerment, and the sense of being fully connected with one’s work and other people” (Hilliard & Lopez, 2019, p. 3). This definition builds on the most widely researched academic model of engagement, which characterizes engagement in terms of high vigor, dedication, and absorption at work (Schaufeli et al., 2006). Engagement is an active and involved state of thinking, feeling, and behaving in contrast to job satisfaction, which is relatively passive. That is, satisfied remote employees are not likely to complain about their remote environment work conditions or pay; neither are they going to be as excited, productive, innovative, and committed as truly engaged remote employees would be.
The first step to enhancing remote team engagement is defining and measuring it. I-O practitioners get an organizational baseline by utilizing a well-designed remote team member engagement survey. Upon collecting the data, I-O practitioners use quantitative and qualitative analysis to identify the key drivers of remote team member engagement (i.e., organizational factors with the strongest predictive relationship to employee engagement levels within a specific organization). Based on the research findings, I-O psychologists work with the company's human resources and virtual team leaders to set goals and implement relevant initiatives; they then monitor progress through post-surveys, interviews or focus groups, and actual distributed team work outcomes.
The Hilliard and Lopez (2019) text includes a survey that measures employee engagement (as opposed to job satisfaction). It also provides a manager self-assessment and team member assessment of seven sets of leadership behaviors related to employee engagement. This approach allows leaders to use the survey results and constructive feedback to identify key behavioral strength and developmental areas within their specific teams. The leadership behaviors are organized using the INSPIRE acronym (Ignite, Nurture, Strengths, Performance Management, Inclusion, Relate, and Empower).
Applying the INSPIRE Engagement Model
- Ignite employees through positive communication and meaningful work.
Engaging leaders communicate the purpose of the team and align it with the organization’s vision and mission in a meaningful way. They create a sense of excitement by leveraging their team members’ “spark plugs” (i.e., the aspects of work that excite them). They are active listeners who create a trusting and supportive environment for their team members. During pandemic times, leaders should step up communication efforts to keep team members updated and hopeful, acknowledge employee needs, concerns, and challenges, and show appreciation for their resilience. Leaders should also pay attention to the use of appropriate communication outlets, helping employees know when best to use email, phone, video meetings, text, IM, and other modes so they do not get overwhelmed or miss critical messages when working remotely.
Engaging leaders skilled in effective communication also find ways to assign meaningful challenging work for employees that links with employees’ personal values. Through a process of job crafting (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001), engaging leaders collaborate with employees to modify job tasks, build in meaningful interactions with key internal and external customers, or reframe the context, meaning, and impact of the work so remote workers appreciate the value they bring to their organizations. In speaking to several organizations about engagement during the pandemic, job crafting was a major topic of interest.
- Nurture employees by supporting career development.
Lack of career development is one of the main reasons people leave their jobs. Employees, especially Millenials, value jobs that fast-track growth and offer substantial career opportunities. Although responsibility for career development is three-way (the employee is the driver and the organization provides the support system), the remote leader acts as the coach and facilitator. Nurturing leaders engage in a multitude of behaviors, including getting to know each employees' skills and capabilities, discussing their career aspirations, providing challenging (stretch) activities and opportunities, increasing employees' visibility to different parts of the organization, and providing regular feedback and support to employees especially related to training. This is particularly critical during pandemic times as employees in the remote workforce worry about their own jobs and careers, and often require additional support with new technologies for virtual work, and possibly new skills as many organizations downsize and restructure.
- Leverage employee strengths.
Strengths refer to innate capacities of thinking and behaving, wherein the individual almost effortlessly achieves optimal performance. Employees experience greater enjoyment and achieve higher performance at work when they are able to utilize their unique strengths. When organizations focus on employee strengths rather than fixing weaknesses, employee engagement levels can reach as high as 73% compared to 9% in organizations where employees do not get to utilize what they do best on a regular basis (Rath and Conchie, 2008). Engaging leaders ensure that all team members know each other’s strengths and are able to leverage these in meaningful ways. They strive to find the “best fit” between each employee’s strengths and their goals, assignments, and opportunities. Being able to use one’s strengths enhances self-efficacy that helps remote workforce to thrive during difficult times.
- Use effective and collaborative Performance Management practices.
Performance management refers to the continuous cycle of setting work objectives collaboratively with employees, clarifying performance expectations, and providing frequent feedback, coaching, and other resources to support high performance at the individual and team levels. Leaders who excel in remote management and performance management have more engaged, productive, and creative employees compared to those with ineffective performance leaders.
In a virtual environment, remote workers have more flexibility to manage their time, but often feel isolated and can be easily overwhelmed with work demands. Leaders managing remote teams can help by clarifying expectations, setting priorities, and helping employees set boundaries so they do not feel they are working 24/7. They should allow more time to provide feedback and coaching, either in a one-on-one or small group context.
- Be Inclusive.
Social needs are fundamental to human motivation. For example, Maslow’s hierarchy lists love and belongingness as basic needs following physiological and safety needs. More contemporary theories such as self-determination theory and Kahn’s (1990) theory of personal engagement underscore the importance of close meaningful relationships and psychological safety to employee motivation and well-being. When employees feel included, trusted, and valued in their teams, they feel safer to express themselves fully and are thus able to stretch and contribute optimally. Inclusive leaders demonstrate openness and curiosity to the diversity of viewpoints and talents that their employees bring; they strive to be equitable in decision-making; and they are able to relate with empathy, thus creating high-trust and high-performance diverse teams.
A big challenge in virtual/hybrid work is finding ways for people to make informal connections similar to the water-cooler experience that is so important for collaboration and innovation. One strategy for virtual teams is to have portions of meetings with randomly assigned or pre-mixed breakout rooms so people can connect with colleagues they don't interact with on a regular basis. In general, many organizations are trying out different technology solutions in leading remotely to capture people's views and help them collaborate on activities and projects virtually.
- Relate with authenticity and emotional intelligence.
Engaging leaders are authentic. They are transparent about their values, interests, preferences, and actions. They communicate and act with honesty and integrity. Engaging leaders also act with high emotional intelligence, showing the capacity to understand and manage their own emotions and those of others. By so doing, they are able to create deeper, more trusting connections with their people.
The pandemic and the move to virtual work has combined to increase people’s stress levels, which could negatively impact mental and physical health, work performance, and even personal relationships. Organizations have provided new benefits such as virtual coaching, telehealth, and access to meditation and exercise apps to increase mindfulness and resilience. Leaders can help by listening, encouraging people to support one another, and finding ways to manage workloads and enhance efficiency. Perhaps most importantly, leaders should serve as good role models for managing expectations and balancing work and life. This could be as simple as being the first not to answer emails late at night or during weekends, signaling to employees it is ok to set boundaries.
- Empower employees.
Today’s employees desire autonomy and empowerment. The organizational literature has provided consistent evidence of the positive effects of empowerment on engagement, organizational commitment, extra-role or citizenship behavior, and team performance. But for employees and teams to be empowered successfully, leaders must ensure that these parties are psychologically ready, willing and able by sharing information, providing increased freedom and authority in decision-making, and giving feedback and organizational support. Employees need to understand the parameters under which they are allowed to make decisions around their jobs and when they need to consult and coordinate with peers and supervisors.
Research by Keller et al. (2020) early during the pandemic has shown that high performing virtual teams have access to four factors that support in their effectiveness while working from home: (a) support from the organization in terms of additional equipment, training, and guidance; (b) support from coworkers for exchanging challenges, advice, and assistance; (c) daily planning to help with time management and focus; and (d) taking appropriate time to relax and recharge.
The INSPIRE engagement model has strong underpinnings in research, theory, and practice and provides an evidence-based guide for leaders to enhance employee engagement and performance. The COVID-19 pandemic and the shift toward virtual work and remote team management pose several new questions on how employees, leaders, and organizations as a whole can navigate this ever-changing landscape of work effectively. These provide ample opportunities for I-O researchers and practitioners to conduct novel research, develop and test diverse approaches, and share best practices for engaging employees in a virtual or hybrid world.
Ideas, questions, or comments? Dr. Lopez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.