Through the turbulence of the past year, one of the constants for me has been my relationships with my colleagues. As a senior leader at Uber, I’m constantly thinking about my daily interactions and points of connection with the people I work with. Without constant, in-person meetings or gatherings, how do I really know how my teams are doing?
While some employees have returned to the office full-time, offices in many cities are still at a fraction of their regular capacity, as businesses have opted for a hybrid working approach to stay flexible to individual employee needs. Undoubtedly, the way we are living and working today is opening up many new questions — as well as new opportunities — around what great employee engagement and support truly looks like.
Employee engagement isn’t a new concept — everyone knows how important it is for the health and success of any business. Over the past year, companies have tried all kinds of ways to “engage” their employees, from virtual happy hours to trivia nights and everything in between. But these events usually don’t feel personal or thoughtful, and we’ve spent so much time on Zoom as it is.
As a leader, you need to ask yourself: Am I being empathetic and attuned to my employees’ specific needs? Am I thoughtfully creating points of connection between people and fostering genuine company culture?
When assessing what the best course of action is in order to meet the needs of my employees, I always come back to the idea of intentional engagement. To me, intentional engagement means being deliberate and personal in how you interact with and support your employees. It means not painting employee support with a broad brush, but instead looking at how to support each employee individually.
With this in mind, here are some new rules when it comes to engaging with your employees — regardless of the physical environment where the work gets done.
Make it personal
One of the most important things to recognize is that every single one of your employees has had a different experience working remotely over the past year. Every individual situation needs to be taken into account — it makes a difference if your personality is naturally more introverted or extroverted; it makes a difference if you have a spacious workspace or a small apartment and roommates; it makes a big difference if you are a caregiver for children or other family members.
Clearly, there is no single way to engage with your team. Some people have enjoyed the past year and the break from their office routine; others are struggling and can’t wait to return to normality.
As a leader, your job is to be conscious of all of these factors and engage in a way that is genuine and personal. At Uber, we did a weekly coffee chat with managers on the issues they were facing. It started with more senior people leading but naturally evolved to managers supporting each other over time — people shared their challenges and how they were addressing difficulties. It was a small but necessary way for many of us to stay in touch across the organization. It’s a far cry from a traditional party or event with your colleagues, but these gestures go a long way.
Facilitate meaningful connections
Managing a hybrid or fully remote team makes it particularly challenging to know how to bring people together and build rapport across the company. I’ve seen first-hand how “forced connection points” — such as an excess of virtual team bonding activities or internal meanings — can actually have a counterproductive effect on employees. I like to think of meaningful connections as knowing when, how, or even if a meeting should take place.
It’s equally important to remember that, in certain ways, workplaces have become more inclusive over the past 16 months. Typically, people who worked remotely as part of an in-person team were often removed from the culture that was bred in an office. Luckily, I’m seeing some of those traditional boundaries dissolving — as someone who just moved to San Francisco from Brisbane, Australia, I can say that the transition was seamless. Because many people now have experience working as a “remote employee,” it just feels like we’re all part of one big team.
But this will be a central challenge for leadership teams moving forward: How can you maintain the feeling of synchronicity across the entire company, in spite of different time zones and working environments? Should everyone be on Zoom screens if one person is? At Uber, our management meetings used to all happen on a single day, during U.S working hours. Now, we hold these meetings over multiple days, in shorter bursts, in order to be accommodating for as many people as possible.
Deliver support outside of the office
Even as the pandemic begins to ebb, parents are still under an incredible amount of stress. As a mother, I think about the difficulties every family has faced — 63 percent of parents said they’ve lost critical support during the past year. I’ve seen companies step up in a number of different ways — from allowing more flexible work schedules to providing grocery or meal delivery. Even seemingly small gestures, such as allowances to improve home office spaces, will go a long way to ensure that employees and their families continue to feel supported, regardless of where they are working.
There’s no silver bullet, no magic company policy that will erase 2020 and make everything go back to the way our working lives were before. Leaders need to shift their mindset to focus on the quality of how they connect with individual employees, rather than checking a “company culture box.” Fundamentally, intentional engagement means personal engagement.