What does “engagement” look like right now?

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Has it really only been 7 weeks? Some days it feels like 7 years and then other times 7 days….. ! It’s been a whirlwind I appreciate for all of us. But has anyone else struggled with that phrase “We’re all in this together”? Are we? What exactly is this? Yes, I get the global pandemic situation we’re in, but surely we are all experiencing different things?  

Last week I was delighted to be asked to speak about the weighty topic of engagement during Covid 19 (in 20 minutes!) for Xpert Hr (see it here - it starts 30 minutes in) and as I was preparing it struck me that the concept of engagement was tricky to pinpoint right now. It keeps evolving weekly and it will surely mean totally different things to different people. But it’s the Willy Wonka golden ticket when it comes to us navigating the current climate. 

 Was I engaged with byrne·dean 6 weeks ago? Absolutely. It was all hands on deck. We needed to make sure our people were home with their loved ones, if possible, safe and upright. Would I have called that engagement? Probably not. It was an imperative - more akin to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – have people got what they need to function (as humans) and to work? I wasn’t even thinking about their best work at that moment. Many of our clients have told us about the operational challenges they had to shift an office-based workforce to their homes. We were lucky there as the byrne·dean has had an agile operating model for some time.   

But a few days in (and this was pre the official lockdown) it became clear that byrne·dean, known for it’s powerful and passionate face to face training around the globe, would need to reinvent itself fast if it was going to survive. Our core value of Making a difference has really been tested. If what we were known for was engaging people in a room, just how were we going to replicate that in virtual rooms? The rest is as they say, history, we’ve done it, are doing it …. adapted all of our training programmes into new formats. We’ve kept our Purpose (helping our clients create kinder, fairer, more productive workplaces) but changed how we deliver it. 

Was that about engagement? Absolutely. I was uber engaged and the team were too. Should I measure that in the many hours we worked? In the number of one to ones I had with the team? In the time spent on the Team Sofa biweekly Zoom chat? In the flexible, roll up your sleeves type thing that everyone demonstrated? They all made a difference.  

The one to one video calls were particularly critical. I tried my best to find out how people were really feeling. I tried to really listen to people – not to do my usual thing of solving problems, the safe trap that leaders can fall into which is often more about giving them the control they need rather than empathising and listening to the team member. I had to consciously steer away from being in an operational mindset on those calls and to really focus to make sure that I was picking up on the subtle behaviours. The cues and nuances we humans demonstrate on a Zoom call are just so much tougher to spot. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get it right all the time, but when I knew I hadn’t done so well, I tried again. I also needed to lean on a few people in the team to help me thorough my own darker and foggier moments. Was that engagement? Yes I think so – human to human. We cared about each other and cared enough to get it right. 

I based my engagement webinar piece on psychological safety. The creation of a culture based upon mutual trust and respect where no idea is too silly or too futile, where no permission to speak up is needed because it is grounded in the day to day. It’s just the norm. The truth is engagement can’t be created during global pandemics but it can be fostered and it can be amplified.  

Perhaps the most tangible measure of a team’s engagement level is innovation. The incredible awe-inspiring collection of ideas that kept pinging into my inbox from the team. Innovation got us through weeks’ 1 and 2 and long hours got us through weeks’ 3 and 4. The sun helped a lot in week 5 and now, in week 7 we have settled in to our new normal and are delivering all our programmes including actor based learning, in virtual classrooms around the globe. I know that during the 7 week period different members of the team have felt more or less engaged than others. And that’s ok because they shared it with me. It is inevitable that we will all move through the curve at different speeds. The Kubler Ross’ & Bridges' change curve tells us this stuff isn’t linear. We don’t all follow the same clear path from shock and denial to anger and then gradually to acceptance. Some of us will find ourselves back in denial many times over the next few weeks. I hope you feel engaged enough to tell your leader. 

Our 7 week story is far from unique of course – reinventing our operating model is something we have all had to do. But what this business has learnt first hand is that innovation is derived from engagement and that engagement is maintained by genuine empathy and active listening; remembering that people are experiencing different things at different times.  

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