Credit: Courtesy Gallup

I found Twelve, a book based on Gallup’s worldwide study of employee engagement, very useful years ago when I was a new manager. The 12 elements that Gallup identified in high-performing teams range from clarity about what’s expected to team members having a best friend at work. Many of them seem obvious, but the Gallup research and related case studies provided me with clear principles and structure for how to effectively lead a team. 

With employee engagement a central preoccupation for so many of us, I reached out to Gallup to hear what it’s seeing. Employee engagement, normally fairly constant for a team, rose this spring and then dropped dramatically before rising and stabilizing again. Gallup recently found that about 35% of employees were engaged, meaning they “are highly involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.”

This week I spoke with Jim Harter, a coauthor of Twelve and chief scientist of workplace management and well-being at the company, which has used extensive surveys to build a database of 43 million workers across thousands of organizations. Here’s a transcript, edited lightly for clarity:

What stands out for you in terms of the state of the workforce?

We’ve seen bigger spikes in worry and stress all at once than we’d ever seen before when this pandemic hit. It’s improved a little bit, but it’s still at much higher levels than what we saw pre-pandemic in how people are evaluating their lives, particularly their present lives, not necessarily their future. I think people still can see their way out of this. It’s that’s the present has been disrupted quite a bit. The people who are working from home full-time or close to full-time, if we compare them to the people who were working from home close to full-time pre-pandemic, those people actually had lower burnout. But during the pandemic, we’re seeing higher rates of burnout. So that’s that’s a big shift. It’s not like apples to apples because of all the other complicating factors. When we see changes in well-being it tends not to be just one thing. People are pretty resilient to one disruption, but it’s the compounding effects of a lot of things.

During this particular pandemic has affected wellbeing in general. At the same time, I think there’s a lot organizations can do and workplaces can do, to build resilience and to even think about how they could be more agile going forward into the future. Of course, with the vaccines coming, that gives us a little bit more certainty. But I think that most people are still estimating that we’re going to be in this mode of trying to figure things out into 2021, for sure. And maybe substantially into 2021. So figuring out agility and how to coach people in the right ways and how to be set up in the future for more of a hybrid model, as opposed to all or nothing, I think will be really important for organizations.

Are you seeing any teams where burnout is lower? If so, are they doing anything differently?

There are some patterns in in lower burnout teams. The parallel that I like to make with burnout is what you might think of as the opposite, which is flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state where you are so absorbed in your work that time passes quickly. The thing that’s in common between burnout and flow is high challenge. They’re both high-challenge situations. The difference is in a flow state, you have high interest, you’re doing what you do best. You feel like you’re in self control. In a burnout situation, it’s kind of the opposite of that, where you feel like you have less control, you aren’t in a state of high interest, you’re probably in a state of frustration or you feel like you’re always working uphill.

So both are high challenge. Burnout isn’t just about having more work than you want, because you could work a lot of hours and be in a flow state and you don’t reach burnout. You actually feel fairly satisfied with your work and you have high absorption. So what can a workplace do differently? They can first know that we’re in a different kind of environment. If it is remote, which a lot of people are, of course, the change in remote went very suddenly from four or five percent full-time remote pre pandemic. It peaked at about 70% and is still substantially high in the fifties. What workplaces can do in this different kind of environment is managers need to think less like bosses and more like coaches.

They they’ve got to up-skill to coaching so that first they understand what each person’s strengths are and how they can use their strengths every day to impact their own wellbeing and also the organization’s work. Involve people in goal setting on a continuous basis, check in with them regularly in a way that’s individualized and make sure that each person has meaningful feedback at least once a week. That means you’ve got to know something about the individual, their strengths, their goals, and then have a system of accountability. So people know how well they’re doing over time. A question we’ve gotten quite a bit lately from organizations is how do you measure performance or productivity? What this is exposing are issues that were salient before the pandemic. They just seem much more salient today. Some of the things I’ve just been describing are what great organizations and great managers have done historically. The importance of those things seems magnified right now. But these are practices that will endure for organizations for the years to come, no matter what happens.

What is your answer when people ask how to measure performance or productivity in this strange time?

You’ve got to first be thinking about it from a goals perspective and each job should have goals that align with their individual contributions to the organization, how they collaborate with others within the organization, and then what value they bring to customers. You can put either currently existing metrics around those, or definitely you can set goals around all of those and track how well people are doing in their individual contribution, the collaboration they have with their team, and then the value they bring to customers. In some cases, those are internal customers.

Does it make sense to you to lower expectations for performance reviews, or to reduce the volume of work that everyone is dealing with?

Even before all this started happening this year there had been a trend toward people rethinking performance reviews. The performance review got blamed for a lot of other things that just weren’t happening that should be surrounding the performance reviews. A performance review should be a time when I’m sitting down with an individual, I would argue at least twice a year, and having a slowdown conversation about where they’ve been and where they’re headed, mostly about where they’re headed. If you have the other conversations that you’re supposed to be having wrapped around the performance review, it’s very developmental and very much about the future. And it doesn’t feel like a threat. Nobody should have a performance review and be surprised by what they hear.

What managers need now more than ever are these ongoing conversations. One of them is just a check-in, where you just have a short conversation with somebody to see how they’re doing. Is there anything getting in their way you need to help them out with? Recognize them for something you’ve seen them do recently. To just be in touch with what they’re doing. Particularly now, if managers aren’t in touch with what people are doing and show some interest in that on a regular basis, then they’re not going to be very effective at giving a performance review. Quick connects are just short little meetings. The [longer] check-in actually can be scheduled and could be like a 30-minute discussion about successes and barriers.

And the quick connect is just few minutes of, is there anything urgent that’s coming up? How’s your day going? The number of those really depends on the individual and what’s needed for them. I think there needs to be at a minimum at least one meaningful conversation with each person every week. Then there are developmental conversations where that could be a little bit of a slower conversation, but one where you really recognize something someone did well and give them feedback on that. Or if you have the kind of relationship with the individual where you can have challenging conversations, can have more of a critique where there’s some trust built in, the individual will accept it because there’s already been some trust built because there’s a relationship there. So those are the kinds of conversations that have to happen along the way. Then the performance review takes on a very different dynamic and can be something that people actually look forward to.

Because it’s about forward-setting goals and the context of performance is not a new topic….

Yes. And even before all this, there’s another conversation. Another slow down what we call a role and relationship orientation, where the manager really talks with the individual about their strengths, their role, the team that they’re on, and what they’re accountable for. That’s a two-way conversation. Then one of the most overlooked facets of goal setting that I’ve seen that has just a huge impact is to be collaborative in setting goals. Involve the person in setting their own goals, as opposed to delegating goals. At the highest level, the manager and the individual are individualizing the job to their strengths so that they can leverage their strengths and the strengths of the team to be more effective. When I say strengths, I’m talking about innate DNA characteristics of the individual.

I’m hearing from managers right now that they’re having challenges managing both high performers and low performers, given the remote setting. What does your research say about what they should do?

This is why that accountability component is so important because it’s important, not just for the low performer, so that you can help them know how they can improve. But it’s also for the high performers, so you can recognize what they’ve done and help them reach even higher. It builds credibility. To have any environment without accountability, particularly a remote one where there’s no accountability, you lose credibility with the workforce because the high performer isn’t necessarily going to stand out as a role model for what the organization wants. The low performers need to see what high performers do and how they’ve done it. High performers can also be given a bit more leeway, that if they’re already performing at a high level, they may be doing it in a way that’s very unique to them.

The manager, should honor that. They may not need as many check-ins. In some cases they might, they might need more, it depends on the individual and what they feel helps them improve. For both groups, I think you need to individualize. That’s where managers are in the best position to know each person’s situation and what they’re going through and to get underneath why somebody might be performing at a low level or even a high level. But in some cases it could be due to the situation that they’re in and distractions that they’re trying to manage. To know the context of their work and the why behind it, you’ve got to be having those ongoing conversation so that you know what their situation is, and you can help them leverage their strengths effectively and set ambitious goals, but realistic goals also.

Of the 12 factors that you’ve studied over the years and studied, are any especially under strain right now?

Anytime that organizations go through change and particularly the changes that we’re talking about here, you go right back to the basics, which get disrupted. Like, what’s my role? Do I have what I need to do what I’m doing? Some organizations had to change things very quickly in that regard. But I was pretty impressed early on that the employer response was pretty good. I don’t know if there’s a relaxation or something, but it kind of started to drop off as we got deeper into this. Initially there was kind of a flood of response. We found that there are some elements that particularly relate to resiliency during tough times. We got a chance to track engagement data during past recessions. And it does start with the basics like knowing what’s expected, materials and equipment, having an opportunity to do what you do best—those are really important.

Opinions counting is really important and also potentially vulnerable because we’ve got to be very purposeful about listening to people and their situation. That goes back to this conversation. Another one that struck me was how people feel their work connects to the bigger mission or purpose of the organization during tough times. It’s really important for people not just to see their own work every day, but how that work impacts something bigger than themselves. An important role of a manager is to help people see the overall impact of someone’s work, especially when you’re isolated. Of course, there’s the social component too, which is the most obvious one. We see that we have to be very purposeful about making sure people stay connected socially and feel like part of a bigger picture piece. We see in remote environments, that’s where that tends to have the highest risk.

One of the 12 factors is having a best friend at work. I imagine that’s harder to establish and maintain.

Yes. And I think that it’s important for managers to set aside time, even plan for time where people can can connect with each other informally. One of the advantages to this is that we get to see a different side of people than we’ve seen before. So that can be an advantage for some people. It might also be a disadvantage, but the crossover between work and life was starting to blur quite a bit before 2020, and now it’s completely blurred.

We’ve talked to about what organizations and managers can do. Is there anything that individual contributors can do now that makes a difference?

The individual should be highly involved in setting their own goals. So thinking about what you want to achieve in the context of all this is important. Make sure you know your strengths too, and the strengths of the people that you’re working with so that you can figure out some new and creative ways of working together. We talk about the function of the manager and feedback, but feedback should be a two-way street. The individual can ask for feedback too. They should, when they need feedback on something, and also share it with their manager or a peer. Ask for that feedback yourself. They could also initiate connecting with their coworkers to make sure they’re maintaining those relationships that they had maybe more so in-person before 2020. Make sure those relationships don’t dwindle. People have to be assertive about that. It depends on your strengths, but if you have high focus for instance, and you’re used to just achieving one thing after the other, it’s easy to lose sight of the people that you work with. So to plan for that is really important.

You’ve done a lot of work on middle managers. Are they under particular stress in this moment?

We’ve seen more fluctuation in employee engagement this year than we’ve seen in the past. In the past, it has been kind of like a rock. It’s been the one stabilizing aspect of wellbeing that people can count on. Now we’re starting to see it stabilize a bit more as of late, but it initially went up a little bit, then it dropped and then it went back up and we particularly saw a drop among both managers and leaders. It’s hard to think about how a workforce can be highly engaged if the managers and leaders are having trouble. We’ve also seen that managers report higher stress and burnout than the people that they directly manage. It’s a tough job and is particularly tough when you have all these other compounding factors that are hitting them.

What should organizations, and managers do about that?

The first thing is whether the managers are engaged themselves. It’s really the manager of the manager helping them think about how you can make their job not as difficult during these tough times. There are some shortcuts that make it easier to have those ongoing conversations. And part of it is just about upskilling managers so that they know their role isn’t just to delegate. If they have these ongoing conversations we’ve been talking about, it might seem like it’s extra work, but it isn’t because you don’t have to correct as many things that go wrong. You have a free flow of communication, which means when there’s decisions that are being made, you’ve got insight into what’s happening on the front line and you can make better decisions.

Just like we expect managers to manage individual contributors more like a coach, the managers of the managers need to be doing the same thing. The best shortcut is to work through what’s innately natural for each person and to know their strengths. When you start with their strengths and then aim those strengths at the job responsibilities and the goals that you have, it’s just a much more efficient way to go about things. It works more naturally then, especially from a distance trying to correct people all the time. It doesn’t feel good to anybody and burnout is going to be much more likely to happen.

What’s an example of aiming someone’s strengths at the work?

Part of it is how you leverage what’s there appropriately. I’ve been seeing that people with really high WOO [a Gallup classification for people who bring energy to social situations and are good at building rapport with colleagues] need to be very purposeful about how they connect individually. If they can plan some safe in-person time, it helps them a lot because they need that interaction with others. That probably has a lot to do with how they get their work done. They’ve got to be very planned and purposeful about how they leverage that winning others over. These are people that really treasure the individual interactions they have with more and more people. So they’ve got to plan their world around that so that they don’t start feeling depressed from not having that kind of interaction.

Another person might be more of a Relator [another Gallup classification] and they value a few one-on-one relationships. They’ve got to be more purposeful about how they keep those deep one-on-one relationships going with the most important partners that help them not only get their work done, but also help them psychologically and with their own wellbeing. Strengths can be aimed not just at performance, but also at wellbeing and help people improve their own wellbeing in a lot of different areas. Somebody who’s highly analytical and has high focus may not as much want a manager to be checking in on them all the time because they’re going to maintain their focus. They are probably going to have big chunks of time where they’re very focused and absorbed in their work. Then they’ll come out of that with, with some really good data or really good findings or a really nice article they wrote or whatever their job is. They’re going to have some deep insights that come out of that big block of time, where they may not be interacting with a lot of other people. When a manager knows that about somebody, they know this person is going to very naturally and easily get deeply absorbed in their work. They’re probably not going to want too many distractions while that’s happening. It helps a manager to contextualize how a person works, which then makes it easier to know how to nudge them in the right directions. And also to just honor the time when they don’t see them every day.

What should organizations do now to position themselves for how work will remain different after the pandemic?

One thing is to take note of what in this big experiment has worked and what hasn’t. That’s going to vary a lot. Organizations may not be saying it as explicitly as this, but they’re looking for new skills to be agile into the future. Even though we’ve got more certainty with the vaccine, we don’t know what’s coming next. So organizations need to be much better at being agile when change happens so that they can maintain high performance, high engagement, and high wellbeing in their workforce. I see more organizations thinking about the whole person now, and that will continue into the future.

To answer your question more directly, there are four categories of things to consider, and it’s going to be very different depending on the job category and the individuals within those jobs. First, to know the individual situation. As we move into this hybrid environment even a post vaccine, our data would say about 60% of people say they’ll take it. Maybe that number will grow through peer influence. Things could start getting back to normal once the vaccine is fully deployed, but I would still anticipate there’s going to be a hybrid environment. Some people just have to be onsite. But if they have the option of that hybrid model, they can spend the right kinds of time in the office with their team when they need to, but then they also have the option to leverage the strengths of a work-from-home environment when they need to.

One of the things that people valued most, and an element that relates really highly to engagement across a lot of different things we’ve studied, is just autonomy. Flex time was the most desired perk before 2020. The more we can learn the advantages there and channel that through the individual situation, the team that they work with and what’s needed to get that team work done, the needs of the organization, and then the specific role that the individual is on and what those job demands are—organizations can use those as filters to be thinking about what’s right going forward, wherever the job can be on that continuum from 0% remote to 100% remote and what works best.

There can be some general rules put in place based on the individual situation, the team that they’re on, the organization’s needs, and the role that they’re in. Also managers in a coaching environment can individualize that somewhat based on that individual’s situation. But we always can keep in mind what the fundamentals are that engage people. Autonomy is a big one, but to have autonomy, you also have to have that accountability, so that we know who the high performers are and why, and we can recognize them and reward them for their high-performance.

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