Learning & Development, Talent

Reconciling Management Styles and Employee Engagement in a WFH Setting

Employee engagement should be an integral part of any organization’s strategic plan. This is especially important now as leaders try to understand both their employees’ and their customers’ needs in a temporary (and possibly permanent) work-from-home (WFH) culture.

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Editorial credit: Girts Ragelis / Shutterstock.com

An important question that leaders should consider is: How is employee engagement within their organization? The most descriptive definition of employee engagement states it is a “positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind.” Other researchers suggest that employee engagement includes a willingness to work toward the successful achievement of work specifications and organizational goals. Studies show that employee engagement is linked to increased employee well-being, job performance, cross-training performance, and reduced turnover.

The Importance of Engagement

The reason employee engagement is more important than ever in a prolonged remote work environment is that if managers do not find the right balance between establishing expectations and encouraging engagement, they may start to see worker productivity, morale, and even mental abandonment.

Employees need to feel like they are contributing to both their individual daily tasks and the overall health of the organization. If employees are living in an isolated silo of work, they may feel disconnected from the organization. Some businesses before COVID-19 were struggling to keep their employees engaged. Now, without the ability to socialize in the workplace, employees may experience potential long-term psychological effects.

Managerial Style Plays an Important Role in Engagement

There are individual challenges faced by leaders who apply both McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y management styles to this new work-from-home environment. According to research, Theory X was the dominant scientific style used to build a solid foundation, with an emphasis on productivity. Managers who employ Theory X assume employees are, by nature, reluctant to fulfill their work obligations and will instead find ways to avoid work or reduce work productivity.

Theory Y is a participative style of management that assumes employees will exercise self-direction and self-control in achieving the organization’s objectives. Theory Y managers look to maximize commitment and provide employees with the leadership, training, and tools needed to get the job done.

Employees have developed work-from-home habits that need to fit their lifestyles and personal responsibilities: resolving childcare issues, maximizing productivity, and developing boundaries between work and home. Theory X leaders have a difficult time adjusting to employees working at different times and in different ways that do not match their own. Theory Y leaders may trust their employees to do the work and become frustrated if deadlines are not met. Theory X management will constantly seek what employees are working on, and employees might have additional stress due to the abundance of e-mails and virtual meetings.

Organizations have had to either furlough or reduce their workforce, and those surviving employees have had to assume additional responsibilities. With a more hands-off approach, Theory Y managers might not communicate enough information for the employees to fully understand what is expected while they are working from home. This presents a risk to employees who need more structure and feedback and may create additional rework if tasks are not completed as expected.

In order to address these challenges and mitigate these stressors, here are some work-from-home tips:

  • Develop a policy that has core hours during which all employees are required to be available for meetings, calls, and times to respond to customers’ requests.
  • Stagger times for proper coverage. Times can be adjusted based on workforce and area.
  • Develop a psychological contract with supervisors and employees to discuss schedules in order to handle any internal and external customer needs.
  • Hold virtual office hours during which all members of the organization are available for employees in different ways.
  • Develop weekly scorecards to keep managers informed of employee productivity levels and deliverables, satisfying the needs of both Theory X and Theory Y managers.

A prolonged remote work environment offers unique employee loyalty and engagement opportunities. Small virtual gatherings hosted by key executives with employees, such as happy hours and lunch-and-learns, can increase employee engagement. Employees will hopefully feel as though they are being looked after and will have a voice in the virtual workplace.

The key is to create a virtual community that mimics the former in-office one. Business managers can also develop a “see something, say something” recognition program whereby employees recognize peers by e-mailing their managers, possibly resulting in tokens of appreciation, such as gift cards or thank-you notes. It is also important to support employee engagement through virtual informal work teams to tackle any workplace issues. These teams can work to increase revenue, develop operational efficiencies, and help employees identify new training needs to operate in this work-from-home environment.

According to researchers, employees who are engaged in their work are more energetic and more pleasant to be around and have effective connections with their work. Work engagement focuses on how psychological experiences of work shape the process of how employees view their work performance. Engaged employees are thought to bring their full selves into their work roles and are cognitively attentive, emotionally vested, and physically energetic in whatever their work environment is.

Additional Reference

Macey, W. H., Schneider, B., Barbera, K. M., & Young, S. A. (2011). Employee engagement: Tools for analysis, practice, and competitive advantage (Vol. 31). West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons (link to source).

Matthew R. Kerzner, PhD, is a Director in the Center Family Business Excellence Group within the Private Business Services Practice at EisnerAmper. Kerzner has more than 25 years of experience in organizational development with a specialization in assisting family businesses and closely held businesses with addressing transition, financial stability and sustainability, and human performance management matters.

Kerzner works with clients developing a strategic plan that acknowledges the issues and dynamics of both the family and the business in order to develop succession plans that prepare the next generation leaders to succeed. Prior to joining the firm, he was Vice President of a health care management firm and led the Human Resources for the company.

Kerzner is an Adjunct Professor at the University of New Haven, and has presented on a range of topics including, Human Resources and labor negotiations. In addition, he cowrote and presented “Meditation as Teaching and Learning Tool Theory, Practice and Testimony.”