The working dead

Has the energy level in your office dropped so low you feel like you’re walking through a post-apocalyptic zombie landscape? Has the camaraderie and banter that once filled the halls disappeared? Isn’t this a good thing? Less chatting, more working, productivity must be soaring. Only, it isn’t.

Keeping employees engaged takes time and effort. Unfortunately, many managers consider employee engagement initiatives to be a waste of energy with little direct pay off, despite mountains of studies and survey results to the contrary. This kind of thinking leads to two undesirable outcomes.

The first, your office becomes zombiefied. Your employees coast along feeling mild interest in doing satisfactory work putting in just enough effort to collect a paycheck. They’re meeting expectations, so there’s nothing really to complain about, but certainly nothing exceptional to talk about either. There’s nothing that takes the organization to the next level or builds future leaders, trainers and specialists for the organization. Plus, everyone keeps eating brains, which is messy and distracting.

The second, the survivors, probably your A-players, get bored and start looking for a more vibrant workplace; one that actually cares about employee development, engagement and motivation.

You might have a problem if:

You ask your team what keeps them energized at work, and the answer is coffee.

You ask your team what management can do to keep them motivated and the answer is coffee.  

You ask your team how important brainstorming and team interactions are to them and the answer is, I’ll let you know when we have some, and oh yeah, bring coffee. Wait, did you say brainstorming?”

Engagement, when ignored, erodes over time by little behaviors and shifts in attitude from the top down, like drops of water on a rock formation. As a leader, you don’t even notice it, at least not right away. When things start to feel off somehow or sluggish, you chalk it up to spring fever, summer dull-drums or winter blues. If there’s a season, you have a reason.

The next thing you know, you walk into a creepily quiet office. Sure, people are saying hello, and maybe even happily discussing their weekends or vacation plans. But where is the exchange of work ideas, the lively discussion after a great client interaction, or the problem-solving pow-wow of a particularly difficult project? People aren’t talking about work; they aren’t sharing stories and bouncing ideas off each other. Everything looks fine on the outside, but underneath, it’s an apathetic mess.

There’s good news, though! It’s fixable and requires nothing more than a little knowledge of your team and the people who make it up. Engagement should be built and maintained at both a group and individual level. At a group level, you need to think about your business and its objectives. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to engagement. What works for one branch might not work for another. The same is true at the individual level. What works for one person, may not work for another. It’s important to identify and understand people’s individual needs.

Team Engagement through interaction: We asked a rather reserved group of analytics the following questions and received some surprising answers, especially considering how introverted these people are.

How important are colleague interactions at work? What do you gain from them and why? 

  • People interaction during the workday is important for brainstorming or simply to take a minute to give your brain a break.  Co-workers have diverse opinions, ideas and strategies that you benefit from. (A little too preoccupied with brains, but good information.)
  • Communication problems seem to get worse when you are only communicating by email. It’s easier to be misunderstood, or to lose the diplomacy you would otherwise exercise when face to face. Also, you can feel out of the loop, and the way you think about your job starts to feel static. You learn from other people.
  • It’s pretty important. It helps to be with people who are open to discussing work and joking a little, people who are not critical or competitive with one another. In that scenario, I need some back and forth with colleagues. If they were jerks, I’d keep completely to myself. (Seems fair.)
  • It’s important because I gain new perspectives; it helps break up the monotony of some days; in conversations, others catch what I may have missed or overlooked.

Interaction builds engagement and keeps workplace energy strong. Workplace collaboration creates momentum for ideas, innovation and growth.  

There is a new trend in workplace environments, designed to encourage group engagement. “Collaboration corners” or “connection corners” are informal sitting areas where employees can go to break up the monotony of a long day in an office or cubicle.

Of course, you don’t need anything as official as a collaboration corner. Putting visitor’s chairs in offices or cubicles, opening conference rooms for less formal use, or even simply making policies that encourage collaboration can do the trick. Discourage overuse of email and chat functions, and make people get up and talk to each other face-to-face.

But most importantly, don’t talk the talk if you aren’t going to walk the walk. Don’t frown and look at your watch as you walk by people who are talking about work, exchanging ideas and brainstorming. To stay out of Zombie land, you need people to be excited to discuss work.

Of course, throwing out your conference table for a couch isn’t going to solve all your problems. It’s important to understand the individuals on your team, as well. No two people are exactly alike. We are motivated and inspired by different things.

Make sure you are offering enough challenge and variety to the people who need it. Set ambitious goals, and offer staff the chance to innovate. But don’t assume everyone needs that. For some, a sudden increase in responsibilities or unexpected changes can feel threatening, causing them to shut down.

Find out who needs a pat on the back and public compliments and who cringes when they are called out in front of others, even for good things. Don’t assume that everyone wants what you want. You may love variety, while others want a dependable routine that varies little. For these employees, it is possible to shake things up too much.

Talk to people, and ask what they want more of and what they want less of. Listen, and follow through. You won’t be able to give them everything they want, but you may be surprised at how little you have to change to move from zombie wasteland to killer productivity.

To lead people effectively, whether in the workplace or defending against the undead, you need to know what drives them. Armed with this, you can provide the right level of structure, direction and feedback to the unique individuals on your team and keep them engaged and alive, or at least lively.

Carletta Clyatt

Carletta Clyatt

Carletta Clyatt, a popular seminar speaker, is the SVP at The Omnia Group.  She offers clients advice on how to manage more effectively and gain insight into employee strengths, weaknesses ... Web: Details