IT leadership: 3 ways to increase employee engagement this winter

As the remote workforce heads into the winter months, many workers may struggle to stay engaged. Consider these approaches to boost your team's motivation
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In many parts of the world, days are getting shorter and temperatures are dropping. As the changing season limits daylight and outdoor activities, IT leaders may soon start to notice a corresponding decline in employee morale and engagement. Worse, the social isolation we are all experiencing these days could make seasonal affective disorder even more likely.

The good news? There are things you can do to help boost employee morale, even in a pandemic. Here’s how to get started.

1. Start with the 'why'

What is your company’s purpose? What is your department’s purpose? What is your staff’s purpose?

These questions come to mind as we all socially isolate and work from home. Engaged employees are happy and productive. Strong engagement happens when employees can map their daily actions to their team or company strategy – ideally, both.

[ Are you over-communicating and not engaging? Read our related story: Remote leadership: 9 ways your style may backfire. ]

As leaders, we need to demonstrate how employees’ efforts map to the big picture. You can achieve this by linking the purpose of their efforts to the purpose of their department and the purpose of the organization.

Your organization probably has a mission statement, but does your department have one? Do your employees understand what role they play in the mission of the department and the organization? If not, spend some time figuring it out. A good place to start is to ask why – check out Simon Sinek’s book "Start With Why" and his corresponding TED Talk.

Do your employees understand what role they play in the mission of the department and the organization? If not, spend some time figuring it out.

You may have heard the story of JFK once asking a janitor what he did at NASA. The janitor replied, “I’m putting a man on the moon.” That “big-picture” sentiment is common in government, but it needs to be more widespread.

Case in point: I recently had the honor of engaging in a fireside chat with Dr. Anne Shepherd, associate CIO of user and network services at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, who demonstrated the power of leading with why. During the pandemic, her organization has led some critical initiatives for the IRS. She and her team of 1,300 people were responsible for transitioning the IRS to remote work. They did that while the IRS launched its Get My Payment application, which was critical to helping families pay their bills and weather the economic downturn. Instead of myopically focusing on the application, Shepherd and her team focused on helping save the U.S. economy – her team’s “putting a man on the moon” purpose.

To boost employee engagement, focus on the foundation first. Revisit your “why” and make sure all your employees understand and feel it. That is the best way to boost engagement during this next phase of work.

2. Use OKRs to align priorities with passion and purpose

Once you’ve identified your purpose, how do you bring it to life?

For many, objectives and key results (OKRs) are the best way to align priorities with passion and purpose.

OKRs aren’t top-down, command-and-control methods for delivering results. OKRs set organizational direction from the top of the organization, but they also allow individual contributors a stake in the organization’s holistic success. By engaging and including individual contributors in defining what success looks like, you secure their buy-in. When your employees have a personal stake in business results, they feel more engaged, which helps ensure organizational success.

There are numerous ways to create OKRs, but impact mapping offers a helpful way to focus on what’s most important. Impact mapping helps you identify the goal, the actors, the impacts, and the deliverables.

In Le Podcast, my Red Hat colleague Alexis Monville explains how to create goals using OKRs and impact mapping. By fleshing these out in detail with your team, your goals define your objectives, your impacts define your key results, and the key results identify the deliverables you need for your objective to be successful.

When your employees are engaged in developing OKRs, they will feel invested in the outcome, which inherently adds more meaning to their work.

When your employees are engaged in developing OKRs, they will feel invested in the outcome, which inherently adds more meaning to their work.

However, this approach can also create a challenge that I should warn you about. Impact mapping will give you a nice long list of deliverables to objectively delight your stakeholders. But even if your team members had a hand in developing this list, some are likely to push it back, saying they’re already oversubscribed and stressed out.

That, of course, is the opposite of what you want to hear, and of what you’re trying to achieve. And this is where automation can free up your team’s time to make a noticeable impact.

3. Automate to improve service delivery and break down silos

“Automation is the language of love.”

It’s a phrase I hear often from my public sector colleagues. It may raise a few eyebrows, but all it means is that automation can document processes in a machine-readable way that can be revision-controlled and shared across departments.

When teams see other departments automating the very toil and drudgery they bemoan, they will not only reach out to tap into that automation, but they will also offer suggestions that will improve life for the entire organization.

Worried that automation will hurt employee engagement? Expect the opposite: The resulting cross-organizational sharing will create highly-visible communities that deliver meaningful and tangible business value, and the members of these communities will be gratified by the impact they’re making. An added bonus: Automation could accelerate employees’ career trajectory.

We will all almost certainly face new challenges in the months ahead. Many employees will feel the weight of the pandemic more acutely as they spend more time indoors slogging through work, and their risk of disengagement may increase. As an IT leader, you can use this opportunity to get ahead of this by injecting purpose, revising goals, and automating tedious work.

Spend the time now to create or revise your team’s why – it could prove to be a powerful antidote to difficult months to come.

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ]

David Egts
David Egts is MuleSoft's first-ever Public Sector field CTO. He is the executive-level connective tissue between MuleSoft and top public sector decision makers and influencers globally.