According to Google Trends, employee engagement has been a popular search term since at least 2004. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a small percentage of organizations were engaging with their employees virtually, but as we all know, the pandemic expedited all things virtual.

Organizations are grappling with how to incorporate the lessons learned from almost three years of interruption. Some organizations have decided to remain completely remote, others have decided to return to in-person, while others still are exploring the possibilities of a hybrid model.

Regardless of what model is chosen, the bell of virtual work cannot be un-rung. This is where conversational leadership offers a fundamental rethinking, and more importantly, an opening to the possibility of a “re-feeling” of daily work life. Conversational leadership is practiced both in-person and virtually.

What is Employee Engagement?

Forbes describes employee engagement as:

    • Not exactly equivalent to employee happiness.
    • Not exactly equivalent to employee satisfaction.
    • The emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.

Gallup defines employee engagement as the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace.

Before March 2020, many organizations had no policies for working remotely. During the pandemic, companies started to redefine their meaning of “work.” Experiments were introduced for four-day workweeks, split-time or sabbaticals, because employers started to realize that their employees were no longer staying for many years, not out of a lack of loyalty, but out of an understanding that not all work situations appeal to all people.

Being engaged as an employee looks different for different people and the tricky part for organizations is realizing that a “one-size-fits-all” strategy is no longer enough to keep the empowered and diverse workforce necessary to thrive in today’s ever-evolving landscape.

An employee who isn’t able to find a sense of belonging, which includes being valued and heard, is an employee who isn’t fully engaged in supporting the organization.

What is Conversational Leadership?

David Gurteen, a pioneer in the field of conversational leadership, defines it as “appreciating the transformative power of conversation, practicing leadership, and adopting a conversational approach to the way we work together in a complex world.” Dr. Patricia Shaw, a fellow at Schumacher College, states “leadership is convening conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.”

Conversations are broader than simply two people talking with each other. They are an opportunity for individuals or groups to make sense collectively of the complexity that surrounds them. Unfortunately, conversations often resemble parallel soliloquies as opposed to back-and-forth “building upon each other” moments of creating. Conversations are an opportunity to emerge as different people, because someone else has enriched our minds. Especially in asynchronous virtual environments, serial monologues are noticeably different than relational, meaningful and impactful conversations.

Similarly, the notion of leadership is beyond any individual role or title. Leadership is a practice that we should all have an opportunity with which to engage. In fact, the idea has been floated that the discipline could be renamed as conversational communityship, a term coined by Henry Mintzberg after decades of frustration with the outdated and shallow definitions of leadership.

Conversational leadership brings together these concepts of collective conversations and communityship so that not only do our singular conversations reach their potential, but also that the collective discourse across all conversations might fundamentally shift the way we understand and interact in our shared environments.

Why are Employee Engagement and Conversational Leadership Pertinent Right Now?

 In a world that is now more virtual, employee engagement becomes that much more difficult to gauge and, therefore, can cause trust to erode. For some leaders, it’s hard to adjust to employees’ needs when they haven’t yet figured out how to engage with them virtually and doubt creeps in about how productive someone can be when working remotely. And yet, thinking that people are always fully productive when they’re in the office is illusory at best.

The question shouldn’t be about which environment is easiest to control, but why there is such a profound lack of trust in people whom the organization hired, ostensibly because they were the most qualified to fill the position. Being forced into a virtual environment by the pandemic has given us an opportunity to shift focus from where we do the work to the quality of work being done.

And now, while working online, we contribute to discussions in nearly the same way we do in the physical office. In fact, there are some who feel more comfortable or practiced in virtual conversations regarding goals, progress and actions.

Some may argue that virtual work doesn’t allow for impromptu conversations in the break room, the debates at lunch or even the empathetic “how’s your family doing?” chat in the corridor. But are those moments of connection really creating lasting bonds? Katherine Woods asks, “Are we in a meeting, or are we being met?”

If you think about it, the ability to read body language, have those short conversations in a hallway or laugh together at a coffee table are all tools we use when we’re not actually in a mindset to have a deeper conversation. All those other ways of engaging have come about because we seem to be decreasing our individual and collective ability to be candid and tell our co-workers “I’m bored, I’m hurt, I’m feeling vulnerable,” or similar reactions to our current environment.

Because our society is built predominantly around infrastructure that is framed for physical work, virtual work requires greater transparency, openness and continuous learning to be engaging, which can seem daunting and unnecessary to some. But we’ve learned that people need to create intentionally safe and courageous spaces for their communities to have conversations that matter and that form true connections, based on trust. We also have to allow for those connections to develop in ways we’ve not experienced before.

Employees who were once besieged by unexpected and sometimes unwelcome “drop-ins” to their cubicles or offices, now have the luxury of deciding when and where to engage with others. Those who adapted well to virtual space have been able to create community, often without ever having met in a shared physical space. Essentially, by using skills that haven’t been encouraged when in person they found other, sometimes deeper, connections.

This is where conversational leadership becomes more impactful. Regardless of whether we’re physically in the same space or not, one primary objective is to make certain that we are in conversation with each other — and that those conversations have the potential to matter.

Rethinking virtual employee engagement might require rethinking your conversational skills: How many conversations are “open” for you right now? Are you aware of the flow within each conversation? What options do you have to respond to the prior comment? How much time do you need to feel, think, process and integrate what is happening in real-time? How do you expand your conversational options? What bias are you bringing into the conversation? Are you clear with your own intent? What impact is this conversation likely to have in the broader discourse?

As spoken and written language are the primary resources in the virtual world, with limited access to body language, it becomes imperative to be skilled in deep listening. This means listening to what is being said as well as what is not being said. It also includes understanding our own reactions, questioning our assumptions and the ability to be effective in inquiry. This is inclusive of all conversations, whether the content is about sports or weather, or the content is about deep personal or organizational challenges. Are you listening for intent and impact? Are you checking to see your own intent and impact? Is that within your conversational awareness and range? How could you practice it further? These are the inquiries that intend to lead toward virtual employee engagement through virtual conversational leadership.

Infrastructure for how we work is changing and that’s potentially healthy for all of us. We are building different pathways to conversation and that doesn’t mean that we need to chuck our previous methods aside. We simply need to explore what is fit-for-purpose for our organizational communities. Maybe it’s time we ask each other.

It’s easy to put most of our conversations on autopilot. As we bounce from meeting to meeting, virtually or in person, it can feel as though there’s “never enough time,” or “never the right moment” to have the conversations we need to have. A virtual environment, because it is new, presents an opportunity to interrupt those patterns, because they’re not yet so deeply ingrained.

If the conversation is rich enough, commitment, enthusiasm and involvement are created and maintained in many ways. Skilled, interactive conversations that are rich with conversational awareness and range provide a noteworthy opportunity to not only engage everyone but also to continuously increase virtual engagement.

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