Staff Engagement in the New Normal
We know that the future of work will be hybrid in nature. This is a natural evolution—accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic—brought about by advances in technology that allow us to do work as or more effectively outside the office. While fully virtual teams are not new and have been in existence for at least the past decade, these have in the past comprised smaller, self-selected subgroup of people who prefer to work mainly offsite or online. Since the pandemic, however, most of the workforce, regardless of their preference or working style, have had to adapt to a mix of virtual and physical working arrangements.
What we do not know for certain is exactly how this hybrid work will affect employee engagement, especially for new hires who have yet to fully know their immediate colleagues even after being in their role for several months. Research indicates that there is an emotional aspect to engagement at the workplace, related to one’s sense of belonging at work.1 In an organisational context, this sense of belonging, job satisfaction and engagement are strongly predicted by social capital:2, 3 the social connections, networks, norms and trust that is built up over time, enabling a group to work together towards common goals.4
A sense of belonging and community does not emerge spontaneously, nor is it static once it emerges. It is continually shaped by the interactions, both social and work-related, that take place organically at work. Spur-of-the-moment conversations over coffee at the pantry, bantering with colleagues during a short break from work, quick chats after meetings, or even bumping into each other on the way to the washroom—all these minor interactions help build social capital, contributing to the exchange of ideas, a sense of togetherness, and a feeling of belonging. Such chance encounters are difficult to replicate in a virtual setting.
What does this mean for the way in which co-workers, especially new hires, engage with one another and build the social capital necessary for job satisfaction and effective teamwork?
As someone who joined my organisation in August 2021, at the peaks of the Heightened Alert measures when everyone had to work from home, I have found it much harder to find my bearings and get to know people in a new environment. Even after returning to the physical workplace, my new colleagues and I, who had only interacted in virtual meetings, looked unfamiliar to one another while wearing masks in the office.
Organisations are still grappling with these issues, and research on engaging new employees in such an environment is still nascent. However, my own experiences in these circumstances offer some insights into what may help to build social capital, strengthen a sense of community, and ultimately increase engagement, regardless of the mode of work we find ourselves in.
A sense of belonging and community does not emerge spontaneously, nor is it static once it emerges.
Engaging New Staff in a Hybrid Environment: Five Tips
1. Check in regularly with staff
Having regular check-ins with my supervisor, both virtual and physically where possible, helped give me the support I needed as I slowly acclimatised to the team and my role in it. These sessions were more frequent when I first started work, and gradually tapered off as I got used to the work environment. Such check-ins were a source of stability and reassurance amid the uncertainty and ambiguity that go with every transition into a new role and workplace.
Such supervisor-supervisee interactions are known to contribute to staff engagement.5 Scheduling such check-in sessions must be done intentionally, since in a hybrid work arrangement, where not everyone is in the same location, there are far fewer opportunities for spontaneous check-ins at short notice. By consciously setting aside time for these check-ins, supervisors send the signal that their supervisees are important and valued members of the team.
2. Nurture a safe and supportive working culture
Culture is an important aspect of any organisation and can play a significant role in its performance. It is the environment in which people work, influencing how they think, act, and experience work, and is something that that can be shaped by leaders.6
My new department’s culture is evident whenever I interacted with my colleagues, either during online meetings or physically at the office. They came across as warm and approachable: and I later observed this culture also present in the way work was done. There was psychological safety in the way people spoke up and contributed to discussions, senior colleagues were open to sharing knowledge, and there was a general sense that each person’s contribution was valued regardless of their tenure in the department. The departmental head also modelled this behaviour by being genuinely affable and proactively engaged, which set the tone for the entire department.
3. Start a support group for newcomers
The amount of social support is inversely related to turnover intention—i.e., those who receive more social support are less likely to report an intention to leave their jobs, even in the face of a higher workload.7 In a hybrid work environment, it is all too easy for new hires—who need the most social support at the start—to slip through the cracks and feel out of place.
In my previous workplaces, I was closest to those who started on the job together with me, and these connections evolved into ongoing friendships. Our shared experiences made it easier for us to build camaraderie and provide support for one another.
In my current workplace, I was fortunate to come across a fellow new hire who proactively convened a group of us who had started around the same time, thereby creating an unofficial support group. This became a platform for us to discuss our common experiences and help each other out where necessary.
Extensive telecommuting is correlated with feelings of isolation, which affects performance and job satisfaction.8 In a future where switching between working from home and working onsite will be a norm, formalising such support groups for new hires could go a long way to preventing a sense of alienation from taking root. Another benefit is that these support groups promote connections between officers in different teams and departments, which increases opportunities for the cross pollination of ideas and cross-functional collaborations.
4. Offer online activities to foster better relationships
A new initiative in my organisation that is open to all staff, “Community Conversations”, is a series of online conversation sessions that encourages staff to connect over common topics of discussion and reflection. These online events also feature breakout groups where attendees can be vulnerable with each other in a more personal setting.
While I may not remember every single person I met in these Conversations, I did take away a sense of community in which people were not just co-workers but fellow human beings, some of whom had challenges in life. It allowed me to feel more authentically connected with people I had only met virtually.
5. Treat physical time as a valuable resource in hybrid work
Physical time together in the office will become an increasingly valuable resource for achieving work outcomes that benefit from face-to-face interactions, such as activities that foster a sense of belonging and community, building engagement in the process. Plans for hybrid work arrangements must therefore consider how to spend this resource wisely, to maximise the limited face-to-face time between employees. In an age of hybrid work and productivity optimisation, no employee should be going back to the office merely to perform work that can be carried out just as effectively from a remote location.
In a future where switching between working from home and working onsite will be a norm, formalising support groups for new hires could go a long way to preventing a sense of alienation from taking root.
THINKING ABOUT THE FUTURE OF EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT
Physical time together in the office will become an increasingly valuable resource for achieving work outcomes that benefit from face-to-face interactions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amos Law is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Leadership and Organisation Development, Civil Service College. His applied research aims to improve leadership and organisational development practices to build a first-class public service for Singapore, and his current research interests are teams and team effectiveness, employee engagement, and hybrid work.
- Institute of Leadership and Organisation Development, “Position Paper: Employee Engagement in the Singapore Public Service” (Civil Service College Singapore, 2018).
- M. Strömgren, A. Eriksson, D. Bergman, and L. Dellve, “Social Capital among Healthcare Professionals: A Prospective Study of Its Importance for Job Satisfaction, Work Engagement and Engagement in Clinical Improvements”, International Journal of Nursing Studies 53 (2016): 116–125.
- M. Y. Ahn and H. H. Davis, “Sense of Belonging as An Indicator of Social Capital”, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 40, no. 7/8 (2020): 627–642.
- R. D. Putnam, “Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America”, PS: Political Science and Politics 28, no. 4 (1995): 664–683.
- See Note 1.
- D. D. Warrick, “What Leaders Need to Know about Organizational Culture”, Business Horizons 60, no. 3 (2017): 395–404.
- G. Pomaki, A. Delongis, D. Frey, K. Short, and T. Woehrle, “When the Going Gets Tough: Direct, Buffering and Indirect Effects of Social Support on Turnover Intention”, Teaching and Teacher Education 26, no. 6 (2010): 1340–1346.
- M. A. Spilker and J. A. Breaugh, “Potential Ways to Predict and Manage Telecommuters’ Feelings of Professional Isolation”, Journal of Vocational Behavior 131, no. 103646.