Why engagement is more crucial for leaders than ever before

By Carley Thornell | May 4, 2021


When the Boston College Center for Work & Family published its whitepaper supporting professional flexibility programs in 2013, they noted a chasm between theory and practice. “While many organizations tout the availability of workplace flexibility, the ‘implementation gap’ between developing a policy and fully embedding it in organizational strategy and culture remains an issue,” wrote researchers.

Fast-forward to 2021, and COVID-19 has presented uncharted opportunities to reinvent the workplace – whether that workplace is in a traditional office building, employee’s bedroom, or both. Future flexibility in terms of a hybrid on-site/offsite approach, staggered hours that work for employees and the company, and new methods and means of communication all require managers to possess unprecedented levels of emotional and technical savvy.

Think tanks, working professionals, and the non-profit College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) agree: The next generation of leaders will require a nuanced matrix of talents spanning crisis communications, emotional intelligence, and adaptability in terms of management strategies and technology.

Experts agree: An individualized approach is best

“Engagement” is one of healthcare’s hottest buzzwords when it comes to patients, but the concept has taken on new gravitas when it comes to internal operations say Gerilynn Sevenikar, Sharp HealthCare vice president of revenue cycle management, and Sarah Richardson, immediate past vice president of IT change leadership at OptumCare.

The pandemic has tasked leaders with implementing new engagement strategies for remote operations, and the tools to support them. At Sharp, daily huddles on Microsoft Teams meetings for each manager and their direct reports (along with time for a daily reflection) mean that no one is siloed physically or emotionally. Getting input up, down, and sideways via frequent surveys – including those about returning back to the office or one that recently reflected 92 percent of the organization says they are engaged – “continues to build on our strong culture, teamwork, and helping people feel connected,” says Sevenikar. Tools are a means, but that culture of connection is ultimately fostered by strong leaders, reports Harvard Business Review. Their “Key to Inclusive Leadership,” published during the pandemic, found that “what leaders say and do makes up to a 70% difference as to whether an individual reports feeling included.”

Richardson stresses that check-ins should be frequent, and don’t always have to be about output. Optum has drafted a new curriculum for managers leading remote teams, but that scripting harkens back to a personalized approach: “I always ask people individually, ‘What environment creates the greatest level of success and engagement for you?’,” she advises. The tack is part of what Boston Consulting Group calls a “modern industrial revolution,” in which listening and responding to each employees’ needs and what inspires productivity is prioritized (productivity that most workers report is higher working remotely). Like many other companies, Richardson says this personalized approach also helps Optum attract talent and reduce turnover.

Pre-pandemic, Optum already had a globally distributed workforce with many professionals not located near a physical location opting to work from home. A culture of trust creates flexibility, and so long as work is done on a cadence that works for customers, employees can hit the slopes or workout for an hour or two on a weekday, she said. “Sometimes you can create those environments where people can truly be anywhere, and do the things they need to be able to do. And it's not because we promote a culture of skiing, it's because we promote a culture of engagement, and being able to get your work done in the most effective manner.”

Perhaps not unsurprisingly in the midst of a global pandemic, employees are focusing more on wellness opportunities than ever before. A Deloitte 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report found that wellbeing was the top-rated trend for importance, with 80% of respondents saying that associates’ wellbeing — measures that help people feel their best so they can work effectively, according to Deloitte — is important for their organization's success. As Harvard Business Publishing notes in its “Covid-19 Heightens the Leadership Gap” report, now is a pivotal time for human resources departments to build new ways of working, both together and apart, for the betterment of enterprises and their associates.

New ways of generating engagement, measuring success

With more than a third of the U.S. labor force millennials, it’s logical to expect shifting the post-pandemic paradigm to meet that generation’s expectations. As the first generation to grow up with social media, it’s no surprise that instant gratification ranks high on the list of priorities – but for managers and human resource professionals, the timing could be opportune to join companies like Accenture, General Electric and PricewaterhouseCoopers and offer more real-time feedback. The approach moves away from the annual performance review in lieu of more frequent and informal touchbases and platforms that make performance visible even at the cohort level.

At Sharp HealthCare, monitoring progress and insights comes in the form of gamification. Revenue cycle teammates can build their own avatars, get automatic notifications about their performance, and can benchmark themselves against cohorts. Unlike traditional gaming, employees aren’t declared “winners,” but there is a sense of friendly competition and outreach to high-performing peers for advice, says Sevenikar. The approach has been pivotal while working remotely, she said. “This is how we’ve kept the engagement of our employees. This is a tool for real-time recognition for a great day or improved performance that typically get lost in the mix of what’s going on day-to-day,” she explained. “But this would particularly get lost when you’re working remotely.”

Within six months of implementing Gamify, Sharp noted a reduced staff turnover rate (less than 5 percent); 10 percent reduction in task lag; 21 percent increase in customer service productivity; and 31 percent increase in credit balance productivity.

Sharp also added a new role of workforce management business analyst during the pandemic that has assisted leaders with task reporting. The goal is more coaching than monitoring, said Sevenikar. “We don’t want employees to be stressed out because they see a red box. They could have gone on break,” she explained. “But if you see five consecutive red boxes, you might want to call that employee and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Is the computer not working? Or are you struggling with something?’”

Whether it’s tools or talent, one thing is certain – those who lead the global workforce are sure to be challenged by forging a new path at an unprecedented crossroads that requires multidimensional people skills and advanced implementation of data analytics, say Richardson and Sevenikar.

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