Keep it human: How to boost engagement in a more digitised, flexible workplace

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work, fast-tracking the digitisation of business and our ideas around flexible working. 

While many people talk about the future of work in the context of big business, the topic is just as important for small businesses. The rise of ‘location-independent workers’ widens the talent pool for businesses both large and small, and even on-site candidates will be looking for employers that provide flexibility – which is something small businesses can potentially offer in spades. 

But how do you keep engagement and productivity high in a reworked workspace? As Xero’s Director of People and Performance in Australia and Asia, I’ve been reflecting on my key learnings from 2020 to put together some tips for small business.

More connection, more engagement 

During lockdowns, we had to work extra hard at Xero to stimulate connection between our employees. We held themed virtual morning teas and team drinks, and ran quizzes and interest-building campaigns. And because leaders are even more critical in a crisis, managers were encouraged to go the extra mile when it came to creating opportunities to connect with their teams. 

As a result, employee engagement increased. That’s an important outcome, as we know that highly engaged employees are more likely to exceed performance expectations.  

So while online interaction might not overtake in-person anytime soon, we learned this year there are ways to build greater connection in a virtual world.

Four ways every business can increase engagement

There’s no business as diverse as small business. But however you operate, there are four key ways in which you can increase engagement among your employees:

  1. Provide a clear and meaningful purpose: Creating a sense of individual and shared purpose is extra important in a virtual workplace. Ensure every employee understands what their contribution means and has a clear connection to the work they’re doing.
  1. Build trust and safety: We talk about ‘bringing your whole self’ to work at Xero because we know that keeping up appearances zaps energy and productivity. In a virtual setting, this means creating and maintaining a safe, trusting environment wherever teams liaise online. 
  1. Find out what flexible working really means: COVID-19 has shown us that different people perform best in different ways and at different times. The future will be all about empowering people to work in the way that suits them best, from job-sharing to choosing different working hours, flexible locations and so on. 
  1. Finally, keep it human: Connecting virtually can impact on your ability to maintain a rapport with your team. Replicate in-person encounters by creating opportunities for spontaneous, informal chats, and encourage people to share more of who they are. In the early days of lockdown, we gave tours of our homes and gave show-and-tell sessions. It was a really nice way of creating human connection, and being vulnerable with each other built trust, which in turn also increased engagement.

Ensuring remote teams stay productive

Small businesses often ask me how to ensure teams stay productive when working from home. My advice is simple: trust people to do what you hired them to do. 

You can deal with any performance issues if and when they arise – but as long as you’re building engagement and empowering your team to do their best, 99 per cent of people will appreciate your trust in them and come through for you.

Digital tools empowering the future of work

We use Officevibe to measure engagement fortnightly, while tools such as Google Meet and Zoom are great for meeting remotely. Slack’s emojis and responses are another fun way to show our human side in communications between team members.

The fact is, there are lots of different ways that people (and small businesses) can work, and digital platforms and apps to simplify just about every aspect of those operations. With the dawning of a new year, it’s the perfect time to start leveraging these tools and insights so you’re not just surviving in 2021, but thriving.


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By Rebecca Gravestock

Rebecca Gravestock is Xero Australia and Asia’s Director of People and Performance. She previously worked in management consulting, spending over 13 years with Booz & Company (now Strategy&).