Article: Seeking liberation from social expectations at work

Employee Engagement

Seeking liberation from social expectations at work

Organisations today are intent on engaging employees scattered across geographies. However, not all employees wish to be engaged. Some simply want to deliver on their tasks and earn their livelihood. Where should employers then draw the line on forced engagement? Let’s find out!
Seeking liberation from social expectations at work

“Do I have to know everyone here? Why do I need to know people in other departments? It’s hard enough with those in mine” - Park Su-young, The Liberation Notes

A Korean web series called ‘My Liberation Notes’ offers a refreshing take on employee engagement. The multinational organisation that the lead protagonist, Mi-Geong, works in, encourages its workforce to participate in activity clubs to foster collaboration and workplace relationships beyond work. Not much for interaction and small talk with colleagues, Mi-Geong and two other professionals in the organisation express a lack of interest in participating in any of the clubs. 

While not necessarily introverts, the three colleagues feeling exhausted by being called upon by HR consistently to join a club, decide to form their own club called ‘The Liberation Club’. The club meetings essentially involve sharing life experience with two rules:

  • Do not try to comfort
  • Do not offer advice

Through their Liberation Club meetings, the three club members attempt to liberate themselves from psychological barriers that have held them captive for years. They do this by adhering to three guidelines:

  • I will not pretend to be happy
  • I will not pretend to be unhappy
  • I will be honest

On one hand, this is essentially why they were nudged to join a club, to form connections at the workplace beyond work. On the other hand, they were on a level being forced to do something they were uncomfortable with and did not really appreciate.

The distributed workplace model of today finds itself in such a situation often. Employers are identifying ways to maintain a connect among their hybrid workforce, and while the intent might be to benefit employees and establish strong bonds at work, not everyone is really looking for that. Which begs the question - Where should employers draw the line as they strive to engage employees?

Acknowledging and understanding diverse work styles

A key element in understanding employees is to acknowledge and accept that not every employee is the same, not every employee desires the same work experience, and not every employee shares a similar craving for social interaction.

“We all have different styles and preferences both from work and non-work-related aspects. When it comes to teams, leaders need to understand individual preferences and voices when it comes to post-work events & activities," says Anupam Trehan, People & Communities (HR) Leader- APJC, Cisco Systems, in conversation with People Matters. 

"It begins with open, honest conversations around styles, choices with an open mind, and trust between both sides. Having said that, we work in teams; as teams, it's not just about work; we also need to balance connection, collaboration, fun and foster relations beyond work," Trehan added.

“Diversity at the workplace shows up in many different ways, including personality, communication preferences, work styles, etc. As organisations, when we look at inclusion, it needs to flow across all aspects of diversity. As an introvert, I have often found myself at crossroads, first as a student and then at work.” 

Being an introvert is not a new concept. However, increasingly, many people today speak of seeking a life of quiet, peace and solitude, with a greater desire for well-being and happiness over competitive pay packages. They want less and less to do with their workplace, especially as the work-life lines remain blurry and expectations to be always on continue to keep the workforce from disconnecting.

Within any organisation, while there are those who echo the above sentiments, there are many who still choose to engage and interact, and make conversation simply to build a rapport and relationship. It’s essential to recognise here as an employer, and even a leader, that no two employees are the same, and neither should the expectations be the same, beyond the tasks and deliverables.

Communication is among the key drivers of employee experience, according to a Qualtrics report. Reflecting on how to shape the communication strategy from the lens of employee engagement will require careful consideration on the part of employers.

Where should employers draw the line on engagement

While organisations attempt to foster strong bonds at the workplace, some employees simply want to deliver on their tasks and earn their livelihood, without any desire to interact with colleagues beyond work. Where should employers then draw the line as they invest in platforms or organise events to enable conversations and connections beyond work? This question becomes even more critical as organisations increasingly spend on engagement and collaboration software to boost opportunities for interaction.

Psychological safety consultant, Peter Brace, says the phrase “not every employee is…”, holds the answer. This question is about diversity, Brace adds. 

“Do we try and pressure our colleagues to be ‘more like the others’? Of course not. We respect and value their diversity as a source of strength in the team. And if we are not sure how best to support them, we ask them!” Brace advised. 

“It’s great to give employees the opportunity to have connections and conversations beyond work but the other question to ask is: Why is the employer encouraging this? Is it because the team is not working well together? If so, that may be due to a lack of psychological safety in the team. Address that, and relationships in the team will naturally improve,” he added. 

Multiple industry reports indicate a desire in employees to exit their current employer on account of organisational culture. So, in an attempt to engage employees who might be at risk of leaving, are organisations doing greater damage through forced engagement? Is over-communicating with employees to try and retain them doing greater damage than good?

In Peter’s opinion, at this time, engagement should be about leaders LISTENING to the employees. 

“We tend to think that ‘inclusion’ means ‘everyone should be included in everything’. But our capacity and desire for interaction with others is part of who we are, and putting pressure on us to go against our natural inclination (or our physical capacity, our cultural or even our religious beliefs) is likely to create stress, anxiety and reduce our feeling of psychological safety. It makes us feel we are not understood and not valued for who we really are, and despite being there physically, it can make us feel excluded socially,” said Peter.

On how to approach interaction with relatively less social colleagues, to foster a greater sense of psychological safety, Peter noted that the honesty and vulnerability of leaders will help to build psychological safety, and employee engagement follows that level of psychological safety. 

“If an organisation works on building psychological safety in its teams, engagement (and therefore retention) will naturally improve,” added Peter.

Creating a space for honest conversations instead of forced connections

As far as communication goes, it is a two way-street. However, with varying communication preferences, organisations must pay attention to how they disseminate not just information but also how they weave in moments of social interaction, especially in today’s hybrid ecosystem.

While a lot depends on employer outlook and focus on varying communication and engagement choices, it is also a responsibility on the employees’ part to timely share, through available channels, what is working for them and what isn’t. Organisational efforts to cater to unique working preferences must be reciprocated with a clear, transparent communication from employees as well.

Further, the lack of interest or preference to build working relationships also impacts the ability of the team to function effectively and seamlessly. Employees who prefer to limit communication often also are reluctant to participate in team meetings and/ or offer their views in group discussions. 

What’s needed is therefore a clear mutually-agreed upon way of working that respects individual preferences while ensuring healthy boundaries and interaction among team members.

“As much as employers need to acknowledge different thinking, communication and working styles, the less socially engaged employees too need to explore when and how to use their voice,” Cisco’s Anupam Trehan advised.

“Create a space where everyone feels welcomed. I’ve had the opportunity to see leaders do this in a simple yet impactful way. Most importantly, today, we have the power of technology that can really power diversity. Use it. As leaders, mentors, or coaches, we all have a role in listening, understanding, and guiding, and we should play our part,” she added.

Beyond conversations as well, there are other ways to engage socially distant colleagues.

Workplace communication has undergone a drastic shift in the past two years, and it continues to evolve as employers identify how they want to proceed and what work setup would be most suitable for the business as well as people. While organisations strive to keep the distributed workforce connected, it is time to put in place healthy workplace boundaries and parallely empower employees to establish meaningful, voluntary bonds, with their colleagues and leaders.

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Topics: Employee Engagement, Talent Management, Diversity

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