How do you know when an employee is engaged? The usual answers include obvious signs like  participation in meetings and projects, high quality work product, and responsiveness to requests from the manager and teammates. All of that is true, and there’s a paradox at work. It involves the ability to stay more engaged by disconnecting from work more often.

Wait. What?

When everyone is busy and stressed, it is easy to confuse activity for productivity. Busy equals working hard.  We also assume that people who are super responsive to emails, Slack messages and texts are the most committed and engaged. Who would answer emails at five in the morning if they didn’t really care about and enjoy their work?

Appearances can be deceiving

That’s where the paradox comes in. What appear to be signs of an engaged employee may be evidence of more negative thoughts and behaviors, especially when it comes to staying always connected and overly responsive.

When someone doesn’t take their scheduled time off or PTO, is it because they are so in love with their job they just can’t imagine doing anything else? If people answer texts and emails on off-hours and weekends, it’s only because they are such dedicated employees and care so much about their teammates that they willingly forego other activities and recreation. Right?

Stop laughing. 

While discretionary effort and “going above and beyond,” may be signs of an engaged employee. More likely they are signs of someone stressed, physically exhausted, addicted to their devices (that’s a real thing, although technically they are addicted to the mental rewards responding provides, not the mechanics) or afraid for their jobs.

Encourage authentic engagement

Real engagement is self-created. People choose to put in the effort at work for a lot of reasons: Satisfaction at a job well done, helping others, beating a challenge, and looking to promotion, recognition, or a reward. Those are all positive reasons, and should be encouraged.

Putting out that effort should be voluntary and create a positive energy. We need to be rested, focused, and energized in order to be an engaged worker. When we are physically exhausted, we begin to resent the work. When we feel like the decision to engage isn’t something we choose but is imposed by others, we no longer feel the same satisfaction we got when we were driving ourselves. Most important, when we are not allowed time to ourselves, to enjoy our families uninterrupted, engage in non-work activities, and take part in exercise or hobbies that give us pleasure, our energy lags and we can become disengaged.

Using our tools wisely

As we look to the future of work, hybrid teams will provide both opportunities and pitfalls for keeping people engaged. On the plus side, the ability to have more flexibility with when and where you work should allow for better work/life balance and overall satisfaction. On the other hand, the tools and technology that allow us to work anywhere at anytime can create the expectation to do exactly that.

If work constantly drains our physical and mental energy, it will be harder to maintain your engaged, positive attitude. We put our best efforts and energy into work when we have plenty of “juice” in our batteries. That requires disconnecting from the things that drain us and letting our reserves build up.

Taking PTO, putting guardrails around how many hours and  when you work, and protecting your precious mental reserves will result in true engagement, not just panicky activity that looks great until you can’t keep up the façade any more.

Disconnect so that when you’re working you can be fully present.

Whether you are concerned about your team and their adjustment to the future of work, or you’re looking for resources to help you personally navigate the new environment, sign up for our Future of Work Newsletter, and take advantage of the resources here and throughout the Kevin Eikenberry Group.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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