How to Improve the Employee Engagement of a Distributed Workforce in Times of Crisis 


On Thursday, April 30th at 2PM EST. I’m hosting a webinar on How Agile Leadership Can Ensure The High Employee Engagement of a Distributed Workforce in Times of Crisis. Click HERE to register.  




The Current State


The COVID-19 virus has impacted us all in ways we could have never expected.   It’s upended our way of life. We feel isolated, anxious and unsure. It’s disrupted the way we work and how we interact. And many of us are in a constant state of stress and unease. The individuals who lead teams or supervise staff have additional challenges.  Besides maneuvering this changed landscape for themselves and helping their families navigate this crisis, they must also forward the goals of their organizations and create a new environment that allows their teams and their team members to perform at a high level. 

Putting this catastrophe in recent historical perspective, however, might provide some context that will help those who manage teams navigate this tragedy - a lens, through which we might look, to help us come out on the other side of this crisis with teams that are more engaged, more focused and higher performing.


Some Historical Context


September 11, 2001, was my first day back to work from vacation. I left my home in Plainfield NJ and headed to Manhattan. The firm I worked for at that time is located about six blocks south of the World Trade Center.  I was running late that morning but somehow made my train.  Had I not, I would have been in the tunnel under tower one when it collapsed. I remember emerging from the Path train and noticing debris falling from a sky that kept getting darker as I made my way to my office. I can still hear the screams of my terrified team members as we watched from our office windows as a plane hit the second tower. And I’ll never forget walking through the streets of lower Manhattan covered with debris and smut, watching as the second tower crumbled right in front of my eyes.  I stood there shocked and dazed, unable to move until I realized that the smoke and debris from the crumbling building was winding its way through the streets and heading directly toward me.  I ran like hell. Some 15 hours later I finally made it home covered with smut, shocked and exhausted but glad to just be alive.


What We Did


That fateful morning changed my life in ways that are too many to count. And it immediately changed the way I interacted with my team.  Without warning, my entire organization was dispersed. My team members isolated and in shock. We immediately had to figure out how to get work done while working remotely.  All of this before the proliferation of on-line meeting software and cell phones with video cameras.  I wasn’t sure what to do, so I did what I thought was right.  I continually and constantly checked in with all of my team members to ensure that were OK.  


When the conversations shifted to work, I told my team to not worry about processes but focus on getting work done for our clients, even if it meant foregoing all the documentation that we typically required. When asked about project plans and timelines, I encouraged the team to respond based on the current situation, not what they wrote in a document that we probably can never find. I let them know that I didn’t have many of the answers they were looking for, but that I trusted them to make the right decisions. That was a big shift for me because I was a command-and-control kind of leader.  We eventually did to return to our offices, but as you can imagine things were still in disarray, so we continued the “new” approach to work.  


The Results


As performance review time approached, and we started looking at KPIs and employee survey data I was sure that the lingering impact of the crisis,  along with the fact that I wasn’t directing my team’s activity like I did previously, would cause our productivity KPIs to be lower than the previous year.  And I knew that my employee engagement scores would also be lower. I was shocked when the opposite occurred.  My team's performance KPIs and engagement scores were higher.


What is Agile Leadership?


When the towers fell and my team had no choice but to work from home, I didn’t have a framework that allowed me to conceptualize or put a structure around what we did to get better performance and higher engagement.  It wasn’t until years later while working on a degree in educational leadership, doing research on the topic and interviewing successful executives that I learned what I had done during 911 was use what’s referred to as a value-based approach to leadership.  Without knowing it, I practiced Agile Leadership.  

Agile leadership calls on those of us who lead teams or supervise individuals to embody four value:

  •  individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • working solutions over comprehensive documentation
  • customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and
  • responding to change over following a plan. 

It also requires that we embed those values into our team’s operational activities.  


The Results Round 2


Once I understood the framework of Agile leadership, my team and I institutionalize it and achieved phenomenal results.  When the company released the scores from corporate survey, my team received scores of 100% on leadership questions like “rate the person you report to on 1) encouraging open dialog and active debate 2) fostering an inclusive and diverse work environment,  and 3) treating employees fairly.  Engagement scores on questions like your present job provides you with 1) the authority to make decisions about how to do your job and 2) a chance to do challenging and interesting work showed increases of between 15-30 points from the previous year.  There were also 20-30 point increases on engagement questions like employees having their contributions recognized and their willingness to reveal errors or mistakes to management.  


Perhaps more impressive is the feedback we got from one client within months of us formalizing this “values based” approach to leadership. One internal client said this:


“My experience with dealing with your team over the past month has been positive....your team was extremely helpful with their professionalism, quick turnaround on developing product simulations and the overall quality of work.”


How You Can Practice Agile Leadership?


The concept of agile leadership is simple.  As a leader, you just need behave in a way that shows you value individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working solutions over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation; and responding to change over following a plan.  What it takes to accomplish thus behavior, however,  is more nuanced.  Practicing agile leadership also requires that you embed those values into your team’s operational activities.  But this doesn’t happen because of you as a leader saying “just do it.” It’s more complicated.  


On Thursday, April 30th at 2PM EST. I’m hosting a webinar on How Agile Leadership Can Ensure The High Employee Engagement of a Distributed Workforce in Times of Crisis. Click HERE to register.  


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