Remote attrition is coming

How Embodied Engagement can help retain your top talent

5-minute read

Many people are still struggling under the weight of unemployment, and yet a growing number of employees are either already changing jobs or rethinking their commitment to their organizations. And with geographic barriers vanishing, competition for talent will rapidly increase. As new job openings continue to emerge, there will be a wave of attrition. 

Companies and managers are especially vulnerable to losing their employees when everyone works remotely. When we are at a distance, the psychophysiological ‘threads’ that kept us bound to our physical workplaces are gone. For example, leaving your in-person job meant packing up your desk, saying goodbye to your favorite coffee shop, missing out on Bagel Day, and losing that great view from your office. By contrast, leaving your remote job can be as simple as logging out and changing your passwords. 

Contrary to popular assumption, our sense of belonging in a company doesn’t just stem from our hearts and minds but also from our physical bodies--a concept we call ‘Embodied Engagement.’ 

While we often think of ourselves and our fellow humans as brains on a stick, processing the world around us through our thoughts and feelings alone, that’s not how humans work. Those very thoughts and feelings are sparked in large part by visual and motor processing, which make up more than 50% of our cerebral cortex. Our physical surroundings and embodied experiences shape how we think and feel about the world around us.

 

What do you miss most about working at the office? 

(n = 208 participants across different companies)

Seeing co-workers / spontaneous collisions

31%

Going to lunch / coffee station / switching spaces

30%

Designated desk / desk setup

21%

Office buzz

18%

 

So, what can we do to make up for those sweet somatic cues of belonging we got from in-person workplaces and increase people’s sense of engagement at work? At LifeLabs Learning, we’ve studied what makes engagement and connection possible virtually and have learned that there are essential factors that matter more than others, including those that prevent disengagement and those that create Embodied Engagement.

A. Necessary to prevent disengagement

While these elements don’t lead to engagement, if they are missing, we feel disorganized, disembodied, and disengaged.

Things that make it hard to quit your job when working in-person

What you need to amplify in the virtual world to keep people feeling engaged

Daily commute routines 

Start/stop routines

Teach people to have start/stop routines (e.g., stretch before opening your laptop, close all tabs before signing off for the day).

Physical landmarks (e.g., your coffee shop) and familiar office scents and sounds

Internal branding

Establish an internal brand and use it in all communication (e.g., font, colors, imagery, logo). Create shared Zoom backgrounds, desktop images, home office swag, and laptop decals.

Work space (e.g., desk, chair, lunch area)

Optimized at-home setup

Help employees create their at-home setup (providing a stipend, if possible), including designated work, break, and meal spaces.

Familiar faces 

Cameras-on norm

Create a cameras-on norm on your team. If showing personal spaces is a concern, normalize using identical virtual backgrounds or uploading a photo vs blank screens. Invite coworker family, pets, and roommates to participate from time to time. Research even reveals that seeing faces more often (aka the Mere Exposure Effect) can even break down racial bias.

B. Necessary to create engagement

The items below drive engagement. While they are always important, it is essential to amplify the areas in the right column to make up for the loss of Embodied Engagement.

Things that make it hard to quit your job when working in-person

What you need to amplify in the virtual world to keep people feeling engaged

Spontaneous collisions (e.g., watercooler chats, office pranks, strolls to grab lunch) 

Connection points

Collaborate with your team to create various 1-1 and team connection points (e.g., Slack channels, game nights, randomized coffee chats via Donut, break out room conversations, peer coaching). 

Physical interactions (e.g., hugs, high fives)

Affective cues

Come up with physical cues like emojis, virtual high-fives, agreement gestures, and musical instruments (like gongs!). Do physical things together like hold dance parties, exercise, and take group photos.

Mood resonance (the experience of shared energy and empathy)

Emotion design

Ritualize celebrations (e.g., start meetings with wins, hold birthday and anniversary parties). Schedule quiet coworking time. Create space for emotional vs. task-based connection (e.g., book clubs, discussion groups, ask about feelings in 1-1s). 

In-person shared experiences (e.g., happy hour, all-hands, lunch)

Virtual shared experiences

Ritualize standups, coworking time, shared meals, and celebrations. Schedule live learning and reflection experiences. Unmute when possible to hear breathing, laughter, and real-time reactions. Distribute company swag to wear together. 

Real-time impact (seeing customer and coworker reactions)

Deliberate displays of impact

Train your team to deliver quality feedback. Give positive feedback often. Invite individuals who were impacted by an employee’s work to share their experience in writing or ask them to stop by virtually. Paint a picture of the impact the individual, team, and company will make in the future.

Learning through observation 

Deliberate development 

Give feedback often. Schedule shadowing,  training, and work demo days. Craft an inspiring development journey for each employee and make it visual (e.g., a map). 

It’s important to remember that remote work doesn’t have to feel like a subpar substitute for the in-person experience. Instead, our goal should be to build on the unique physical opportunities the virtual environment creates--like getting to see inside people’s homes, hear their pets, and play games with coworkers from around the world. 

While the somatic threads that bind us to in-person work are comforting and familiar, the good news is that the virtual thread alternatives are more resilient. They just have to be woven deliberately. And they have to be woven right now.