Satisfaction, productivity, quality, and retention are hallmarks of a well-run team. As a lab manager, fostering an environment that gives your employees the energy and systems that drive these behaviors is your challenge. Employee engagement is a foundational element. But before you start asking questions like, “How do I know if my team is engaged?” and “How do I motivate my team?”, let’s build the business case for improving engagement.
It is important to convince yourself, management, customers, and the team itself that an engaged organization will be more successful. One reason for that is decreased employee turnover. Obtaining and keeping good employees is one of the biggest challenges managers face today. By making a team-valued environment, reductions in salary driven job-hopping and absenteeism will be realized. Many engagement-enhancing ideas are virtually free and can be used even when budgetary limitations restrict salary increases or promotions.
An engaged team displays ownership in its work product, which drives quality and quantity. Further, opportunities for future leaders to stretch their wings will appear and worker satisfaction will improve. In turn, the engaged team’s motivation and initiative will make a manager’s job easier.
So, how do you engage your team? With work-life balance challenges and pressure to deliver results in the workplace, your workers can move from demotivation to disengagement. Measuring your team’s engagement level can be a challenge, but look for some common behavioral clues. Does your team seem disinterested or disconnected from you and each other? Do they ask questions and raise ideas for improvement and change? Do they recognize issues, take ownership, and act independently? As you evaluate your team’s engagement health, consider how they process and provide feedback. Giving opportunities for written, small- and large-group feedback sessions will ensure you are not convoluting personality type with disengagement level. Create a process to regularly check in with your team to monitor progress and strengthen your relationship. Taking the time to know your employees will help you create changes they truly value.
It is important to convince yourself, management, customers, and the team itself that an engaged organization will be more successful.
After assessing your team’s engagement health and identifying small team issues, start the process of creating a healthier work environment. If you are lucky enough to have experienced one, you know how they feel—you are heard, you are supported by your workmates, and fun is usually part of the equation. By starting the conversation, you are already on the path to improvement.
As you move into action phase, define the parameters and requirements for success. These can include budgetary constraints, remote work parameters, or hours of operation. Take this opportunity to question your assumptions. Today’s technology can remove barriers we have experienced in the past. For example, the pandemic taught us that readily available video conferencing tools or lab equipment networking can enable different work options.
After establishing priorities and thinking critically about what is off-limits, work toward creating an engaging environment can begin. Fun, recognition, and decompression opportunities comprise key levers to pull.
Fun in the workplace—activities both small and large—can build trust and relieve stress. They can center around group activities or friendly competitions. Consider including a philanthropic core to reinforce helping others. Below are some examples of such activities, but encourage your team to generate their own ideas as well.
Food/gift sharing–share homemade dishes (crockpot soups, desserts, appetizers). Provide ingredient lists/recipes to be considerate of food allergies. Consider a cookie exchange or work-family holiday feast with management funding the main course. Consider adding a philanthropic aspect such as a nominal “whatever you feel like paying” fee, the proceeds of which go to a local food bank. Beyond food, organize a white elephant gift exchange with a low dollar limit to let everyone experience their colleagues’ creativity as they make or buy low-cost gifts for each other.
Taking the time to know your employees will help you create changes they truly value.
Adopt a family–during the holidays or school year, local organizations create an “adopt a family” charity. Your team can collect gift cards, clothes, or other needs to support your local community. Wrapping and delivering the items can be rewarding team activities as well.
Friendly competitions–examples include Halloween costume competitions with winners for funniest/most extravagant/scariest/best team costumes, penny wars to raise money for a local charity, science/engineering competitions, and walking team activities (create team names and shirts).
Work with a local school district or science museum to support curriculum enrichment–volunteer to support hands-on activities, design experiments, provide lab tours or shadowing opportunities. Many scientists love the opportunity to teach and mentor.
Establish a quarterly activity goal, then engage your team in defining and organizing options. The entire process, from ideation through execution and celebration, will energize your team. Demonstrate your support by participating, but encourage your team members to lead, which is a skill/team building opportunity itself.
In addition to fun activities, providing mind-clearing breaks can create a stress-relieving environment. Establish a common area jigsaw puzzle zone for breaktime, organize a crafty lunchtime activity (crochet/knitting, holiday ornaments craft, bring your current project to work on, teach a skill), brown-bag lunch comedy TV-show viewing, and 15-minute stretch/walk breaks. Work-focused activities such as lab or office clean-up/organizing events can build teamwork and create a less stressful and more productive lab environment. If the job is large, break it into manageable steps that can be accomplished in less than a day.
Fundamentally, understand the positive impact of modified work style on an individual’s overall stress. The pandemic has taught us that flexibility is key and that our historical work assumptions need to be revisited. A lab role requires time in the physical workspace, but can you reward your employees with a flexible work arrangement? Such arrangements can be fixed (reviewed quarterly) or used as needed. Flexible start and leave times, a work week of four 10-hour days, and focused work-from-home days are some examples. Establish clear delivery/availability goals for the individuals to ensure success and to avoid colleague resentment.
Finally, thank and recognize your individuals and teams. Photo documentation, organization newsletters, or announcements/pictures on common area bulletin boards are appreciated. Use organizational meetings to recognize service anniversaries, birthdays, birth announcements, weddings, graduations, activity winners, and team business accomplishments. Create an avenue to collect quick “Thank You” notes from individuals to share broadly. Establishing an environment that routinely says “I appreciate what you did to help today” makes a big difference.
Using a combination of stress-relieving activities and active listening/learning/acting, you are well on your way to creating an energizing environment that is rewarding for you and your team.