After spending the last 3+ years working remotely from Asia, North America, and Europe, in that order, Grace Lee now lives and works in NYC. Navigating these tumultuous changes has been a challenge for someone who has always craved consistency and order. But it's also granted her a unique perspective on what it means to belong, to be connected, and to grow.
The pandemic disrupted a lot of things. Ways of working. Routines. Relationships. Plans. There was a general sense of loss of control that resulted in a disruption of mental and emotional stability as well. But for me, having to pack up my things in March 2020, go home, and for the next several months limit my activity to the confines of my house was just the beginning of many tectonic shifts in my life.
Because just when it seemed things were looking up and I’d be able to comfortably fall back into normality along with everyone else, I found myself having to suddenly leave everything I’d known and move to another continent. That was 2021. A year later, having had barely enough time to recover and find my balance, I went through the exact same thing – another relocation, another disruption. Each one leaving me more disoriented than before.
The one constant presence throughout these years was my job. Though I was celebrating my work anniversary in a different country every year, I was glad I had those anniversaries in the first place – they represented a consistency that was missing in other aspects of my life. In a sense, my job was the control factor amidst all the other variables, and the litmus test reflecting the impact all that change had on me. And the astonishing thing is, despite all the ups and downs, I remained an engaged employee throughout.
A new understanding of employee engagement
Employee engagement. It’s a term I’ve heard frequently in the past few years, as remote and hybrid working models have become the norm for most companies. Most of the time it’s used by employers – in conjunction with topics like employee productivity or workplace culture – rather than the people it’s actually about. People like me.
To me, being an engaged employee simply means feeling connected to the work I’m doing, and to my organization and its people.
It’s one of those buzzwords that’s so overused, the word itself has eclipsed its meaning. A Google search yields dozens of definitions that all attempt to describe what it is: “A human resources concept that describes the level of enthusiasm and dedication a worker feels toward their job”; “How much an employee is committed to helping their organization achieve its goals.”
Again, the dominant perspective is the employer’s. But as an employee, I certainly don’t think in those terms. To me, being an engaged employee simply means feeling connected to the work I’m doing, and to my organization and its people. And I can tell you from experience, it’s not easy to maintain that sense of connection when your life is being disrupted left and right.
Which is why, I’ve come to realize, it’s so important for employers to create a work environment that makes those connections possible and easy. Looking back on the past three years, for me it was never one single experience or incentive or gain that kept me committed, but the compounded effect of many.
It was the ongoing conversations I had with my managers and teammates in which they validated my contributions, sought out my opinions, and constantly challenged me to do better. It was the evolution of my work itself – its complexity, the growing importance of the deliverables and the higher stakes involved. It was my increasing responsibility, which I was at times assigned, but often also felt empowered to ask for, and my involvement in larger conversations with implications that extended beyond my individual role to the growth and health of the business.
All of those experiences made me feel like I was part of something bigger, and that I mattered. It dispelled feelings of anxiety and detachment. It kept me present.
Staying engaged means keeping connected
The ironic thing is, none of those things had anything to do with being physically present at the office and working in-person. As I said, I was one of - if not the - most remotely located employees at my company for the longest time. If distance had been a blocker to engagement, I would have been the most disengaged and uncommitted person at my company. Instead, I was logging in every day virtually while physically being hours away, sometimes oceans away, from the company headquarters, yet feeling closer to my colleagues, my work, and my organization than I had ever been at any other job in my life.
This is a feeling of “being present” that’s entirely separate from being on-site and in-person. It’s more like a sense of clarity, an awareness. Awareness of the unique value I bring to the company, and at the same time, awareness that others are aware of this, too, and that they support and endorse it. From that awareness comes the sense of purpose, motivation, fulfillment and self-development (what’s often referred to as “drivers of employee engagement”). A desire to show up every day and put in the effort, no matter what disruptive forces try to get in the way.
Distance isn’t the enemy. The enemy is disconnection and detachment.
Because at the end of the day, relationships need work - and work relationships are no exception. Speaking as someone who went through years of navigating a long-distance relationship with my company and my colleagues, distance isn’t the enemy. If anything, the enemy is disconnection and detachment. It’s all that prevents you from feeling – and living – the relationship between you and your work, your organization, and its people.
Employee engagement, or employee satisfaction, loyalty, whatever you want to call it – starts with that awareness of belonging and connection that makes disruptions less disruptive and difficulties worth it.