Employee Connectedness: A Look at Engagement Research with Dr. Brad Shuck

Episode 5: A Look at Engagement Research with Dr. Brad Shuck

The covid-19 crisis has forced many businesses to go remote, speeding up a trend already happening worldwide. Accompanying the remote work trend has been a growing interest in employee engagement and employee connectedness. Dr. Brad Shuck and employee engagement researchers are exploring dignity, capacity, stress, and compassion as it relates to connectedness. The results are shifting how companies care for their employees.

In this episode of Employee ConnectednessUnitonomy founder Charley Miller discusses employee engagement research and the importance of dignity, capacity, and connectedness (especially in the midst of the covid-19 crisis) with UofL researcher Dr. Brad Shuck.

In this conversation, they will discuss areas of research that are changing the understanding of employee engagement. Engagement does not necessarily need to be a massive implemented program, but rather a shift in continuous behaviors over time. How a work culture supports dignity and addresses capacity and stress is critical to increasing employee engagement and connectedness at any time, but especially during the current pandemic.

Episode 5: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRsUZq1A96E

Employee Connectedness is live-streamed every weekday at 10:15am EST on the Unitonomy YouTube channel. You can join there and ask questions in the chat. You can also find previous episodes posted there and on the Unitonomy blog.

Connected Employees

Full Transcript:

Employee Connectedness: A Look at Engagement Research with Dr. Brad Shuck

Charley Miller 2:04
Hello Brad Shuck.

Brad Shuck 2:06
What’s up, Charley, how you doing man,

Charley Miller 2:08
I’m good, thanks for joining today. It’s Thurs…Tuesday…Thursday…Tuesday March 31. Man it is hard to know what day of the week it is right now with this pandemic. Indeed it is. That’s all work, you know, cues we used to know. Our routines are all disrupted right now. Totally. I think one thing that helps me it’s just my work calendar knowing which meeting I’ve got next. I’m sure I’ve got the problem a lot of people have which is having to book a lot of meetings kind of squishing things, because you know, I know we’ve both got kids. You can probably hear a few upstairs running around right now. We’ve got to juggle priorities, and it’s all part of it. So we know. My calendar is on Teams and Outlook and trying to find stuff… Well, I want to talk about you today, all things Dr. Brad Shuck learn a little bit more about you and do a deep dive. So, what I want to start with is just the big question. Why are you doing this man, why are you so interested in researching employee engagement and all the things employee?

Brad Shuck 3:16
Yeah, man. This is such a personal thing. I really believe, and that the experience of work can be incredible and transformative for people. And our research is really centered around helping people live better lives through their work. And so I’ve spent the past decade kind of digging into the experience of engagement, and I have started to look at health outcomes and how connectedness impacts work and isolation impacts work and, and how that makes us feel, and then how we respond from that. So I just really believe that work can be a really empowering experience for people. And again, it’s just a personal thing for me based on my own work experience, early on in my career. I knew it could be better, and I wanted to figure out what levers can I pull and what are the things that I can figure out that help leaders lead better companies and develop cultures that players can thrive in, and where individual contributors can do their very best work.

What levers can I pull and what are the things that I can figure out that help leaders lead better companies and develop cultures that players can thrive in, and where individual contributors can do their very best work.

Dr. Brad Shuck

Charley Miller 4:22
Well, that answer. I remember meeting you for the first time last summer 2019, and I got a similar story about how you’re passionate about helping people. Oh yeah, forgot to unmute there. I remember meeting you last summer 2019. And you told me a similar story about how you’re passionate about the space and what brought you to it, and I love the commitment. And I love the idea that it always comes back to just people finding their purpose, people knowing how to go home and live their personal life and not drag the workpiece home, and all that. Tell me, you know, step back from this, you know, where were you before you started becoming a researcher.

Brad Shuck 5:08
Yes, so I used to work in higher education. That’s how I put myself through school, and my wife and I have been married to my wife for 18 years now, and early on in our marriage we moved to Miami, Florida, and we lived. We lived at that Miami live for about five years, and I worked in corporate HR for a very large cruise industry in Miami, and

Charley Miller 5:36
Very good thing you changed careers, Brad.

Brad Shuck 5:40
Yeah no doubt about it. I loved that job it was an incredible experience for me to really get my feet wet and cut my teeth on everything human resources and along the way, we started to implement these engagement surveys, and I wanted to know more about that. I was going to school at Florida International which is where I got my terminal degree from. And this idea of engagement kept kind of popping up in things that I was reading and stuff that consulting companies were doing. And so I decided to start writing papers for all of my classes on employee engagement, and I’m a really non-traditional academic, I was not a really nobody would have voted Brad Shuck, “Most Likely to Be a Faculty Member” at any point in my career. Being a rebel, I don’t like to follow rules very much which maybe works in my favor as a researcher, because I’m willing to hear no, but I don’t let no stop me. We keep kind of plugging along with the idea of engagement. Nobody knew what it was back in the early 2000s. I couldn’t academically, couldn’t define it could measure really well and so it was kind of squishy. So I took it upon myself to develop a framework for that. And we’ve since then, over the past decade, developed definitions, really precise measurement tools to get at this, this piece of work that impacts so many things, not only inside work but really, as you mentioned a minute ago it really impacts our own life as well.

That’s one of the more interesting findings for me in all of this has been that the research on employee engagement tells us that there’s a spillover effect into our home…that the way people experience work, oftentimes will show up at home. I’ll have to ask somebody out there listening now about an experience of work they’ve had that was, that was not so good, that was pretty negative. And then, how was your home life? Emotionally exhausted? Are you tired? Maybe you took on some unhealthy habits or you were not available for your family, the way that you would want to be? And so that’s been a really interesting and defining finding for us and the research

Charley Miller 8:00
for people listening to you right now, what would be one or two kind of big meta takeaways for what your research has proven and things you’ve learned in the last decade.

Brad Shuck 8:12
Yeah, so the first thing is that I think most folks think you need a big, you need a big engagement program. So if I’m speaking to a company, you need a big platform that’s gonna cost you a lot of money. And I think those things sometimes can help, but really engagement is grounded in the things that we do on an everyday basis. Engagement isn’t a light switch. Like, I can’t turn engagement off like this, right, and then turn it back on when I want it.

Engagement is grounded in the things that we do on an everyday basis. Engagement isn’t a light switch…I can’t turn engagement off like this…and then turn it back on when I want it.

Dr. Brad Shuck

Really we build this in all the little actions the things that are easy to do and easy not to do every single day so as leaders. We need to be mindful about that one of the things we talked about is the idea of dignity, so dignity is a large predictor of engagement. So as a leader behavior. The way that my employees feel like I treat them with dignity or they treat other people with dignity impacts, whether or not they made it doesn’t cost any money. Man, it’s 100% free, and it’s really easy to do, right, but it’s also easy not to do because, think of the remote work context, we’re in right now. We got lots of stuff going on, and I need to fire off a couple of emails, I mean, even this morning, this has already been an incredibly busy morning, and it’s only 10:15 here ET. And so you get really busy in that business. We can we can forget some of the things that are really important to creating connectedness, helping people feel like their work has really value. And that really drive engagement. So that’s the first thing. It’s human work.

The second thing is to be engaged I think you have to have, like, basic principles of engagement is that you can’t be engaged in two places at the same time. So, I can’t be engaged to your home, and also be engaged in my workplace I can’t, I can’t socially do that I can’t mentally do that I can’t really kind of emotionally do that. I like to tell the story that my wife teaches kindergarten. And she, so she works with 25 five year olds, all day, and she’ll come home from work, and I often have to read the kitchen, and like, as I’m typing emails what I’m doing is very important. She’ll tell me an interesting thing that has happened. And I’ll keep working. And she’ll say “Did you really hear what I just said?” And I’ll say “yeah, of course, of course I did. I love you. You’re the most important thing in my whole life.” And she said “well what did I just say?” I’m busted right? So we tell ourselves that we can be engaged in those places, multiple times, but it’s just not possible, man. Engagement is such an intense phenomenon that to be engaged means that we have to make some decisions. And to make some decisions, we have to have the capacity to do that. So at work one, of the things that we’ve been talking about a lot is what are the leader behaviors that build capacity, and that do not take capacity. Some of that’s process-oriented, some of that’s organizational structures, some of that stuff is resources. It’s defining work expectations. It’s making sure that we’re all connected as a team and building on our strengths. But the idea of capacity right now is pre covid. It was huge. Right now, it should be one of the only things people are talking about.

Charley Miller 11:38
That’s really interesting. So we’re talking, obviously communications as a part of it but really we’re talking purpose, dignity, capacity–those are the big, big themes here. So, you’ve obviously met a lot of people who are also researching this across the world. Who are some other people that you would recommend people dig into, follow online, to just learn more about all the things that are blooming in this field?

Brad Shuck 12:12
Yes. So, there are a couple of books, though. The first is right now a lot of folks are talking about compassion, and how compassion is impacting our space at work. Jane Dutton, out of the Center for Positive Psychology, up, up north, I think it’s up at the University of Michigan is a group that I would follow. Incredibly practical, really really solid research good stuff.

There’s a gentleman by the name of Wilmar Shaufeli, who works at Utrecht University over in the Netherlands and Wilmar is a good friend of mine. The reason I would recommend his work is he started off in occupational health and safety. And he pioneered the idea of burnout in the early 80s with his research team, so he’s been doing this for a very long time. And from burnout, he kind of developed this idea of engaged work engagement which we talked about in our research. And so what I love about Wilmar’s work is it helps us understand kind of the continuum of engagement, and how that impacts things like burnout, exhaustion, depersonalization, and how I feel. So I would imagine that’s would be incredibly relevant research right now in the healthcare field. If I’m the healthcare leader, I want to know everything I can about burnout. I want to know everything I can about emotional exhaustion and how that’s impacting outcomes like safety, people feeling like they’re connected as a part of the team. Those would be things that I would, I would focus on.

The last person I recommend that people take a look at is a guy by the name of William Kahn, who works up in Boston. A lot of my own research is grounded in, and so the early theories that he came up with many he basically said that there are these three pillars of engagement. The first is meaning, and whether or not I see meaning in my work. The second is safety physical safety social safety psychological safety, and then resource availability so whether or not I have the resources to be able to do my job, or do I know the answer to a question. If I don’t know the answer to a question, I don’t have the resource for it I won’t raise my hand for. So those three pillars meaningfulness safety and resource availability are really really important when we’re thinking about developing cultures, programs and interventions that are driving engagement at work. So those are the three people that off the top of my head that I would encourage you to take a look at. yeah.

William Kahn [said ]there are three pillars of engagement. The first is meaning, and whether or not I see meaning in my work. The second is safety physical safety social safety psychological safety. And then resource availability…so whether or not I have the resources to be able to do my job, or do I know the answer to a question.

Dr. Brad Shuck

Charley Miller 14:40
Interesting for you to mention healthcare professionals with what’s going on with covid 19. I know, last year before the pandemic, I came across some studies that showed burnout was particularly high in the medical profession doctors, and it’s kind of getting worse, year after year. I know a personal story of some doctors that are burning out, and that’s why I started looking into this. Definitely have a fear now what’s happening it’s gonna just get worse right, so I’m glad to hear you bring that point up. We can kind of raise the alarm that we need to be thinking about those people. So bring this back to Unitonomy, which is obviously my startup. You’ve been a thought leader and an advisor, with us developing our OrgVitals product that’s a people analytics system, where we really focus on the employee experience and we focus on performance in the context of collaboration and how it cultures performing. I would love to hear in your own words what drew you into Unitonomy and what you think about the potential.

Brad Shuck 15:46
Yeah. So, um, let me echo the issue of burnout. I think it is particularly salient right now, and I think Unitonomy plays, could play a huge part here. You know burnout is about listening to the employee experience. It isn’t about taking a snapshot, isn’t about taking a couple of pulses here and there. It really is about listening in to the employee experience, and how people are feeling on a day to day basis and how this is fluctuating throughout the day. One of the really important points. Another really important point about employee engagement is that you can’t be engaged 100% for the rest of your life, it’s not possible. And there’s so many examples. Like I would, I would think about the healthcare space right now. It’s like running a triathlon. Right, it’s a lot. It’s a war, it’s a long race. We got a long way to go before we’re out of this. And so at the end of the triathlon, you’ve got to rest at it, or your body breaks down. And so mentally in the healthcare space right now I think that’s that’s really important for us to think about.

I think what Unitonomy uniquely does is it listens to that experience, and then it allows a leader to understand these different matrices of how people feel like they’re collaborating, how they’re networked across the organization, how they are in the engagement space, are they at or over capacity how connected are they to the, to the organization into their teams, and then it gives a real time information about that holistic experience. And I think that’s the magic sauce here is that my experience of work isn’t one dimensional. It’s dynamic and it’s in it’s multifaceted. What drew me to Unitonomy is the natural language processing and the use of AI and the engine behind it, and how it is understanding that experience, and then helping leaders make better decisions in the moment to intervene, to help support, to connect, to communicate, to appreciate, to recognize, and to lead in a very, very different way.

What drew me to Unitonomy is the natural language processing and the use of AI and the engine behind it, and how it is understanding that experience, and then helping leaders make better decisions in the moment to intervene, to help support, to connect, to communicate, to appreciate, to recognize, and to lead in a very, very different way.

Dr. Brad Shuck

Charley Miller 17:57
Keyword you just said there’s “intervene.” So I’ve had people ask me before “is Unitonomy a way to like know who you should fire?” and I always say no, that’s not it, you’re totally missing the point, if that’s what you think this is. This is about intervening, reorienting people, especially when you start to see all the ways we can trigger sort of warnings of burnout, which can come in a lot of different ways. Right? Sometimes it’s, to your point of employee engagement, is turning trending in the wrong way you can nip that in the bud, hopefully, but other times it can be just capacity overload if you recognize even engagement strong if capacity overload runs high for a while. That’s like if I run my car low on oil, it may you may not see smoke coming out the engine yet but it’s coming. Just wait another mile or 10. Those are some examples, so it’s great to hear you say that and the passion you brought. But also, you know, when we first started we did what I think a lot of companies do thinking “Oh, employee engagement it’s the end all be all sort of the bellwether of how this person feels” and I’ve learned that it’s not. We can go so much deeper when we think about connectedness and capacity and just pure stress and talk about what’s happening right now medical professionals you know stress it’s absolutely got to be skyrocketing. And that’s kind of be tricky to deal with.

This is about intervening, reorienting people–especially when you start to see all the ways we can trigger…warnings of burnout, which can come in a lot of different ways

Charley Miller, Founder of Unitonomy

Brad Shuck 19:09
You know I think about allostatic load right which is something that we’ve kind of taken a look at with Unitonomy and a word vitalism, and that wear and tear on somebody’s body. So I you know I think about folks who are considered essential workers right now. Um, I’ve seen a lot of like graphics and in cartoons around like Superman given his cape to uh to some nurses or Superman given his cape to truck drivers who are moving our supply chain across the country. There’s, there’s a cost for that, like I want to be really clear like there, there will be a cost for that. And Martin Low brought something up on one of our first webcasts that our legacy as an organization will be so defined by the way people feel like they’re getting treated right now. I think that’s a really important point and that that wear and tear on the body in the way that we take care of each other through collaboration, through staying very connected through being adaptable is going to be really important as we think about how we’re going to emerge out of this in the next couple of months. And it is so not business as usual, there is nothing usual about this. There is a new normal that is emerging and it is emerging on a global scale in a way that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I’ve never seen anything like this, where there is no country, there is no community, there is no industry, there is no profession that will not be immediately impacted by this, and the long term implications of this are going to be on an absolutely massive scale.

Charley Miller 20:45
He put a picture in my head of maybe the superhero movie we deserve which is not about the superheroes saving the day, it’s about the next day, and the superhero dealing with the post-traumatic stress the secondary stress. The secondary trauma as they call it. And, which is a real problem that we are not very accustomed to as a culture. And I think everything that’s going to happen through this pandemic. We need to start preparing, having conversations about how do we support our colleagues, our families, our friends, as we adapt. Like you’re saying, there is a new normal. Things are not going to go back I don’t think to a pre covid 19 world, but I think a lot of good things are gonna come out of this to just kind of end on a note of optimism here. And I’m hoping there’s gonna be more conversations like this. I’ve noticed something for about the last four or five years from the research I’ve been reading, from the conversations I’ve been involved in the sort of startup world where people realize hey, you can actually influence the culture, you can cultivate your work culture. We’re starting to learn some methods to do that, and we realize if we need to get ahead of this as a growing company, don’t just wait for culture to develop haphazardly over in the corner. Don’t wait until your company 500 people to then think about “hey how do we make this place, healthy to work at.” Let’s take this on from the beginning. And, you know, I’ve heard a few people talk to me about you know Unitonomy “you guys kind of were built to help support remote teams….well, this pandemic, what do you think about it?” Then I say, well, it feels like it’s accelerating the remote movement and people having the flexibility to work remotely by about five years in the course of like a month. Right. Well, probably saying the same thing right now, that maybe what’s happening is pandemic is getting an acceleration of many years around conversations like this, where people are thinking about we’ve got to think about this other aspect. Back to the superhero metaphor, it’s not just about doing the work and looking at the engagement of the work, but we need to be looking holistically at a much larger context of the well-being of the employee and of the team through collaboration and starting to think “what can we do to prepare to keep this successful for the long term?” And not just look at short term intervals and results.

You can actually influence the culture, you can cultivate your work culture. We’re starting to learn some methods to do that, and we realize if we need to get ahead of this as a growing company, don’t just wait for culture to develop haphazardly over in the corner. Don’t wait until your company is 500 people to then think about “hey how do we make this place, healthy to work at.” Let’s take this on from the beginning.

Chaley Miller, Founder of Unitonomy

Brad Shuck 23:00
I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m a real quick plug here, the research that we’re doing at the University is beginning to look at the health impacts of work, both the good stuff and the not so good stuff. And maybe the stuff that has no judgment, but just has to get done, right? Like how do these experiences, without passing a judgment on them, how do they impact people in their, their health outcomes? So things like stress, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, addiction behaviors sleeping patterns, things like that. And so we’re, we’re very excited we’ve collected some pilot data around that. Have an amazing team at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, School of Public Health, and the department of communications is helping with that. And we’re thinking about all that. But before I forget, I do want to give a stroke I think you would agree with me. We’re indebted to those folks who are the essential workers today. I have a lot of medical faculty, nurses, CNAs, people that work in hospitals and pharmacies on my own Facebook feed and LinkedIn, who I’m reading these just gut-wrenching stories from to the truckers who are keeping our supply lines open, to the grocery store clerks who are scanning our groceries, to the folks who are restocking shelves. Guys, we’re, we’re just incredibly indebted to you guys. This country would not operate without you. And we are thinking about you all the time,

Charley Miller 24:32
And I also don’t believe we could without the custodians, like the people, especially in the hospitals. They’re doing their best to keep the environment sterilized so all the frontline emergency workers can perform their jobs and feel safe or safe as they can possibly feel with what’s going on. That is a really nice way to end the show. I got one last question for you just to keep it a little lighter here. Tell me what’s your favorite distraction right now.

Brad Shuck 24:58
My favorite distraction right now is a game night here at our house. So, I think I may have shared with you we opened the Shuck School for Reading Arts, and for building here at, at the Shuck house. And we have a family game night Uno Attack is pretty heated and competitive. Yesterday we opened up a 750 piece puzzle, and which is a little challenge for us which is good. So right now, man. My favorite distraction has been here with my family hanging out with those with my wife or my daughter and and spending time just kind of goofing off having fun keeping it light. And you know what, we haven’t laughed this much, a long, long time. It’s been a long time since we’ve kind of come together like this for many many days in a row, and just laughed and laughed and had fun,

Charley Miller 25:44
That’s inspiring and a great answer being a game designer. Definitely, that’s the right way to do it if you’re me. Oh, Brad thank you so much for this time so awesome, listening to you and your stories and all the things you’re passionate about. So really appreciate it.

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