The pandemic fundamentally changed the way the world works. Ideas that were only in the periphery got pushed into the mainstream and have been widely accepted. The most important one among them is the concept of remote work. What was introduced as a viable solution in a locked-down world, remote work has now become regularized the world over.
This isn’t to suggest that things have been seamless. In fact, for most organizations, it was the exact opposite of that. When remote work was initially introduced, human resource teams and business leaders had no actionable frameworks for the concept. They introduced it out of necessity and not as part of a diligently executed action plan.
There was no playbook and no case studies to learn from. Everyone was scrambling for a solution and remote work was the only one on the table.
Remote work, productivity, and engagement
A year and a half later, it’s time to ask how this new normal has worked out. Has it improved productivity? Did it lead to greater engagement? Are employees demanding to be let back into the office? Have companies made it their permanent model of work?
On the productivity front, some companies seem to have good news. A study from Stanford found out that productivity went up by 13 percent when working from home. 68 percent of employers also believed that the productivity of their employees had increased. Attrition rates also saw a decline of almost 50 percent when people were working from home.
But researchers from Chicago Booth and the University of Essex found out in a meta-analysis that productivity had decreased by 20 percent. In their survey, Upwork learned that 22.5 percent of managers believed that productivity had decreased.
It’s a mixed bag on productivity, although most companies - and employees - see the future as hybrid. As Harvard Business Review predicts, the future could be WFA or work from anywhere. What about employee engagement then? One study found out that engagement was a whopping 182 percent less for remote employees when compared to those who worked in person.
Decreasing employee engagement is of serious concern to organizations. More than remuneration or titles, what employees seek is meaning and purpose in work that result in engagement. Disengaged employees cost the US economy $550 billion every year in lost productivity. That’s an astounding figure that should get the attention of all employers.
The importance of employee engagement
But what exactly is employee engagement? It can be defined as an employee’s involvement and dedication to their job, organization, and its mission. Employee engagement is a driver of productivity and innovation. It’s how an employee would relate to their job and their company, which would decide how involved they might be in their jobs and how long they would stay with the organization.
Employee engagement isn’t merely a function of compensation. It’s the result of a set of policies and frameworks that create happier workplaces. The net result is a company culture that values employee wellbeing and their holistic growth. Companies with a culture of greater employee engagement will find it easier to acquire and retain employees.
If employee engagement was always important, there’s renewed focus on it as a result of the pandemic. As Anthony Klotz from Texas A & M reminded the world, the Great Resignation is already here and millions of employees are already quitting. Organizations need to actively pursue policies to improve employee engagement. To help you, here are ten ways in which your company can work toward engaging remote employees.
10 ways to engage remote employees
1. Develop a remote-first framework
Organizations should rewire their approaches toward a remote-first workplace. In this framework, the most important aspect is communication. Employees should know what’s expected of them within a viable timeframe. Managers shouldn’t assume that everyone is in the loop because there are no casual employee-manager interactions that would usually clear the air.
Along with understanding the objective, employees should also be told about their roles. Instead of doing it at a generic level, it’s important for team leaders to convey that at individual levels. That will increase cohesion and productivity since there will be no need to repeatedly reach out to managers for clarity.
By reducing the need for constant interruptions due to meetings and phone calls, this remote-first framework will also give much-needed autonomy to employees. Engagement is a result of freedom. It demonstrates that the system trusts and respects the workforce to communicate their responsibilities and expected results.
2. Use technology to stay connected
What makes remote work happen seamlessly is technology. Organizations should facilitate communication channels that are easy to use and effortless to integrate with other applications. Whether it’s Slack, Asana, or Zoom, the goal should be streamlined project management and communication.
Through dedicated channels, project members should be able to discuss their tasks and their progress. The technological tools you use should enable file sharing and be based in the cloud for frictionless collaboration between remotely placed employees.
Whenever needed, use video conferencing tools. Instead of relying on email threads, face-to-face meetings should be encouraged between team members and their managers since it will fasten the process and make the employees feel like a collective workforce.
Consistency is key to collaboration. Employees should know about the regular meetings and who will be required to attend. This is the easiest way to make everyone feel part of the process.
3. Get constant feedback
It’s natural for employees to feel left out of the collective due to the physical distancing. This might force them not to share their grievances and suggestions because some may not be comfortable with digitally expressing themselves. Unfortunately, HR leaders also may not be aware of it since there are no informal interactions between them and the workforce.
Feedback should be integral to remote work. The key here is to understand that since employees would be working from different spaces, their notions of the workplace would also be different. Leaders should be acutely aware of this to better understand the problems faced by their team members.
The solution is to open channels of communication between teams and employees. Explain why you’re and why you’re not doing certain things. Encourage them to give feedback through the channel they’re comfortable with. Let them feel respected and valued. Employers should also give constructive feedback and share career development opportunities with employees.
4. Make available the necessary tools
In remote work, everyone is supposed to equally contribute while working with unequal resources and access to technology. Leaders should be aware of this disparity and actively listen to employees to know what tools they might need to function from their homes.
Does everyone have the right hardware? Do some people need to upgrade their laptops? How is the bandwidth in their homes? Do they have the necessary furniture to comfortably work from home?
Unless they’re asked individually or given a channel to communicate privately, employees may not open up about these needs. You can also offer imaginative solutions. If some employees don’t have adequate space to work from home, you can help them with co-working spaces in their vicinity.
5. Provide training opportunities
The pandemic and the disruptions it brought have also created uncertainty in the minds of employees. Many aren’t sure whether this is a temporary blip or if it will continue for some time. On top of that, there’s the worry about automation. Employees across industries fear that they may not have a stable job a few years down the line.
The solution to this uncertainty is to professionally empower employees. In the context of remote work, this means providing employees with digital opportunities to up-skill and re-skill. They should have the freedom to select free or subsidized courses relevant to their domain or outside of it.
While it might be tempting to mandate training, employees should be given the leeway to opt for it. Leaders should realize that employees are already under the stress of social distancing and the uncertainty around the pandemic. Mandated training might put extra pressure on the workforce and force them to be less involved in their work.
6. Celebrate employee contributions
Remotely placed workers have to manage several responsibilities while being productive members of the team. Their challenges would have increased during the pandemic, which should make their contributions feel special. Since they’re physically distant from those who work in the office, they might feel left out when contributions are appreciated.
This is why organizations should have a structured online mechanism to consistently recognize and celebrate employees. Recognition is a crucial aspect of employee engagement. To make it meaningful, the process shouldn’t be confined to an annual or quarterly event.
Employees should be publicly acknowledged for the difference they bring to the table. This will also encourage others to put in their best. It will also make employees feel part of a team that has their best interests.
7. Encourage social interactions
An office isn’t just a physical construct. It’s the combination of casual conversations and pub nights and sports discussions. The pandemic put an end to all that. With that, the collective sense of a unified office has also been significantly threatened.
This has understandably made employees feel lonely, which is bad news for not just their productivity but physical and mental health. To combat that, HR leaders should roll out opportunities to foster social interactions. These could be video chats, social hours, digital get-togethers, and non-work-related discussions.
Team leaders should also plan for company retreats while taking into account employee suggestions. These plans would get employees excited and give them something interesting to look forward to.
8. Show them you care
Don’t make it all about work and productivity. See your employees as human beings with multiple facets to their lives. Be interested in their family members and relatives. If possible, schedule digital sessions where families can get together. Ask them about their hobbies and plan conversations around what excites them outside of work.
Importantly, open avenues for people to discuss their mental wellbeing. This can be done anonymously or through private channels with counselors or psychologists. Don’t presume that just because everyone attends meetings and meets deadlines that they’re emotionally healthy. Some of the best employees might be under mental duress and may not display any signs.
It would also be immensely helpful if the leaders can kickstart the process. When someone in a leadership position publicly shares their vulnerability, it will encourage employees to open up. There won’t be any stigma associated with mental health or wellbeing if the conversations are initiated from the top.
9. Show flexibility
Not everyone’s on the same boat. Employees may prefer different options but may not speak up because they might want to side with the majority. It’s important for organizations to understand this and offer flexible options to employees.
While it’s important to hold team meetings, if it conflicts with an employee’s time with their kids or their school work, managers should show the necessary leeway. Leaders should communicate that employees have the freedom to set their work hours as long as they can meet the deadlines.
10. Cut down on meetings
Communication is the key to effective remote work. But there can be such a thing as too much communication that will feel stifling to employees. Managers should use digital channels only when necessary. There’s absolutely no need to discuss the same subject on video conferencing, email, text, and slack.
Since multi-tasking can significantly bring down productivity and increase stress, organizations shouldn’t add to it by holding unnecessary meetings. Limit interactions to only when they’re necessary. Importantly, hold meetings only with those individuals who have to be present.
By taking away the need for travel, remote work has made life easy for employees. But it has also thrown up significant challenges that can harm engagement. Companies need to be actively aware of that and pursue policies to boost participation and employee engagement.