In recent weeks, some businesses have begun to re-open, welcoming staff back and adapting to new work environments. Nonetheless, most organizations continue to grapple with a near-total remote workforce and its impacts on employee engagement and productivity. With uncertain timelines for opening back up and the prospect of a second Covid-19 wave looming, organizations will increasingly be turning to remote work. Rather than view it as a short-term experiment, organizations should prepare managers to invest in and optimize the remote work experience for their teams.
Getting Familiar with Remote Work Quickly
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting quarantine, remote work was typically seen as supplementary to the office experience. A team member may have worked remotely 1 or 2 days a week, but their core workspace was the office. Similarly, members of a team may have worked remotely full-time, but the core team environment was the office. Even remote teams oriented themselves around their in-office counterparts. Under this model the importance of remote work conditions and culture were often undervalued. Many organizations were then caught off guard when almost overnight entire offices emptied out and began working remotely full-time from home.
From the outset, re-orienting entire teams to function remotely has presented challenges to organizational culture and employee engagement. However, as time has passed, managers of high performing teams have addressed these challenges by investing in employee engagement and team building. The results of these efforts have yielded improved employee satisfaction and greater productivity. As remote work moves from the periphery to the core of many more organizations, effective managers will create strong cultures that improve organizations’ performances.
High Impact Areas for Improving Employee Engagement
The most immediate challenge organizations encounter is aligning their remote communication to meet realities that were addressed previously by face-to-face interactions. Now is the time to review communication channels with the consideration that each one should provide a clear purpose and experience.
An instant messenger is appropriate for day-to-day informal messaging and team chats that create a shared space and sense of community. Make sure team influencers are active on this channel with the goal of engaging the team to share photos, GIFs, and more relaxed content. Formal project-centred conversations can be carried on through email threads that can include clients and help keep objectives and progress on track. Additionally, a project management application, like Trello or Slack, may prove helpful for delegating and tracking complex projects distributed across multiple teams.
Scheduled meetings should be conducted using video conferences whenever possible. There is significant value in seeing teammates faces and interacting by video. The added cues of facial expressions improve teams’ personal connections and employees are less likely to misinterpret each other’s tones or messaging. Group video calls also make it more natural to solicit opinions and ensure all team members’ voices are heard rather than only in audio. Managers can also use video calls to get a read on how employees are doing and check if anyone appears to be struggling.
The goal of these different communication channels is to recreate the value of the different modes of communication found in the office. If an informal discussion progresses to involve someone not present, that person should be looped into a video call just as they would be called over in the office. From formal meetings to impromptu water cooler chats, remote communication channels should be streamlined to meet similar functions.
Even after employees return to the office it is likely that an increasing number will continue to work remotely at least some of the time. This will present a challenge for managing employee performance and tracking progress. The key will be to focus on outcomes. While there will be times members will need their schedules in synch, there will also be more opportunities for employees to create their own schedules. The aim should be to measure results and avoid micro-managing employees’ agendas.
To facilitate this, managers’ roles will have to evolve to provide better feedback. A simple yet effective practice is to increase the frequency and scope of one on one check-ins. Too often, feedback comes only when there is an issue to resolve or after a project is complete. Managers should set up a routine weekly time to discuss a wide range of topics, including positive recognition and time for constructive feedback.
Remote workers are also more likely to value self direction. This time should be used for receiving their feedback and collaboratively setting goals that can serve as benchmarks moving forward. Not only does this help managers track employee performance, it helps remote workers feel more visible and engaged.
Growth and Development
A common concern for remote workers is that their contributions are not seen or that they are overlooked as a member of the team relative to those in-office. At times, employees working remotely can risk feeling like freelancers; setting their own schedules and targets. Over time, this narrows their focus to short term goals and lowers their overall engagement in the organization. As well as an opportunity to express recognition, manager check-ins are also an important mechanism for the professional development of remote employees.
Employee engagement is strongly linked to development and growth opportunities, especially among younger team members. Like any employees, remote workers can be motivated when presented with a development path that is organized into manageable steps forward. When necessary, managers must provide the coaching and training remotely, demonstrating that they are as valued as in-office team members.
Is Remote Work a Worthwhile Investment?
Organizations and employees alike seem eager to adopt more remote work opportunities moving forward. There are many potential upsides including improved work/life balance and employee satisfaction. However, it also carries the risk of weakening organizational culture and isolating employees, thereby leading to poor overall performance. To successfully accomplish this transition, organizations will have to rely heavily on managers improving the remote employee experience. While challenging in the near term, the result can be stronger employee engagement and a high performing results-based culture. This outcome makes it a worthwhile investment for both remote workers and their organizations.
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