Engaging Remote Employees
- Flexible working arrangements offer a number of advantages and benefits. Accordingly, they are increasingly sought-after
- However, remote and hybrid work do present challenges, including risks of isolation, overwork, and less effective communication
- Embracing a few best practices can help flexible organizations maintain worker engagement
“There’s a before and an after Covid-19”: the statement stands true in many aspects and dimensions of our lives, chief among which is the workplace. Throughout the pandemic, countless people started working remotely, which led many businesses and individuals to shift their perceptions of working from home.
While some employees have now returned to the workplace, many others have chosen to stick with remote or hybrid work. As of June 2021, 35% of employees were working remotely.
Remote, hybrid or distributed work implies increased flexibility in work hours and arrangements — which challenges established practices in terms of HR and team management.
Business leaders need to readjust their approach in order to manage teams across a variety of locations and schedules. In particular, it can be challenging to make sure that employees remain motivated and engaged without face-to-face interaction.
Here are a few tips to maintain engagement with employees who work flexible schedules and/or from remote locations.
The Challenges of Remote Working
According to Gartner’s Hybrid Work Employee survey, 75% of employees report that their expectation to work flexibly has increased since the beginning of the pandemic. And the 2021 Gartner Digital Worker Experience Survey found that 64% of people would only consider a new position or job that allows them to work flexible hours.
Flexible working arrangements offer a number of advantages and benefits (improved work-life balance, elimination of tardiness factors, reduced absenteeism, productivity boosts, etc.). However, remote and hybrid work do present challenges.
In a physical office, employees get to see each other and interact throughout the day — if only to exchange pleasantries and banalities. This kind of in-person social interaction and conversations can be missed by remote employees, especially for those who live alone. In the UK, 80% of employees state that working from home had a negative impact on their mental health.
Some leaders and managers have felt the need to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction and the inability to check in on their employees by drastically increasing the frequency of virtual meetings — which tends to cause frustration among employees.
Overwork and Burnout
It might sound paradoxical, but remote and hybrid employees are more likely to work overtime. Blurred boundaries between private time and work time have many feel like they’re “always on”. As a matter of fact, flexible workers often report working over 50 hours a week — which may lead to burn out.
Collaboration and Communication
Another concern that is commonly associated with remote work arrangements is the quality of communication and collaboration across team members. The rarefaction of in-person, social interactions can hinder the sharing of information about goals and accountabilities, negatively impacting motivation and engagement. In a similar vein, HR leaders have expressed concerns around companies’ ability to maintain a strong organizational culture when a majority of employees work from home.
New Recruit Onboarding
Finally, flexible work arrangements can raise extra challenges in the specific case of new hires. Starting a new job is generally stressful. But doing so remotely involves extra effort (to familiarize with new technology, to establish human connections without the support of body language, etc). Accordingly, managers may need to dedicate more time and energy to make new remote employees feel welcome.
Tips and Opportunities to Maintain and Grow Engagement
It is critical for remote workers and teams to be able to depend upon robust and user-friendly digital systems to access information, communicate and collaborate seamlessly and securely when working from a distance. The quality, speed, and ergonomy of corporate digital work environments is perhaps the most important factor shaping remote employee experience.
Data and Insight Collection
The first step towards improving engagement is measuring it. Business leaders should define and implement processes to collect data and insights regarding employee well-being. Examples include surveys to ask employees how they are feeling and experiencing the new ways of working, what works and what doesn’t. It can also be helpful to implement productivity monitoring systems — keeping in mind that employees usually have a negative perception of such tools, which will require careful communication and promotion efforts. Based on your findings, you can then take action to improve working arrangements over time.
Learning and Career Advancement
The diminution of casual interactions in the office can be seen as an obstacle to skill acquisition. In fact, flexible work arrangements can actually boost and accelerate upskilling as employees are no longer limited in terms of location or time zone. The key is to leverage digital environments to create “talent marketplaces” promoting mutually beneficial connections between teams and employees.
It is equally important to offer flexible workers the same career growth and development options as on-site employees — for example through online classes and seminars.
Finally, regardless of the working conditions, it is always crucial to recognize and reward employee achievements: make sure you’re able to track and measure the performance of flexible workers in order to provide recognition when warranted.
Scheduled Check-in and Events
Maintaining employee engagement and team spirit requires establishing routines that’ll make workers feel part of the team. These can take the form of regular team meetings to touch base, monthly remote events — either work-related workshops or more casual get-togethers — or even live, in-person events bringing everyone together.
When all is said and done, let’s not forget that we’re entering uncharted territory. Flexible work is a fairly new concept, and many people and organizations are still working out the kinks. Finding the optimal arrangement for both the firm and the workers may take some trial-and-error. Accordingly, a best practice to manage a flexible workforce is… to be flexible yourself.