Employee Engagement: Why it Matters
Even before we found ourselves amidst a global pandemic, remote work was on the rise.
Today’s technology-enabled workforce shifted favor towards remote work opportunities in place of the traditional office setting. Prior to the sweeping office closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies were already adopting hybrid work schedules, remote work and digital nomad policies. Remote work has many benefits, but isn’t without its downsides.
Working remotely, or telecommuting, allows employees more flexibility with their schedule, cuts back on commuting time, is better for the environment (less commuters means less c02), and can boost overall productivity.
On the other hand, without the social atmosphere of an office setting, remote work can feel lonely and disconnected. We may get more work done without the distraction of water cooler gossip, but we also find ourselves missing that sense of camaraderie and collaboration found in the office. This may lead some remote employees to feel disengaged.
Lack of engagement can be detrimental to the quality of our work, our relationship with colleagues, and our commitment to the company as a whole.
Employee engagement refers to how connected employees are to their job and their company. Research suggests that higher employee engagement has a variety of benefits, including company growth, higher employee retention, and higher customer satisfaction. So what steps can we take to make remote workers feel engaged?
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Advice From an Remote Worker
As a remote worker myself, I’ve developed several personal strategies to make the most out of my home office environment. Before the pandemic, I took advantage of coworking spaces and made an effort to meet up with other remote workers when possible. I’ve become a staunch advocate of the Pomodoro Technique to help stay focused and keep from feeling overwhelmed. I take several breaks throughout the day and if I find myself struggling to focus on a task, I might step outside for a short walk.
That said, staying engaged doesn’t fall on my shoulders alone as a remote team member. There are a lot of steps employers and HR departments can take to ensure remote employees, like myself, are staying engaged with their work. Like many of my peers, I think of my job as an extension of myself and am motivated by fulfilling work, as well as a healthy work-life balance, and a positive working environment.
Engaging Remote Employees
Communication is a key tool in every relationship, including work relationships. It’s not only the relationship between employees and their colleagues, managers, and bosses, but also the relationship an employee has with their company as a whole and with the work they do.
Without face-to-face opportunities, keeping open lines of communication can be challenging for a remote team. But there are steps you can take to facilitate stronger remote communication.
A brief but consistent weekly meeting can help maintain a space where important updates are transmitted, employees have the opportunity to ask questions, and feel connected to their team members. Check-ins can be conducted using video conferencing platforms such as Zoom or Skype, or even with non-video conference calls, and one-on-ones. If implementing this strategy, be sure to keep meetings concise and take steps to avoid “virtual meeting fatigue.” Allow your employees to participate in any feedback regarding these weekly check-ins.
Variety of Communication Channels
While it can be easy to fall back on meetings alone, using a variety of the communication tools available can help keep everyone in the loop. Collaboration tools like Slack, Basecamp, Trello, Asana, and Mural can facilitate communication in organized and creative ways. Company blogs, newsletters, and access to knowledge bases can help keep remote team members informed and up-to-date. Be sure to set clear expectations about which platforms should be used for different types of communication: for example, maybe Slack channels are for questions, meetings are for updates, and newsletters are for important internal communications.
Sense of Purpose
Completing similar tasks on a daily, weekly, and even monthly basis can start to feel monotonous. Without a sense of the big picture, it’s easy to get distracted from the meaning or purpose of your work.
Having a clear understanding of the value of our work can help boost remote employee engagement. Here are a few ways to help employees feel connected to the company goals as a whole.
Strong Company Culture
Having clear and defined company goals and values can help employees feel included and as if they are working towards a common, big picture goal. The onboarding process for new hires should be thorough enough so that employees know from day one what this goal is. Google’s 20% rule is a great example of defined values that help employees feel like their time on the job counts for more than just logged hours and gives employees a bigger sense of purpose on the job. Virtual team building activities and happy hours may also help improve remote company culture.
Awards and Recognition
It’s nice for remote employees to know what value they bring to a company, but it’s even better when they are recognized for it. According to a 2016 article from Gallup, employee recognition is a low cost, but highly effective way to boost and reward engagement. Remote employee recognition is especially important given how isolated some colleagues can feel when working virtually. Celebrating company anniversaries and milestones is also a nice way to show virtual team members how much their work is valued. Just be sure that whichever way you choose to reward an employee is personal; if the only employee on your remote team who doesn’t drink coffee or tea receives a coffee mug as a gesture of thanks, it might have the opposite effect.
Boundaries & Wellness
One of the pitfalls of remote work can be the blurred line between work-life and home-life. When working in an office, there is generally a clear schedule: work begins when we enter and ends when we leave. But with work so close to our fingertips in a remote setting, it can be hard to switch off. Working remotely often leads to longer working hours, but there is plenty of data to suggest that working longer hours does not lead to better productivity.
While each individual may have a different method, helping your employees set work boundaries and focus on well-being can help increase engagement. Here are ways to support healthy work habits.
Encourage a structured work day
Routines can help keep us organized and in control of our day. Having a set time to start and finish each day, and sticking to it, helps to ensure that remote employees are getting necessary rest time. Being systematic about taking a lunch and other smaller breaks throughout the day is also important. In fact, some data suggests that employees that take a lunch break every day score higher on engagement metrics. Keeping a dedicated workspace can also help add structure to remote work.
Weekends and vacation time
Equally important to taking breaks throughout the day is taking full days off from work. Portugal recently passed a law making it illegal for bosses to contact employees outside of working hours. While I’ll admit that sometimes an extra hour or two on a Saturday feels productive, it’s not great for long-term engagement and can lead to burnout. Ensuring that everyone on the team is taking advantage of their vacation time and sick days is important for well being. Even as the pandemic continues to limit travel, taking time away from work is as important as ever. If a remote employee is feeling sick, encourage them to take time off to rest and get better. It will pay off in the long-run.
Implementing new initiatives usually come with a few bumps in the road. These are some common mistakes to look out for when looking to improve remote team engagement.
Virtual Meeting Fatigue
As mentioned, open communication is important to maintaining engagement for remote workers. However, a common pitfall for companies trying to coerce good communication is to schedule needless check-in meetings or to create an overbearing environment. Keep virtual meetings short and concise. During group meetings, always have a clear agenda so the meeting stays relevant for all team members that are present. Ask your team for feedback on how to improve virtual meetings.
A One Size Fits All Approach
Every individual is different. While there is plenty of research to back specific techniques in increasing employee engagement, employees are individuals, not just statistics. While structured working hours might be a good approach for a remote worker like myself, a remote worker that has significant caregiving duties might need to take on a more flexible approach. Some employees may enjoy video calls, while others may feel exhausted and overwhelmed by countless virtual meetings. Be willing to hear employees out about what works best for them and change and adapt as needed.
Lack of Authenticity
There are a lot of benefits that come with having a more engaged remote workforce and therefore there is good incentive for employers and companies to work on initiatives to improve engagement. Forced and inauthentic attempts to improve engagement may do more harm than good.
If you are implementing some of these strategies for the first time, be transparent and earnest. Like everything, engaging remote workers has a learning curve. But, if you let your employees know you are open to feedback and willing to hear their ideas and opinions regarding your engagement strategy, you’ll certainly be off to a great start.