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April | Culture by Design | Read time: calculating...

Employee engagement: 12 ways to boost engagement in remote working teams

As the novelty of remote working wears off for many employees, how can you keep engagement and productivity up in your team? The answer is certainty, not fear.

Employee engagement: what does it look like?

Engaged employees bring their all to work, new ideas to the table, and have higher levels of enthusiasm and connection with their organisation. A measure of engagement can be used to inform policies around performance, innovation and employee retention. Highly engaged employees can be relied upon to spearhead changes that take the business in new directions and to new heights.

On the other hand, team members who are disengaged, or checked-out, cost businesses dearly. According to a Gallup poll prior to COVID-19, only 15% of employees worldwide were engaged at work, costing national economies billions of dollars. Those unhappy, sarcastic team members affect the customer experience, diminish other employees’ enjoyment of their job, affect the bottom line and yes, even our GDP.

Employee engagement at work is an attitude which shapes all other interactions in the workplace. It’s ‘bringing your best self to work’, being confident about what needs to be done to achieve the company’s aims, and a feeling of belonging within the organisation. As remote working has shifted what the workplace looks like, employee engagement is also at risk.

Any kind of business transformation will bring about questions that leaders must be ready to address head-on. This is no time for ambiguity. Are you still pursuing the same mission? Has the role changed? What are the priorities now, or for the six months? What are we doing to all get through this?

Employee engagement in the era of COVID and remote work

There is no way to know when lockdowns will be lifted, or how the next few weeks and months will fare for people and organisations. We can be sure that the effects of COVID-19 will be felt beyond six months, and well into the 2020s. 

The rapid uptake of remote working as a matter of necessity has proven that it has a place in ‘the new normal’. Many of the employees currently working from home will continue to do so, and least in part, whether there’s a widely available vaccine or not.

There are benefits to the practice. A US study into Alternative Work Arrangements showed that employees valued the ability to work from home at 8% of their wages. A 2015 study in The Quarterly Journal of Economics shows that home working led to a 13% performance increase. However, those are US and Chinese studies, respectively. How will Australia – with its culture of the Sunday session, the smoko and ‘taking a bluey’ – fare when people are expected to work remotely?

In 2016, when a visit to the pub wasn’t a crime, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that almost a third of all employed Australians regularly worked from home in their main job or business. That included those who ‘took work home to finish’. The rate at which working from home had been steadily rising, thanks in part to the growing number of ‘knowledge working’ employees and improvements to internet connections and tech security. 

2020 has taken everyone by surprise. Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress and Tumblr owner said in March, “This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold.” 

According to a recent EY survey, initial concerns around working from home related to IT infrastructure. With that largely being met, it showed that “around 70% of the organisations believe that the single biggest concern for continued remote working is fall in productivity.”

A meta-analysis of 46 studies found that working from home more than 2.5 days a week could negatively affect relationships with co-worker’s as well as knowledge transfer.

With the advent of this global pandemic, business travel and where we choose to work will also change. Biosecurity has long been a priority for Australia; in the future we’ll have to worry about more than forgetting the banana in the carry-on from Singapore. Travel will not be easy for a long time yet, especially international travel. Will we see a mandatory quarantine period that requires working from home after every vacation?

As mentioned, there are many positives to the situation. Many start-ups begin with remote working to keep overheads low, which is desperately needed as many businesses will see reduced turnover for some time. Many employees enjoy the flexibility of working from home. But still the large challenge businesses face is keeping productivity up through supporting employee engagement. 

12 steps you can take to grow and nurture employee engagement for remote teams

To help, I’ve outlined 12 steps that every employer, small and large, can take to grow and nurture employee engagement for remote teams.

1. Define goals and priorities for remote employees

You can’t kick a goal if you don’t know where the posts are. Sorry, I know a lot of people are missing the AFL and NRL right now. Agreeing on the company goals, big rocks, and small steppingstones to reach them are essential for engaging in work. A task might just be one part of a report, but how that feeds into the big picture, and having a deadline helps streamline the process and gives it context.

2. Establish/update internal communications strategy

How will you stay in touch, and how often? There are plenty of platforms for keeping the flow of information moving, Microsoft Teams, Hangouts, Zoom, Webex, Slack, Monday, Asana… all have their place in communication. What’s an acceptable response time for each channel? Understanding expectations allows us to meet them with less frustration.

3. Ensure regular communication 1:1 and with team

Leadership involves broadcasting a consistent message across the company, as well as listening to feedback. One-to-one communication allows employees to feel heard, offer suggestions and raise concerns, all of which are essential at a time when psychological safety may feel under threat.

4. Be proactive about improving employee engagement

Checking in can let employees know their work is being valued but can be seen as a micromanagement infringement on autonomy, so be careful how you go about it. When agreeing on the outcome (or deliverables), ask when suits the employee for a check-in. We’re checking in, not ‘chasing up’ – use the time as a chance to identify wins or roadblocks that may prevent work from being taken to completion.

5. Encourage collaboration between remote employees

If your project management tools can’t create groups for collaboration, it may be time to consider a switch, ASAP. Working remotely can lead to feelings of isolation and disengagement. Working collaboratively to or problem-solve means engaging directly with another human being, or a few of them, which amplifies energy and passion for work.

6. Make relevant employee information easily accessible

Not having essential information is frustrating, disempowering and can lead to disengagement. Online tools such as Nuclino allow information (such as processes or how-to guides) to be easily accessible to a team as and when it’s needed. Leaders also need to make company updates regularly and in an accessible way. Can you record a weekly announcement to bring clarity to the company’s position and next steps?

7. Inject fun in the day-to-day to boost employee engagement

A workplace is more than a place of work. We hire people, not task machines, and their personality or lived experience adds to their value in the workplace. Working remotely can mean missing the shared culture of the office, including jokes and casual water cooler conversations. Set up a more casual channel of communication, maybe a Facebook group or company-wide Slack channel, for sharing some sunshine in these overcast days. Weekly challenges, memes, shoutouts – whatever suits your company culture should be nurtured.

8. Empower your team to make their own decisions

Remember your teenage self being told what to do by your parents? For many, it was almost a goal to get away with NOT doing what they asked. I’m not suggesting that employees are ambivalent teenagers, however every one of them will thrive and be more engaged if they are empowered to make decisions. If they know the goal and the expectations, very few choices could or would cause irreparable damage. In fact, employee empowerment frees up the decision bottleneck, especially when an upline is in another time zone.

9. Support knowledge sharing and feedback between peers

A daily wrap, a weekly reflection, a channel to share insights or inspiration – even one of these is useful in lighting up the spark of employee engagement. Consider formalising the structure of your weekly Zoom wraps. We use ‘buzzes’ and admit ‘fizzes’ to share wins, losses and roadblocks, allowing everyone to help solve problems in a group mind, rather than in (self) isolation.

10. Introduce or solidify a working from home policy

Setting expectations on paper helps bring clarity to the sometimes-pixelated remote working situation. Asking employees to sign and agree to those terms (do get them cleared by legal), is a step beyond a social contract, allowing employees to give their all during agreed working hours.

11. Be flexible 

Everything is up in the air, and some things change between the morning paper and the evening news. We need to respect that people’s lives are in flux outside the office; kids may need to be cared for at home, the 9-to-5 has never been ideal for everyone. Rather than forcing an ideal situation for the company, encourage employee engagement by focusing on results as opposed to working hours.

12. Be transparent

We cannot stress this enough: be transparent with your team. Even the uncertainty around pasta in the shops is making some people come to blows. As much as possible, keep your team informed about how the business is performing, whether you’ll be applying for relevant government relief funding and what steps are being taken to ensure job security. It’s better to deliver a harsh reality than an unrealistic fantasy.

What are the next steps? 

Embracing a move to remote working has plenty of benefits. It’s been a leveller to some degree, and your HR team now has access to the best talent in the world, not just in your neighbourhood. By embracing remote working, and focusing on improving employee engagement, this new normal could be just the change that we’ve needed.

For more information and guidance about leadership for business transformation in the digital age, please get in touch. We’re happy to discuss your challenges over Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, or the old-fashioned telephone and email.

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