The COVID-19 pandemic that enveloped our world this past year has changed almost everything, including the way we live, work and play. Even now, a full year after the pandemic hit, things are still unsettled.
COVID-19 has not just changed the way that people work, but it has possibly forever changed where they work. Drive past a high-rise office building in any large city, and you will most likely see … nothing. Most of the employees who worked in cubicles and offices in these buildings are still working remotely because of the pandemic.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, less than 10% of the American workforce worked remotely before COVID-19. Care to guess what that number changed to after the pandemic began? Try a staggering 64%.
This increase means that a large number of employees have had to adapt to working remotely. But how did they do it, and what challenges did the move to a remote work environment present?
Working from home or relocating work to home?
Before looking at employee engagement in a remote working environment, we need to establish the difference between working from home as opposed to relocating work to home. If people live in a climate where severe weather is going to impact travel and they can’t go into the office for a couple of days, that is working from home.
However, when people are going to be working at home for four, six, eight months or longer like they have during the pandemic, that isn’t working from home — that’s relocating work to home. With a temporary situation, there is no need for resources, no real preparation or mindshift required. But the way things are now, many employees are going through a life-shift change, not just a work-location change. They must create an entire working environment from home.
In relocating work to home, people essentially become detached and disconnected from previous work environments. People handle this situation differently. The question then arises, “How do employees remain engaged in today’s remote working world?”
Make a plan for engagement
I heard a colleague say recently that it was so challenging to keep employees engaged in this remote working environment.
I said, “Let me ask you a question: Is it hard because you had a plan and that plan didn’t work out, or is it because you didn’t have a plan at all?” He said that he had a plan that he would incorporate when his company got back on-site.
Instead of adapting to the new environment and creating the circumstances that will improve engagement, this manager was just trying to touch base with employees until things went back to the way they were before.
Remote working has caused people to lose their sense of purpose. We all need to feel like we have somewhere to go and something to do. People need to “get up for work.” They also need to have that psychological separation from work and home. Employees need to create a schedule of their daily tasks and responsibilities as if they were in the office.
No matter what their home working environment may be, employees still have a job to do and a responsibility to be engaged every day. And that starts with a daily plan.
Get support to stay engaged
Employee engagement depends on a person’s support groups. Employees need to find ways to connect with co-workers remotely. When people were working face to face, there was time in the break room or lunchroom or in cubicles to discuss how weekends were, how families were doing and the big sports game from the night before.
Too often, working remotely is all business. Online meetings start, business is discussed, the meeting ends, and everyone jumps off to go to the next call. Engagement grows with a purposeful effort to connect with friends, family and co-workers. Many people who had a support system in the office are now missing that, which has a significant impact on people’s ability to remain engaged.
Organize your employee engagement
When employees go to work in an office, they know where things are located. There is almost always a person who makes sure that employees have what they need — office supplies, printer ink, etc. When working at home, this responsibility falls on each employee, and not everyone can do that.
There are many more distractions at home than when working in an office. At home, employees are also responsible for reminders about timelines, deadlines and when and how to minimize distractions. This requires discipline and commitment.
Leaders’ role in engagement
Facilitate meeting interaction
Today’s online remote working environment lacks the social interaction that comes with employees working together in an office. As a result, leaders need to conduct online meetings the same way they would if they were in person.
With an in-person meeting, there is some expectation that there will be small talk and connection. With online meetings, there is no such expectation. Leaders need to facilitate online meetings with the same compassion as they do with face-to-face meetings.
Be more intentional
It’s nice to be recognized. The right words or expressions can change a person’s day. In our remote working environment, leaders need to be more intentional in recognizing employee efforts. It can be simple things like a compliment or praise for a task done well.
The point is that leaders need to be aware of opportunities and make a concerted effort to recognize employees. Noticing employees, and including them in conversations, will lead to many more cameras being on during online meetings and much more engagement. Leaders have responsibilities and pressures every day that most employees are insulated from, but that still doesn’t absolve them from focusing on keeping their workforce engaged.
Value employees’ time
Leaders need to value and respect employees’ time to help foster engagement. They need to step back and ask themselves: “How can we create effective online meetings and respect people’s time online like we would if things were happening face to face?” If a meeting is scheduled for 60 minutes, then wrap it up after that and be respectful. And just because someone has a 15-minute window of availability during their day doesn’t mean that it must be filled.
Employee engagement starts with you
Employee engagement is different in today’s remote working environment. It is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Keeping employees engaged is also not only the responsibility of management. Employee engagement is a two-way street. Leaders need to be more strategic and intentional in their efforts to keep employees engaged. However, employees also play a vital role in engagement. They need to plan, organize and schedule their home environment so that it will become an engaging atmosphere.
David L. Bartholomew III is the global director of leadership development and organizational effectiveness at Myrtle Consulting Group, now a part of Accenture. Myrtle is a firm that drives operational transformation within global manufacturing, processing and distribution organizations.
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