Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance, Talent

Maintaining Engagement with Remote Workers

When looking at hard figures around metrics like revenue, costs, and profits, employee engagement can seem a bit fluffy. It’s far more subjective than tracking actual dollar amounts. But it’s a huge mistake to dismiss employee engagement as fluff.


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Employee engagement is directly tied to employee recruitment and retention, as well as productivity. Companies that attract and retain the best staff and generate the greatest productivity are going to see real benefits in the hard numbers.

Unfortunately, employee engagement is difficult for many organizations, even in the best of times. Whether they find the work unfulfilling or tedious, they don’t feel they are adequately compensated, they don’t click with their boss or coworkers, or a variety of other reasons, many employees simply lack true engagement.

Engagement in Trying Times

Obviously, we are not currently in the best of times. The rapid outbreak of COVID-19 has led to local, state, and national shutdowns; quarantines; and “shelter-in-place” orders around the world.

For businesses fortunate enough to continue operations through remote work, the issue of employee engagement becomes a key concern. How do you work to maintain engagement when employees are suddenly forced into a new work environment and have concerns over basic needs, child care, and the health of themselves and their families?

We spoke to some industry experts to get some tips, advice, and strategies to boost and maintain employee engagement, even during the worst of times.

Set Realistic Expectations

When American state and local governments started ordering business shutdowns and social distancing measures in early March, many were initially set to last a couple of weeks or end on a specific date, often sometime in April. But health experts, including the U.S. Surgeon General, are doubtful that 2 weeks will be enough to get us through the COVID-19 crisis.

In most cases, employers themselves aren’t the ones deciding the length of remote work requirements, and there is so much that is still unknown. Still, employers should be clear with employees that it is far from certain that work from home will be over anytime soon.

In fact, employers may find the arrangement effective and continue the policy after the real danger from COVID-19 has passed. “Broadly speaking I believe, as a silver lining, this moment in time will be an interesting test case for a fully remote workforce,” says Chris Cabrera, CEO of Xactly. “What will happen if more employees are more productive as a result of this shift to working from home? What if sales cycles remain the same?”

Regular Touch Points

Just because your staff isn’t meeting face-to-face doesn’t mean you can’t still touch base with them one-on-one or as a team in real time. Advances in telecommunications technology have made this arrangement a successful reality for millions of remote workers well before COVID-19 emerged to press the issue.

But, for most employees suddenly working remotely, this is a new experience. Maintaining regular touch points can help keep staff focused on their work and give managers an idea of who might be struggling and need additional attention.

Many of the experts who provided input on this subject stressed the importance of maintaining regular touch points with staff during the remote working period. This can include mandatory morning meetings via conference call or teleconference, for example. Managers should also continue and even consider increasing any regular one-on-one or team meetings with staff.

Keep Them Busy

Depending on the organization, the employee, and the effectiveness of managers, remote work can be more or less productive than being at the office. Companies should set the expectation that employees should be just as, if not more, productive working at home, and it’s the manager’s job to ensure workloads and productivity are carefully monitored and managed.

“This is a critical time to have projects, deadlines, and deliverables front and center in any business,” says Antonia Hock, global head of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. “Employees should be actively engaged in work that keeps business moving forward. Idle downtime gives people time to worry, gossip, and fret over the circumstances, and dwell on negative press. This is time to be engaged on projects that have important meaning to business functions and for clients and customers.”

Acknowledge the Hardship and Show Gratitude

Managers and business owners are under a tremendous amount of stress in the midst of this pandemic, with many facing the very real prospect of massive layoffs, reductions in hours, and even bankruptcies and business closures.

Still, they need to be conscious of the fact that these anxieties are felt all the way down the chain, and many employees are working remotely for the first time, not to mention the added stress working parents face having to care for and home-school their children.

Staying conscious of this strain and remembering to regularly acknowledge and thank employees for their hard work and sacrifices will go a long way in these difficult times.

“We can’t ignore the impact of frequent expressions of gratitude for employees’ efforts as a huge motivation and productivity booster during tough times,” says Adrian Gostick, The New York Times best-selling author of Leading with Gratitude and cofounder of The Culture Works training firm.

“By withholding our gratitude in tough times, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot. Even well-intentioned leaders can become self-absorbed when things get challenging,” Gostick says. “We need to jolt ourselves out of our self-centeredness. When we are more mindful, more aware, more thankful, everybody’s more engaged, focused, and productive.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a workplace situation no one has ever seen before. Comparisons to previous pandemics like the 1918 Spanish flu fall short, as we are in a unique technological position in which a significant amount of the work of millions of Americans can be performed remotely. That’s the good news.

The challenge for employers and managers is how to get that remote work done while keeping huge numbers of remote employees engaged and productive. Following the tips above can put you on the right path toward productivity, engagement, and mutual success during a very difficult time when the future state is still highly unknown.