Employers across the nation are learning that the remote work “experiment,” brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, may actually be a favorable alternative to the typical office environment. While remote workers have proven they can successfully get work done while working from home, one challenge still remains: How do you keep remote workers engaged? And better yet, for employers with a distributed workforce, how do you keep workers engaged in different parts of the country or even the globe?
To understand how HR professionals can keep distributed workers engaged, Jeff Cates joins in the following Q&A to share his insights. Cates serves as CEO and President of Achievers, an employee voice and recognition solution that accelerates a culture of performance.
Cates’s background includes innovative marketing, product leadership, and entrepreneurship. He has worked at Apple® Canada leading its enterprise business and Hewlett Packard as vice president of its consumer division. Cates earned an MBA from the Schulich School of Business at York University and a Bachelor of Commerce degree from McMaster University.
COVID’s Impact on Engagement
HR Daily Advisor: How has workforce engagement changed in the past few months? What new challenges are leaders facing?
Cates: Almost overnight, the pandemic forced companies to pivot to remote work. This sudden shift created not only technological challenges for leaders looking to support virtual work environments but also pressure to find new ways to engage employees.
With just 19% of employees feeling very engaged at work before the pandemic began, the sudden shift to remote work was certain to affect employee engagement. Leaders found themselves challenged with not only closing previous engagement gaps that existed before the pandemic but also continuing to unite employees in environments where they feel valued.
What we found is that many leaders overcame this challenge by doubling down on communication, collaboration, and recognition to encourage resilience among employees. And their efforts paid off because engagement on Achievers’ platform increased by 14% only a few days after COVID-19 was announced as a global pandemic.
While engagement has improved throughout the pandemic, leaders now face new challenges of engaging a “hybrid workforce” of employees who have returned to the office and those who still work remotely. The biggest challenge will be fostering engagement across a geographically divided workforce that is experiencing different stages of the pandemic.
The New Normal’s Impact on Productivity
HR Daily Advisor: As U.S. employees watch their global colleagues return to “normal” office life, how can business leaders ensure they don’t feel disconnected or isolated? Could the difference in work environments hurt business productivity and innovation?
Cates: As organizations shifted to remote work, they lost the ability to physically connect with and gauge the demeanor of employees in person on a day-to-day basis in the office setting. Instead, managers had to find new ways to understand how employees and colleagues were feeling.
Now, we find that managers are having more intentional one-on-one conversations with employees, scheduling frequent online check-ins, hosting impromptu virtual meetings, and more to ensure employees feel connected and supported.
It’s not only managers who are connecting with their employees. You’re also starting to see employees leverage peer-to-peer recognition to support and connect with one another while working remotely.
This type of engagement during the pandemic has actually increased employee engagement levels and shows that businesses must continue updating their engagement strategy to create a productive environment where employees feel empowered to do the best work of their lives.
Employee Recognition and Retention
HR Daily Advisor: When it comes to employee kudos, how do business leaders make sure this recognition feels authentic?
Cates: Workers value sincerity and authenticity, and any employee recognition that’s given should feel genuine. Personalizing recognition to each employee is the best way to make recognition feel authentic and meaningful.
In action, a meaningful recognition also is specific about why the exhibited behavior deserves to be recognized (i.e., citing exceptional work done on a completed project or a small activity that improved or supported a business goal) rather than giving employees a broad pat on the back for a job well done.
Not only should recognition be timely and specific, but it should also be given frequently (versus once a year during an annual review) and communicated in a way that’s most meaningful to the employee (e.g., posted in a public forum or a message across a team chat group, etc.)
HR Daily Advisor: Many businesses have offered a flexible schedule as parents struggled with remote work and child care. How should these policies evolve as certain teams return to the office while others remain home?
Cates: These are some of the most challenging times we’ve faced, especially for working parents. During typical work hours, parents are not just employees; they’ve assumed the roles of caregiver, teacher, and more. They need flexibility to work on their own terms. But business leaders who’ve been listening—long before the pandemic—know that these employees have needed greater flexibility and remote work options for quite some time.
We should empower employees to not only create schedules that work for them but also choose a work environment that’s most productive to their day, whether that’s working in the office or remotely. In action, this could look like restructuring their schedule so that external-facing work, such as client meetings, new business proposals, and more, happens from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to give them the time needed to complete morning routines with their kids and help with virtual school.
So how can business leaders determine what works best for their employees who may need a flexible schedule? The best thing to do is ask! This can be done easily and quickly through one-on-one meetings and pulse surveys. Retrieving this direct feedback shows employees you care about their needs and that you’re more than willing to help them be the most successful.
Tackling Zoom Fatigue
HR Daily Advisor: People across the world are “Zoomed out”; what’s the alternative to maintain or build teams that span multiple countries?
Cates: Oftentimes, employees are not necessarily “Zoomed out” on using video; they’re burned out from the conversations they’re having over video (i.e., back-to-back business calls throughout the day). To prevent video fatigue, businesses should encourage employees to participate in dialogues that are meaningful to them—not just focused on work.
We’ve found that employee resource groups or networks are a great way to relieve video fatigue and build teams that span multiple countries. These networks (i.e., a minority network, a women’s network, an LGBTQ+ network, etc.) allow employees to connect over topics that are meaningful to them outside of work, regardless of where they reside.
Lastly, research shows that people spend significant time and energy looking at themselves or worrying about what is in the background while on video calls. One quick fix to combat this mental fatigue is to remind employees their cameras do not need to be turned on for every virtual meeting. Employees may feel like they need permission to turn their cameras off, so business leaders shouldn’t hesitate to actively remind them and lead by example.