Just a few weeks ago, we, along with businesses and HR observers around the country, were discussing the logistics of bringing staff back to the office as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes and fades away. What a difference a few weeks can make! With COVID resurging in the form of the Delta variant, businesses that had been planning to bring staff back to the workplace, and many that were even beginning to execute those plans, now find themselves delaying employees’ return.
This delay may be frustrating for those that spent time and energy planning the return, but even more significantly for some companies, the delay represents a potential psychological blow to a workforce that already experienced a year and a half of trauma and uncertainty from the pandemic.
One of the many challenges employers and HR departments now face is how to keep staff engaged as they continue to work remotely amid the uncertain rollercoaster of a pandemic that refuses to fade. In this feature, we discuss some key strategies for employers to keep their remote workforce engaged.
Listen, Both Passively and Actively
Employers across the country are spending a lot of time and energy wondering how their employees are doing amid the chaos of the pandemic. That chaos, of course, extends beyond those employees’ work lives. Many are dealing with strains of child care; uncertainty around back-to-school policies; financial stress; and, of course, the direct impact of the pandemic on their health and the health of their loved ones.
But this shouldn’t be an exercise in guessing and assumptions. The best way to determine how employees are feeling in the current environment is to ask them and listen to what they’re saying.
This includes passive listening, like collecting and paying attention to unsolicited feedback, which could include e-mails to the HR department or small talk between a manager and his or her subordinates.
It also includes active listening, which means not just listening to the words being spoken by the other person but also digging deeper to get to the complete message. Active listening means paying attention to body language, the tone of someone’s voice, nonverbal pauses, etc. It also involves asking follow-up questions when something is unclear or an initial response seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Be Transparent and Frequent in Providing Updates
Just as employers don’t need to spend all of their time wondering and guessing how employees are feeling, employees shouldn’t need to wonder and guess what’s going on with the company’s COVID policies. There’s enough uncertainty around the pandemic without having to add unnecessary uncertainty around company requirements.
Employers should update employees as often as possible on their return-to-work plans and schedule and provide avenues for employees to ask follow-up and clarification questions.
If and when companies do bring staff to the office, being transparent and maintaining two-way communication around health and safety protocols and precautions are essential. The last thing employees want to worry about when they return is whether they’re exposing themselves and their families to illness.
Many employers are understandably eager to get staff back to the office. Some feel their employees are more productive within the structure of the workplace, while others long for the increased opportunities for collaboration. But employers need to understand that their staff may be at very different comfort levels with returning to work, and a one-size-fits-all approach is highly unlikely to be successful.
Flexibility in this context means working with employees—within reason—on a case-by-case basis on their return to the workplace. A key caveat here is “within reason.” Realistically, not all companies can accommodate fully remote staff indefinitely. Some industries and job functions may simply not be conducive to remote work. Similarly, some employees may not perform as well from a home office as they do in a corporate office. However, even if an employee’s role needs to be performed in the physical work setting, employers can still be flexible in managing the transition back to the office.
A common experience for employers around the country is high turnover and difficulty finding workers. Companies perceived as unnecessarily inflexible may find their staff more disengaged and eager to jump ship in favor of an employer they perceive as more flexible.
Maintaining a Personal Touch
Just because staff aren’t in the office with their colleagues and supervisors doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity to establish and maintain personal connections. Telecommunications technology has made tremendous advances in recent years, and video calls can add a more personal feel than e-mail and voice-only phone conversations.
Video chats don’t need to be strictly business either. Many companies have used these platforms to arrange virtual happy hours and other social events. Although teleconferencing is not a perfect replacement for in-person social interaction, it’s certainly better than none at all.
In addition to trying to bridge the in-person interaction gap with videoconferencing, employers should make extra efforts to reach out and see how staff are doing more generally. This can be as simple as more frequent informal check-ins, for example.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tremendous challenge for employers from the outset. In addition to the obvious logistical challenges of keeping staff productive and efficient from their home offices, employers are increasingly struggling to keep their staff engaged as the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic drag on. Companies that fail to keep staff engaged risk decreased productivity, poor morale, and employee turnover.
In an age when companies are struggling to find and retain quality staff, the risk of turnover in particular should be a key motivation to keep staff happy, safe, and engaged.