Remote work is here to stay. While most businesses have made such arrangements work in the short term, how will employee engagement play out in the long run? How will you maintain team cohesiveness when some employees return to the office while others continue to work at home? What about companies that decide to transition to a largely remote model?
To some extent, the pandemic only accelerated existing trends toward more flexible work arrangements that include at least some remote work. Millennials, in particular, value the freedom to juggle work and life as they see fit. Remote work can cut down on the cost and lost time of long commutes. And it can open up opportunities for those who might otherwise have difficulty balancing work and family responsibilities.
Even for companies that prefer a traditional office set-up, the flexibility of a remote option will continue to be important for some time. Uncertainty about schools reopening raises child-care questions for working parents. Employees with medically vulnerable family members have added responsibilities and worries. Some employees may not feel safe returning to work.
Business leaders must rise to the challenge by upping their communication game and learning to read individual employees’ needs astutely. Based on my work coaching executives and leaders in recent months, I have identified four key areas for leaders to focus on.
Ensure that communication is frequent, transparent, and consistent
A recent MIT survey of best practices for remote teams found that communication was by far the most critical key to success. Because employees may quickly find themselves feeling disconnected from leadership or co-workers, communication frequency and consistency are crucial. A weekly schedule of meetings and check-ins can also provide much-needed structure.
Do not assume what people do or do not know. Make information plentiful through a variety of mediums. A company news feed or blog is a great way to keep remote workers in the loop. Be sure communication is always a two-way street so employees feel comfortable raising questions or concerns.
Finally, be transparent in keeping employees updated about the financial impact of COVID on the company and its operations. Economic uncertainty is a significant source of stress, and employees will naturally wonder about your organization’s financial health.
Provide support for employees’ wellbeing
Frequency of communication is especially important when it comes to assessing and supporting your employees’ mental health. Social isolation has real consequences in a world where loneliness was a major issue before the pandemic. Physical distancing does not have to mean emotional distancing.
I have an executive client who, pre-COVID, had a casual open-door policy to stay connected with his team. He would also regularly walk into other people’s offices if they did not seem busy. He has maintained that informality in a remote world through the use of video drop-ins. If an employee is not under a deadline or in a meeting, he will send a text asking them to hop on Zoom for a quick check-in. These casual virtual drop-in chats are a time to go beyond work and see how the other person is doing—the virtual equivalent of a water-cooler chat.
Be mindful of specific COVID-related challenges individual employees may be having. Parents and those caring for medically vulnerable loved ones might require more emotional and logistical support. Additional resources include online mental health discussions and anonymous telehealth counseling.
Keep remote teams engaged and productive
There is no one answer about the effect of remote work on employee engagement and productivity. For stand-alone tasks that do not require a great deal of coordination with colleagues, working remotely seems to boost productivity. The record is mixed when it comes to collaborative work.
It is up to business leaders to foster the sense of connection and camaraderie that remote teams might sometimes lack. Frequent but very short meetings can help maintain focus, connection, and energy. Think of these as “huddles” rather than traditional meetings. Get in and get out before the energy dissipates.
Provide your teams with a range of virtual tools and resources, the more interactive, the better. Encourage teams to share tips and best practices. Create a platform for sharing success stories.
According to MIT, even employees who enjoy remote work worry it may negatively impact their chances for promotion. Especially as some employees return to the office while others remain at home, be sure that promotion and recognition do not depend on in-person face time.
Be mindful of the paradox of work-life balance in a pandemic
On the one hand, remote work might make it easier for some to juggle work and personal responsibilities. For others, however, working at home may bring additional challenges. It may be difficult for employees caring for children or other family members to find a distraction-free workplace. The line between professional and personal life may blur. They may feel obligated to be on-call 24/7. Finally, MIT cites several studies showing that remote workers tend to log longer hours.
How employees react to (and either thrive or struggle or both) remote work arrangements is highly variable and highly individual—which makes emotionally intelligent leadership essential. Take the time to understand what works best for each individual. In an office, you have the power to shape the workplace experience and culture. Working remotely in a pandemic, employees are all working in different workplaces.
Help employees create a structure and set limits. Adjust an employee’s schedule or workload if necessary to help them manage personal responsibilities. Ensure that everyone can truly “turn off” at the end of the workday. Finally, just because we are working at home does not mean we do not need time off. Especially with the added personal responsibilities and worries many employees are carrying, recharging is critical. Encourage breaks and time off—even if it has to be a “staycation.”
In a time when most of us have struggled with feelings of isolation and disconnection, the engagement of meaningful and rewarding work is as vital as ever. Leaders who can maintain cohesive teams and find consistent ways to connect during these challenging times will emerge from the pandemic with more resilient organizations, ready to hit the ground running.