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4 Crucial Steps to Keep Remote Workers Engaged

Roar V. Bovim
Roar V. Bovim
CEO & Founder @Livingroom

In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, many companies worldwide have decided to implement remote work policies. Given the seriousness of the virus, it’s realistic to assume that working remotely will become the new normal for quite a while. Central questions that many managers ask are: How can we stay connected and close while working at the distance? How can we keep our employees engaged and motivated through the crisis? Failing to answer these questions can hinder employee productivity, give rise to negative feelings, and even lead to increased employee turnover.

It’s true that several studies have shown that working remotely can have many benefits, not only for employees but also for the company. According to research conducted by Owl Labs, people who work from home are 24% more likely to be productive and companies that allow remote work have 25% lower employee turnover than those that don't. Increased engagement and reduced stress are also associated with flexible working policies.

Unfortunately, at the moment, working remotely also poses a number of challenges. While more than half of employees globally already were used to working from home, for others, the situation has led to working out of the office for the first time. Due to the rapid advancement of the crisis, many companies didn’t have time to offer their workers proper training in order to prepare them for the completely new way of working. We might fear that the benefits associated with remote work might be replaced with disengagement and decreased productivity.

In order to tackle the challenges, managers need to have a good understanding of these challenges as well as adequate actions.  Fortunately, there are simple actions not requiring extensive preparation that managers can take to avoid adverse outcomes and to improve engagement and productivity among employees. These actions address the most common challenges remote workers face. Let’s take look at the actions.

1. Set Clear Expectations from the Start

One major challenge remote workers face is that they don't know what is expected of them. This is particularly the case in absence of preparation and guidance. Without preparation, even high-performing employees can quickly become disengaged and demotivated.

Having success with remote work requires that managers set clear expectations from the start. In a similar way as the onboarding process, managers should make sure that employees know what is expected from them as well as to clarify the means through which they can fulfill their work.

Remote Work: How to Set Clear Expectations

  • Goals: What is the expected output from the work? 
  • Schedule: When should employees be available for work? 
  • Communication: How do we communicate with our managers? How should employees communicate with each other? When and how often should we communicate?
  • Emergency: How should employees reach their manager in case of an emergency? Do we use a different communication mean?

2. Encouraging Regular Communication Across Multiple Channels

According to a study conducted by Buffer, remote workers often have challenges when it comes to collaborating and communicating with their managers and co-workers. When used to working in close proximity to colleagues, a sudden shift to remote work is challenging. As a result, employees often complain about a lack of managerial support. Typically, they also have difficulties in locating information or resources from co-workers needed to do their job.

To avoid a communication breakdown and decreased productivity, managers should make multiple communication tools available for their employees. Emails and text messages are usually insufficient. Remote workers need richer communication means that resemble as close as possible with working in an office space. In particular, video calls can be useful. Especially when work involves complex issues, video calls are highly beneficial. Video calls have a lower communication barrier, are more personal, and make it easier for employees to share their concerns.

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In combination with video calls, I will recommend using collaboration platforms such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. These platforms can be used for more fast and simple conversations, ensuring that employees have a quick means to get in touch with their co-workers.

While offering multiple tools, managers should also strive to communicate regularly and often with their employees. A good way to do this is by planning daily calls. These calls can either be individual or team calls depending on the type of work. The key is to provide a setting through which employees know that their questions will be answered and that they will gain the necessary information to carry out their work.

Remote Work: How to Communicate Effectively

  • Don’t limit your communication to emailing and text messages. Make sure to complement communication with video calls for more personal contact better suited for complex types of work. For team collaboration, use tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack.
  • Plan daily calls with your employees.

3. Encourage Remote Social Interaction

Isolation and loneliness are some of the most common complaints when it comes to remote work. According to a study conducted by Slack, 85% of remote workers want to feel closer to their colleagues. The transition from office to a home environment can pose difficulties. In the short run, employees who are used to chatting in lunch breaks and reach out informally to colleagues, might find themselves demotivated and lacking opportunities to connect. In the long term, research shows remote work could even lead to feelings of de-connectedness and reduced belonging to the company, which in time can increase intention to leave the organization.

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What managers can do, is to find ways through which they can enable social interaction among the employees while working at a distance. Social interaction can be anything that involves casual conversations and activities not related to work.

One simple way to enable social interaction is to spend some time at the beginning of each call to catch up with the rest of the team, such as asking them about their day. Another possibility is to organize virtual parties, where employees can spend some time together after work eating sushi or pizza. Reached goals or completed projects can also be celebrated through Skype or Zoom. Adopting such practices can help reduce feelings of de-connectedness by promoting company values and community.

Remote Work: How to Encourage Social Interaction

  • Use some time at the beginning of each call asking your employees: “How was your day?” “How did you spend your weekend?”
  • Organize virtual office parties, where employees can spend some fun time together, for example eating sushi or pizza.

4. Offer Empathy and Emotional Support

Changing the work environment abruptly can have negative impacts on employees. Besides feeling isolated or demotivated, remote workers can experience stress or anxiety due to facing an unknown situation or due to having difficulties switching off at the end of the working day. Frequently, remote workers report feeling obligated to contribute with their work at any time.

For employees working from home, it can be difficult to adapt properly to the new environment. During an unplanned transition to remote work, employees might face distractions, a lack of optimal workspace, and face unexpected parenting responsibilities.

In this situation, managers should show empathy towards their employees and their difficulties and strive to listen to their feelings and concerns. If it appears that an employee is struggling, but not able to properly communicate their issue, make sure to ask how the person is feeling in this new situation and how things are working for them, listening carefully to their response. If employees are having a hard time establishing a work-life balance, encourage and help them to set clear boundaries.

A crucial task for leaders is to acknowledge the stress and negative feelings employees might be experiencing, but also to keep the morale up and communicating support and confidence. According to research, the feelings of leaders can significantly impact the feelings of their followers, causing a trickle-down effect. Managers should make sure not to transmit feelings of helplessness or stress.

Remote Work: How to Offer Emotional Support

  • Ask your employees: “How do you feel regarding remote work?”, “Are you having any difficulties working from home?”, “How are you adapting to the new situation?”
  • Encourage your employees to set clear work-life boundaries, for example by establishing a clear work schedule.

Remember that remote work can have many benefits both for employees as well as the company. The trick is to know how to handle the situation. Setting clear expectations from the start, communicating through multiple channels, providing social interaction opportunities, as well as supporting employees emotionally are easy ways to ensure that remote workers remain engaged and motivated during their work and that the benefits of remote work are maximized.

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