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How to keep your workforce engaged during the coronavirus crisis—remotely and in the workplace

Different employees want—and expect—different solutions for their future work situations
Four business people on a Zoom video conference call

The coronavirus crisis has spurred the world’s largest work-from-home experiment—one that may or may not come to an end, depending on whom you ask. Some polls say the majority of employees want to continue working from home, while others say the opposite. One thing is clear: Different employees want—and expect—different solutions for their future work situations.

How can HR professionals manage employee expectations during these unusual times? How can we foster engagement regardless of whether employees continue working at home or return to the workplace? To get answers for our HR community, we spoke with employee engagement expert Jill Christensen. Jill shared her biggest tips for HR leaders as they rethink employee satisfaction and work culture during this unprecedented crisis.

Below is a condensed version of the Q&A, edited for clarity.

Many people suddenly began working from home full-time in March. Broadly speaking, how does working from home affect employee productivity and engagement?

We know from data that remote workers are, in general, as productive at home as they are in the office, but less engaged.

First, about the productivity: Surveys by Ernst & Young and Gallup found that workers who have the option to telecommute have higher levels of engagement than colleagues who go to the office every day. People who telecommute are more productive than their office bound counterparts—they have an easier time concentrating and are less exhausted and stressed. Remote workers perform, on average, four more hours of work per week compared to onsite employees.

But often, remote workers are less engaged. When we speak with remote workers and ask them what they need in order to be engaged, they say the three Cs: communication, collaboration, and connectivity. They need to feel connected to their team members. They don’t want to feel like they’re alone on an Island, and they want increased communication.

Unless you make a concerted effort to increase communication, connection and collaboration, those things are much harder to realize when people are physically dispersed. You’ve got to think about it and deliberately do it, or it’s not really not going to happen.

As HR professionals look at this data about remote employees, what workforce recommendations should they make to their leadership?

It will vary depending on industry. For instance, if you have a team of contact center employees who are responding to phone calls every day, those people could absolutely work from home. But if you own a manufacturing facility, those people need to be on the manufacturing line. If you’re an emergency room doctor, you need to be in the ER.

So there are certain jobs and industries that are simply not prone to working from home. It’s really important for organizations to communicate that openly and honestly. Don’t avoid the conversation. Don’t pretend that the rest of the world is not working from home. Don’t gloss over it. Be very specific about what your policy is and why.

The why is critical—why we made the decision the way we did. When you provide context, people are much more reasonable than if you leave that out. it’s critical to drill down and really explain things to people to build trust.

Related: HR from a distance: How to build a strong company culture during and after the coronavirus crisis

For companies where most of the work can be done virtually, how can HR professionals manage conflicting opinions about what employees want? For example, there have been studies showing many people preferring working from home, but other employees have said they prefer to return to the office for better work-life separation or other reasons.

I think the word of the day is flexibility. The worst thing an organization can do is mandate something unilaterally. The minute you bring the hammer down and mandate everyone in a department to work from home, for example, you’re going to cause a lot of disengagement.

So rather than having these blanket policies, it’s important for HR and organizations to be flexible and to say: We support and promote telecommuting, and it’s up to each employee to engage with their frontline manager to decide what works best for the individual and for the team. If you want to keep people engaged, you need to meet their needs.

If you don’t loosen the reins, you’re going to risk losing strong talent and the ability to attract and hire great talent. Because we’ve had a social test—and it worked! We’ve now proven en masse that telecommuting works.

In many organizations, employees have been working from home for the past two and a half months. if you know and they know that things were effective that way, I highly recommend that you loosen your reins on people and figure out how to be more flexible. If things went badly when employees were at home, that’s a different story. But if everybody knows that it worked, if you have a senior leader who still says, “Okay, COVID is over, we’re going to bring everyone back into the office space,” employees are going to rebel.

Leaders are going to need to be flexible even once we move past COVID in terms of still allowing people to work to work from home, allowing for a policy that’s not rigid so a manager can have an adult conversation with each member on the team as to what they think works best for that person.

How can organizations improve engagement with remote workers? How can HR professionals and leaders foster connectivity, collaboration and communication?

There are a number of different things you can do. A favorite of mine is what I call a troop tour. This is where everybody on the team has the opportunity to lead a video tour of their new remote workspace.

That workspace, because it’s at home, is going to have some personal things. You might have a pet run across the video. You might have a child coming to the room. There are things that are going to show up on the camera that either are personal or that nobody would expect, because they didn’t realize that person liked to play soccer or had six kids, for example.

I’m truly convinced that when team members get to know one another on a more personal level, it adds more fun into the workplace. We know that when people connect on more of a personal level, they tend to trust each other more, feel closer as a team, and feel connected to something bigger than themselves. We’re starting to cross the lines of business and personal, and I believe that is a very positive thing.

That is just one idea that works. When I work with organizations, I offer 21 remote worker manager action items. You don’t need to do all 21 things. Instead, select a few that you believe would work well on your team and that would resonate with your team members.

For any workforce changes you may be considering during this time, CareerArc can help. We offer social recruiting tools to attract hard-to-find talent. Schedule a demo to find out more about how CareerArc can help you with your reorganization.

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