Coronavirus (COVID-19): Engaging Remote Workers

Author: XpertHR Editorial Team

The sudden change from office-based work or part-time telework to complete remote work may cause even high-performing employees to experience a drop in their job performance and engagement. The decline can be exacerbated by the stress of self-quarantining, homeschooling children or the challenges of complying with government shut-down orders.

While it is important for employers to take steps to prepare and implement remote work options operationally, it is also critical to find ways to maintain the engagement levels that are crucial for the morale and productivity of remote workers.

Indicators of Engagement

An engaged workforce provides clear benefits to an employer in the form of increased productivity and profitability, higher retention levels and lower absenteeism. Engaged employees have a clear sense of purpose and are enthusiastic, focused, productive and willing to put additional effort into projects. They understand their role in propelling an organization's success to new heights.

On a practical, day-to-day level, engaged employees take ownership of their work, are proud of their organization, feel supported by their coworkers and in return support them, and are focused on achieving the organization's mission and following its values.

Recent research by ADP shows that another distinguishing feature of engaged employees is actively working together as a team. A sudden change to working remotely exclusively (such as is happening during the coronavirus crisis) may disrupt the usual workflow and teamwork and cause a drop in productivity and engagement levels until employees adjust to the new norm.

Understand the Challenges of Working Remotely

Employees who telework face challenges to maintaining engagement and connection with their organizations. This can be especially true in situations, like the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, when employees may be required to work from home suddenly for an extended period.

Challenges include:

  • Isolation - It is easier for an employee to feel connected and part of a team when they are in the office and can share ideas quickly and easily every day. When employees must suddenly switch to working from home or other locations, they may feel disconnected from their coworkers and the organization. According to the 2020 Survey of Remote Work, 20 percent of remote employees say their biggest struggle with working remotely is loneliness, tying as the top concern.
  • Communication and collaboration - The maxim "out of sight, out of mind" encapsulates a fear of those teleworking. Employees may perceive a lack of support from their organization or their supervisor, especially when they must deal with obstacles that make communicating and collaborating with their teams more difficult. Difficulty with communication and collaboration tied in the Remote Work survey as remote employees' top problem.
  • Work/life balance - It is very easy for individuals working from home to tie themselves to their desks, continue to check email or work on projects at all hours of the day, blurring the lines between work and home life.
  • Distractions - The home environment provides ample opportunities for distraction, from television to pets to unlimited snacks in the refrigerator. During the coronavirus pandemic distractions can include child care and home-schooling children; the challenges of getting groceries and supplies; caring for a family member diagnosed with COVID-19; and stress, anxiety and depression resulting from the public health emergency.

Take Steps to Maintain Engagement During the Crisis

Awareness of the challenges of remote work can help employers prepare and take steps to minimize the impact of those challenges on employees' engagement and productivity. Effective methods for developing an environment that fosters the ability of employees working from home to feel connected and engaged primarily involve making adjustments to regular office practices, rather than requiring large investments. The first step is to have an effective telecommuting policy that establishes guidelines and expectations for teleworking and having employees sign a telecommuting agreement.

Front-line managers and supervisors play an essential role in helping their employees transition to working from home. They provide the first and most frequent point of contact during an emergency for employees seeking answers about what they should do, the steps the employer is taking and the status of their employment. Employers should ensure that managers and supervisors understand their role in communicating with employees and leading them through the necessary changes to their work situation.

Managers and supervisors can help employees who work remotely remain engaged by:

  • Using appropriate collaborative technology to facilitate group work - Employees working from home need the proper tools to stay connected and work with their teammates. Employers should select the tools and platform that best suits their business needs and provide training, access and support for these tools to remote workers.
  • Increasing communication generally - During times of crisis, employees want and need more communication and transparency. Even an honest "I don't know" in answer to questions, with the reassurance that answers are being sought and information will be provided, is better than employees having to deal with their uncertainty and fear. Regular, frequent updates via email, IMs or telephone or Skype calls provide a lifeline to the organization that assures employees that they are not alone and out of the loop.
  • Holding regularly scheduled calls and meetings more often - As part of the communication strategy with remote employees, employers should increase the frequency of meetings. The meetings purpose can be to "touch base" and provide interim updates and do not need to last as long as more formal meetings. As in any meeting, all employees should be encouraged to participate.
  • Providing socialization time before starting meetings - To help employees continue to feel connected with their colleagues, it is helpful to schedule time at the beginning of meetings for socialization. For example, during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, begin by asking people to share how their families are handling the challenges of school closings and social distancing. Cheer successes.
  • Allowing for flexibility - Working remotely requires flexibility under the best of circumstances. It is even more critical for employers to understand the need for flexibility and allow employees to adapt to changing circumstances during the current health crisis. In addition to handling work demands, many employees may also be juggling the need to provide care and education for school-aged children, assisting older family members and sharing space and equipment with a spouse or partner who also must work from home. Managers and supervisors can boost morale and reduce stress by allowing remote workers to:
    • Schedule work into intermittent blocks of time throughout the day;
    • Helping employees to prioritize their work assignments; and
    • Extending deadlines where possible.
  • Assigning projects that require collaboration and teamwork - Because working with a team has been shown to almost double employee engagement levels, work assignments where practicable should involve communication and collaboration with coworkers - whether across functions or within the same team. Working on teams reduces the sense of isolation and provides opportunities to connect with colleagues for a mutual objective.

Provide Guidance to Remote Workers

Employees new to remote work may feel overwhelmed at first as they forgo familiar routines and work processes. In addition to providing logistical support for employees setting up their home office, employers can provide guidance and training on how to telework effectively.

Tips that managers and supervisors can share with employees working from home may include:

  • Have a dedicated space for work. Having a room that can be used solely as an office is the preferred situation, but not something available to everyone. However, it is important to have a dedicated space that is used for work, where equipment can be set up and the employee can focus. Avoid areas where there are many distractions, such as a family room with a TV or at the kitchen table near all the snacks.
  • Maintain a regular schedule. Keeping a regular schedule is important in helping to stay productive. However, it is important to recognize that the schedule will not likely be the same as the employee had at the office, especially if the employee must also deal with children and others at home due to the COVID-19 crisis. The schedule should be regular, but not restrictive. It should provide consistent time for work, meetings and communication, but allow for changes when needed.
  • Step away from work for breaks and meals. Whether at the office or home, it is not physically or mentally healthy for an employee to remain focused on work for the entire day. At least every hour or so, employees should get up and move around for a few minutes. Meals should be eaten away from the home work area.
  • End the work day. If an employee were in the office, at the end of the day they would stop work and go home. The same should happen when employees work from home - close shop and "go home." Let employees know that just because they are working at home, does not mean that they must always be working.
  • Assume the best intentions in emails. Emails and chat messages cannot convey the full range of communication available in a face-to-face conversation, such as the tone of voice and facial clues. Remote workers should assume the best intentions if a message seems short or brusque. If they start to feel upset by an email conversation, they should talk directly with the other coworker by phone or in a video chat to clarify what is being said. Most often, the problem is a simple misunderstanding caused by the limitations of digital communication. When it isn't, the direct conversation provides the opportunity to address issues directly and effectively.
  • Ask for help. Everybody needs help sometimes. Working from home does not mean working alone. Remote employees should not hesitate to communicate with their coworkers, supervisor or manager when they hit an obstacle in their work or need to make adjustments in their work priorities. Asking for help is part of being a team. It allows other team members to provide the same support that the remote worker would freely offer them.

Additional Resources

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Workplace Resource Center

Coronavirus (COVID-19): FAQs

How to Manage Telecommuters

Managing a Remote Team - Supervisor Briefing

Flexible Working

Improve Employee Engagement Checklist