Home > Remote Work > Remote Employee Engagement Guide: Build Strong Virtual Teams
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The nature of work has been evolving since the eighteenth century when steam engines and industrial machinery powered the industrial revolution, leading to economic growth on a scale never seen before. The age was characterized by industrial centers and factories where people came to work. The information revolution heralded a new trend of taking work to the people.
With technological advancement, the trend of taking work to people got traction with increasing adoption across industries. The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the shift to remote work from home on an unprecedented scale. This change is not limited to just the physical workplace, but also employee experience. That includes their well-being and engagement, professional development, flexible work schedule, and others.
We believe the organization has the responsibility to ensure employees are motivated and engaged as they work from home in a hybrid work model. Human Resources (HR) should help employees navigate the new workplace environment and ensure that they are in the best of their health, both physically and emotionally. HR needs to leverage technology to devise new ways to effectively engage with remote employees, which is crucial for productivity and retention.
1. Remote Work
Remote work becomes mainstream
The technology-driven work-life transition was in progress when the world was struck by the Covid-19 pandemic. It turned people's personal and professional lives upside down. The key change was the shift in the workplace model, as people were confined to their homes. The rise of new communication and collaboration tools facilitated the overnight transition to remote work. It has now become mainstream.
In our opinion, two key factors drive remote work-from-home (WFH) trends. First, technological innovation has enabled people to work from anywhere in the world. And second, employees now value flexibility and work-life balance more than monetary rewards. The flexible work model has assumed greater importance in the employee scheme of things, with 74% indicating that they are less likely to leave the company given the option to work remotely.
The extent to which remote work will persist
The flexible work model was born out of a crisis. But it has become a desirable choice for millions of people. When allowed to work remotely,87% of people make that choice. In the technology industry, companies such as Atlassian and Dropbox have allowed employees to work from home permanently.
According to research, 58 percent of Americans have mentioned the opportunity to work from home at least one day a week, out of which 35 percent reported the opportunity to work from home five days a week. According to our assessment, the remote work trend is prevalent across all kinds of jobs, including traditionally labeled "blue collar" jobs requiring onsite presence, as well as "white collar" professions in different industries.
The potential for remote work is not determined by occupations but by tasks and activities. A structured approach to assessing the potential for various work activities to be performed remotely will help to uncover the opportunities.
The future remote work potential
We believe that the time spent on different activities within an occupation can be one way to see the potential for remote work for jobs and sectors. Our analysis indicates that the potential for remote work is highly concentrated in industry verticals with high information intensity, such as finance, and insurance. In these industries, more than three-fourths of the time spent on activities can be performed remotely without a significant loss in productivity. Likewise, the management, professional services, and information technology industries also have high remote work potential, with employees spending half of their time on activities that can be performed remotely.
As companies and employees try to strike the right balance between organizational interests and personal priorities, more industries and occupations will identify remote work potential.
The challenges of working remotely
Remote work has become an integral part of the workplace model. It will continue to evolve with technological innovations such as the metaverse. Remote work benefits the organization with increased productivity while employees gain greater flexibility. However, some challenges need to be addressed to ensure the sustainability of the new work model.
We have observed that remote employees miss out on communal gatherings like team lunches, birthday and milestone celebrations, water-cooler conversations, and other informal moments. These moments help eliminate people barriers and make a team work well together. According to a survey, almost a quarter of employees have mentioned unplugging after work. Communication and collaboration, and loneliness are among the top three challenges.
Besides addressing the employees' issues related to productivity, motivation, collaboration, and others, we think companies need to confront the following broad organization challenges.
- Workplace ostracism
Sometimes, employees are ignored or disregarded by their coworkers, though not overtly but covertly. It is more distressing to employees than harassment as it negatively impacts physical and mental health. This further impacts the employee's ability to perform at work. Remote work may increase workplace ostracism, considering the limited opportunities for in-person interactions. It may lead to certain sections of employees being left out due to affinity bias or the tendency to be drawn to people similar to oneself). Conflicting communication styles may also pose a problem.
Whatever the cause of workplace ostracism, it exhausts employees emotionally and is demotivating. It leads to impaired engagement at work.
- Negative impact on diversity and inclusion
The remote work environment elevates the risk of reinforcing existing exclusive behavior and biases, undermining D&I initiatives, which may prove to be counterproductive for the organization in the long run. Remote work may take a greater toll on ethnic groups and women who have to share greater responsibility at home, and therefore these two employee segments can become more vulnerable. The organization needs to make proactive efforts to ensure different segments of the workforce are equally engaged for a diverse and inclusive workforce.
- Communication and transparency
We believe connection can be one of the most critical markers of employee engagement. Communication is key to driving strong connections at work, which helps in improving employee happiness and productivity on the job. We recommend communication not be confined to work activities. Almost a quarter of employees are dissatisfied with communication at work, including how company and organization information is shared. Employees want communication that enables them to receive responses quickly and is one of the simplest ways to enhance collaboration.
We believe employees desire transparency as it helps them align with organizational strategy and priorities. It helps employees live their purpose at work, leading to greater productivity and engagement. 80% of the employees want to know more about their decision-making, even though only 18% believe their organization to be transparent.
2. Employee Engagement
What is employee engagement?
Employee engagement is a measure of employee dedication to their job and their involvement and enthusiasm at the workplace. It enables organizations to align employee perspectives on crucial elements of the workplace culture.
Employee engagement is one aspect of the overall employee experience (EX) which is the total of all experiences that an individual has at different stages of their employee lifecycle, starting with a job application to their exit from a company. The employee experience is a significant contributing factor to improving employee engagement, as people with positive employee experiences have sixteen times the engagement level of employees with negative experiences.
We believe companies need to enhance employee experience holistically for higher engagement and retention since monetary compensation has ceased to be the primary motivating factor for employees. Conversely, up to 55% of employee engagement is driven by non-financial recognition, which serves as the biggest driver of employee experience.
Why is employee engagement important?
Numerous research has indicated that engaged employees have high productivity and generate better business outcomes than other employees across industries and economic cycles. How organizations treat their employees and the way coworkers treat each other impact their decisions and actions, which can positively or negatively impact the workforce and the organization.
Based on a Gallup analysis, higher employee engagement reduces employee absenteeism and turnover. Additionally, the enterprise improves quality and registers higher sales and profitability. High employee engagement is also associated with a reduction in workplace safety incidents.
Employee engagement is vital as it helps organizations derive the following benefits.
- Higher employee loyalty
A highly engaged employee is eight times more likely to want to stay at a company than a disengaged employee. In today's environment, more than 50% of employees are looking for new opportunities, and a lack of engagement may increase employee turnover. As the organization reduces turnover, the need for replacement doesn't arise, thus saving costs.
- Higher employee productivity
Employees who are engaged at work are more productive, leading to better business performance with higher profitability by a factor of 21%. According to the Workplace Research Foundation, engaged employees are 38% more likely to have above-average productivity.
- Better customer service
Engaged employees are committed to ensuring customer satisfaction through exemplary services. It enables businesses to increase revenues between 4% and 8% above their market through better customer service.
- Better mental health
After the Covid-19 pandemic, health has assumed greater importance in the employee scheme of things. The pandemic has increased stress, with companies reporting a 70% burnout rate, with almost half of the workers suffering from mental health issues. The organization needs to support its employees with a wellness program and support for mental health issues.
- Improvement in employer brand equity value
Highly engaged employees will enable organizations to improve their employer brand value with word-of-mouth marketing about their company work, and experience sharing on social media, which will help it attract quality talent. Employees, the most trusted voice of your company, will become your brand advocate even if they move on to some other organization.
Even as the importance of employee engagement is known, only 20% of employees globally and 36% in the United States are in the engaged category.
How to drive employee engagement?
HR needs to create a work environment that encourages and motivates employees to be intrinsically involved with the work and workplace. We believe the first and foremost thing that HR needs to do is establish good communication practices for strong internal communication, which is essential, especially in a hybrid work model. In addition, HR can take the following steps to drive employee engagement.
- Help employees find work purpose
As employees look for incentives beyond monetary compensation to remain in the workforce, they expect their professional work to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives. We believe organizations need to create a sense of purpose at work for employees to enable them to align their life purpose with the organization's strategy and business priorities. Additionally, you can highlight the importance of employee work and how it impacts clients, organizations, and the entire ecosystem.
- Provide clarity about roles and responsibilities
Uncertainty is the thing most despised by employees as they advance in their careers. HR needs to ensure that employees understand their roles and responsibilities within the company. It enables them to align their efforts and build capabilities with the company’s objectives. We suggest that HR create an objective-based non-biased career roadmap for roles across the organization to provide long-term visibility to the employees. This way, they can plan their future within the organization, which helps improve engagement.
- Recognize and reward employees for good performance
One of the factors that limit employee engagement at the workplace is a lack of appreciation and recognition by the company. According to a study, 39% of employees have lower engagement due to underappreciation at work, which also limits their productivity. As employees work, there is a greater need for appreciation and recognition, considering the lack of employee visibility. HR needs to proactively work with leaders and managers to institute R&R (rewards and recognition) programs to identify and reward employees for exceptional performance. Additionally, HR should also work with mid-level managers to encourage them to recognize their employees with certificates and gift vouchers periodically.
- Employee feedback to increase motivation
We suggest that organizations use employee feedback as a motivational tool in the workplace. According to a study, managers are key to workplace happiness, and they have a huge influence on employee engagement. 43% of highly engaged employees receive feedback at least once weekly from managers who act as mentors and guide their subordinates. Along with the feedback, the manager should also make employees feel heard by instilling in them the confidence to speak up. Employees that feel heard are 4.6 times more likely to perform to the best of their ability than employees who feel the opposite.
- Provide employees with a sense of security
The pandemic has brought a lot of uncertainty in people's lives and in an uncertain time, using fear as a motivating tool by leaders is counterproductive and negative. HR and people-leaders should create awareness among managers and dispel the notion that reprimanding employees will help them perform better. Managers should be encouraged to use a positive approach by instilling a greater sense of security that will enable employees to learn from their mistakes, enhance employee morale, and improve employee engagement.
- Regular breaks to prevent mental exhaustion
In a remote work environment, professional and personal life have merged, which is the cause of increased stress and mental fatigue. According to a Microsoft study, weekly time spent in online meetings has increased by over 252%, HR and people leaders need to constantly evaluate organization communication practices and ensure employees and teams are taking regular breaks from work. It will also help in ensuring the emotional well-being of employees, which will lead to greater engagement at work and higher productivity. A six-month program involving employees from 70 companies currently underway in the United Kingdom has indicated no impact on productivity while improving employee well-being and engagement.
3. Remote Employee Engagement
Many organizations have planned a hybrid virtual model that combines remote work with time in the office on designated days, even as some organizations have fully adopted the remote work model. Such organizations want to leverage the productivity increase during the pandemic along with greater access to talent, lower costs, and improved employee experiences with the new model.
Even as organizations adopt the new work model, there is a risk that two organizations' cultures may emerge, with employees having a greater onsite presence benefitting more than employees with a lower office presence. In such a scenario, employees who are working remotely for greater lengths of time may feel isolated and unhappy, an unintended consequence of an organization's inability to build an inclusive engagement model taking into consideration the new workplace requirements.
The key to creating a remote employee engagement strategy is an understanding that engaging with remote employees is not just replacing in-person meetings with video conferences or phone calls. It is more about bringing together people across the organization to create a new dynamic workplace and company culture that truly reflects the organization's values and ethos.
HR needs to think creatively and leverage technology, tools, and processes to build a strong foundation for remote employee engagement for an engaged and motivated workforce.
Why is remote employee engagement important?
Remote employee engagement involves virtual team engagement activities to encourage employee participation and involvement. Virtual team activities are online activities, games, and team initiatives designed to bring employees together for non-work-related fun activities. The core idea is to break interpersonal barriers and take minds away from work to improve people's bonding, reduce stress, and improve employees' well-being. Remote employee engagement is important for the following reasons.
- One organization culture
Strong communication and engagement are critical to creating a common company culture that resonates with all segments of the workforce. Remote working is not conducive to building meaningful relationships with coworkers in the same way as working in an office. Remote employee engagement helps employees across the organization stay connected and build trust.
- Employee well-being
Remote employees face professional and personal challenges while working from home. Besides work-related stress, employees also have to tackle emotional upheaval on account of striking the right balance between personal and professional priorities without feeling guilty. Due to a lack of personal interaction, managers are unable to find out their team member's mental state. An established process for engaging with remote teams can comfort members, and they will feel closer, which will encourage them to open up. Strong social connections help coworkers overcome challenges more easily and maintain a state of well-being.
- Relationship building
The human need to connect is as fundamental as the need for food and water. Even though virtual personal communication can not be a substitute for in-person interactions, nevertheless, it is necessary to build professional relationships and bonding.
Remote employee engagement in a non-professional context enables the team to connect, share, and laugh together, which helps to establish strong bonds between individuals and within the team. The information engagement with remote teams enables members to understand each other better at a personal level, which will help teams leverage individual strengths for the team cause and also help in personal progress.
- Maximize learning and progress.
The team's offsite and in-person training has been replaced with virtual learning spread over a longer period. Remote engagement helps space learning modules in ways that best serve individuals and the team. Remote team engagement enables teams to change half-day retreats into month-long virtual series, even as two-day retreats have been changed to four half-day workshops to allow for knowledge processing and practice between sessions. The limitations to cramming everything in a shorter time frame to accommodate travel schedules and costs are eliminated.
The remote employee engagement model has helped improve learning effectiveness and adjust to individual learning needs. Remote employment engagement ensures employee learning and engagement continues, which enables them to advance in their careers.
Besides facilitating formal learning, remote employee engagement also enables teams to share project learning and knowledge, which helps improve productivity.
- Employees feel valued
Remote employee engagement effectively substitutes physical world recognition and rewards, which makes employees feel valued. Additionally, remote employee engagement also allows teams to celebrate professional and personal milestones. Besides the virtual celebration, remote engagement enables organizations to offer virtual gifts in everyone's presence, which infuses employees with a feeling of pride and demonstrates that you care for them.
- Community building
Remote employee engagement engages employees to build communities across shared interests and functional capabilities, which acts as a self-help group that elevates the employee experience.
How to keep remote employees engaged?
- Shared experience to drive engagement and performance
Shared experiences help shape organizational values and behaviors, enabling people and teams to get the work done more efficiently and effectively. It allows managers to build high-performing teams at work. Shared experiences are not new and have been leveraged at the workplace to improve outcomes. The book Team of Teams highlights how Navy SEALs leverage shared experience for greater bonding and effectiveness as a team. The shared experiences enable members to learn from one another and observe emotions and reactions, which helps to improve engagement.
The advent of the internet has made shared experiences more powerful than ever. The internet makes it possible to transcend the shared expertise from the virtual to the real world, with games an excellent medium to achieve the same. The game enables team members to bond over a common purpose of winning and better manage the associated stress driven by it. It helps to improve bonding and also performs better in high-pressure situations.
- Digital workplace for communication and collaboration
The term 'digital workplace' was initially used as a collective term for business productivity tools and internet applications. It has now evolved to represent HR systems, workflow management tools, and data analytic tools. Digital workplaces replace physical offices. They allow employees to access the necessary information, data, and tools through one platform, thus enabling remote work.
The modern intranet is an integral part of the digital workplace. It has evolved from a legacy static tool to an integrated platform combining communication and collaboration tools. As a single source of information for employees, it allows employees to connect, collaborate and learn in one place. It facilitates access to multiple applications and tools through a single sign-in leading to enhanced employee experience and engagement.
According to a Microsoft survey, 10% of employees don't have an adequate internet connection to do their job, which can negate other virtual engagement efforts. The organization needs to ensure all their employees have adequate facilities to perform their work to the best of their abilities. This also includes office supplies since 42% of employees mentioned that they lacked essential office supplies.
Remote employee engagement requires businesses to have a holistic digital workplace strategy that includes a modern intranet. It will help organizations create a seamless work environment that facilitates communication and collaboration, leading to enhanced engagement and productivity.
- Connect around a virtual water cooler
A virtual water cooler is an online solution to facilitate employee communication simulating interactions around a water cooler in a physical office. The virtual water cooler enables organizations to facilitate informal communication among employees online, typically happening in common physical spaces in an office. The objective is to not only replicate the physical experience of the office but also facilitate breaks in between tasks in a remote work environment. The virtual solution can be a customized solution integrated into your slack channel, virtual coworking sessions, or a dedicated chat room where employees can drop in for a casual conversation with their coworkers.
- Run virtual happy hours
Online virtual happy hours are social events held at the end of a workweek to enable employees to unwind at the end of a workweek and promote after-work bonding among a cross-section of employees, even though it may be less exciting than in-person events. Metaverse facilitates immersive experiences for such activities, and it would help add value to the employee and the organization.
- Online Office Games
Even with online networking sessions and interactions, 20% of remote employees feel loneliness, which can be due to the monotony of these online sessions. Online office games are an effective way to break the monotony of online interactive sessions. We suggest that HR work with gaming enthusiasts in the office to select online games suitable for the organization. These can then be made available through the company platforms. You should let employees drive the initiative. This will also help them showcase and enhance their leadership capabilities.
- Leadership transparency
Leaders need to incorporate transparency as an essential attribute of their leadership style. It begins with honest communication with your employees and is more important in times of crisis. With remote work, leaders have lost the opportunity for impromptu communication with employees. So, they need to schedule direct interaction with employees across the organization periodically.
As employees have indicated their interest in learning how an organization makes decisions, leaders and senior executives should make efforts to communicate organization policies and decisions, specifically if it impacts employees.
- Prioritize wellness
According to Gallup research, employee engagement and wellness are correlated and mutually influential, which means each impacts the other. Employees now prioritise wellness and work-life balance, which necessitates that organizations should focus adequately on their workforce well being.
The wellness program should not be limited to health club membership or online Yoga sessions. It should be a holistic program that covers emotional and mental well-being. It is observed that workplace burnout is reduced to near zero among engaged, high-wellbeing employees. However, even 22% of employees among those engaged have suboptimal well-being. Almost two-thirds of employees are not engaged, resulting in suboptimal well-being. We suggest that the workplace healthcare budget needs to expand to provide coverage beyond health insurance.
- Create interest groups
Employees should be encouraged to leverage the intranet and the company's social networking platform. They can create interest groups that will enable those who have nothing in common to bond together naturally and become friends.
The future of work is still being shaped even as a hybrid work model has become the preferred choice of organizations of all sizes across industries and regions. Even as technology will play an important role in the evolution of work, however, people's preferences will remain as important as ever. As companies ask employees to return to the office, leaders are faced with resistance from their employees who want to continue to work remotely. One thing is for certain: remote work will be an integral part of the future of work. The remote work policy has become a tool to attract and retain quality talent.
Remote employee engagement is crucial to promote employee bonding and their effectiveness as a team. We believe the organization needs to have a structured remote employee engagement plan that covers not only the professional aspect of employees but also their personal and emotional well-being. We recommend the organization select the most appropriate virtual team engagement activities suited to their organization's requirements to ensure high employee engagement and productivity.