In a world reshaped by a pandemic, companies are forced to shift to remote working to keep operations running while ensuring that all employees stay safe and healthy. Remote working gives employees more control, improves productivity, gives companies better access to top talent and enables employees to maintain a better work-life balance. Despite the numerous advantages of remote working, it has challenged workplace engagement. And has many managers new to this environment wondering how to reconnect with their remote working employees.
Human beings are social beings who are hard-wired to seek social connection. The elimination of face-to-face interactions and water cooler conversations has made it extremely hard to keep up with workplace culture and energy. Reconnecting with remote employees who are quite likely to be experiencing burnout can be challenging for employers.
This article contains tips and tricks based on research and experience to help you navigate employee engagement in a remote-working environment.
According to Buffer’s State of Remote Work Report for the year 2020, remote workers’ most significant challenges are communication, collaboration, and loneliness. To truly reconnect with employees, any organization or employer must seek to address these and other issues.
Communication is 93% Nonverbal
Researcher Albert Mehrabian breaks down communication into percentages: 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken. Although the formula is not absolute and varies in different scenarios, the importance of non-verbal communication channels is undeniable. A study conducted by Minnesota State University indicated that nonverbal cues determine up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness.
Due to the absence of face-to-face interactions in remote working setups, tone and body language cues are often lost, and this sometimes leads to miscommunication. It is hard to decipher the intended tone or mood from an email; thus, a well-intended comment may come off as curt and cause further disconnection.
Communication is the “Holy Grail” of engaging and staying connected to remote workers. Here are a few tips and tricks for improving communication as you design your remote working program.
Use asynchronous communication tools
Although emails are great for formal communication, remote teams need additional tools that allow communication across timezones and distance. Instant messaging apps like Slack help encourage lively conversations that eliminate the sense of distance among team members.
Slack organizes conversations into channels, which allows for separate spaces for official business, general chat and engagement. You could have a channel for book and podcast recommendations or discuss trending topics—spaces like Slack channels help increase inter-departmental synergy and serve as touchpoints for employees within the organization.
Slack also has numerous integrations and bots that expand the range of functions you can carry out on it. My favorite Slack bot so far has been Donut, a virtual social icebreaker app.
From setting up virtual hangouts and peer learning spaces, Donut has helped to build bonds across departments and distance. It has helped replace those watercooler conversations that help boost team spirit.
Hold video meetings and virtual bonding sessions
Holding a meeting on video platforms such as Zoom or Google Meet re-introduce face-to-face interaction, which improves the art of non-verbal communication. Physical distancing should not mean the end of team days and hangouts. Plan for informal video calls and choose from the many available online games such as trivia and card games to get the conversation flowing.
Use one-on-one meetings to check in on how employees are feeling and to catch up on life outside work
These off-the-cuff meetings are a chance to reconnect with your employees on a more personal level. These spaces are also great for collecting feedback from employees’ experiences and gather suggestions they might have to improve.
Collaborating in a virtual environment requires thoughtful consideration. Setting up meetings to follow up on project updates is vital to establishing ground rules and routines. Here are some tips to help make collaboration easier.
- Always assume positive intent. Communication is the central pillar of remote collaboration. As discussed above, it is easy to misconstrue intention as tone and nuances get lost in written conversations. Always assume that the intent of the communication is positive to avoid potential misunderstanding.
- Create structured team spaces. One of the most significant advantages of remote working is flexibility. However, when it comes to collaboration, a bit of structure and routines are necessary to keep things running. Whether this involves weekly task reporting or finding a time to hold a virtual working space, each team should find its rhythm.
- Practice empathy. In most workplaces, equal treatment is standard, and the fundamental reality is that remote workers have different experiences and situations. Working during a pandemic has affected family situations and individual wellbeing in different ways. Even as you emphasize transparency and accountability in your company, consider your employees’ current headspace and the toll that the current situation is taking on their mental health.
Loneliness and Isolation
CNN Business describes loneliness as the dark side of working at home. Workplace loneliness can be a problem even in a physical office. Still, it becomes amplified when employees are working at home for more extended periods.
It is challenging for those transitioning from working in close contact with people to work in isolation. Loneliness is the emotional response to the lack of connection. By mindfully recreating the office’s social environment virtually, you can help your remote workers feel reconnected.
Create spaces where employees can interact in unstructured ways. You can do this by sharing “fun facts you didn’t know about me” during meetings or one-on-one interactions initiated using the Donut Slack plugin.
Many companies are also exploring the idea of creating a buddy system. Having a buddy in the workplace helps with sharing information and can also serve as an accountability partnership. Keeping in mind that the key to building relationships is the intention, every individual must keep in constant communication and set aside time to engage with their buddies.
Focus on emotional wellbeing in the company by encouraging employees to share their difficulties. More often than not, other employees can relate to their challenges.
According to Forbes, the three main challenges facing remote workers, communication, collaboration and loneliness, are interconnected. The fact that loneliness is accompanied by collaboration and communication indicates that isolation is not just social.
Remote workers may also feel isolated in terms of information, resources and opportunity sharing. Therefore, companies must strive to digitize all processes, documents, and productivity tracking mechanisms to ensure that remote employees feel involved.
Employee engagement is heavily dependent on individual satisfaction.Walden University Study
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs outlines the five levels of personal needs that must be fulfilled for a human to feel fulfilled. These needs are often depicted in a pyramid, demonstrating that higher-level needs in the pyramid are dependant on lower-level needs to be satisfied.
Walden University studies show that employee engagement is heavily dependent on individual satisfaction. Use Maslow’s to create frameworks that map out the hierarchy of needs in your workplace.
In her book, Workplace Wellness that Works, author Laura Putnam discusses creating a Maslow-inspired framework to ensure that employees remain engaged and fulfilled.
The first level of Maslow’s pyramid focuses on basic survival needs, such as food, water, shelter and rest.
When it comes to applying the principles of Maslow’s hierarchy of physiological needs in the remote workplace, this involves ensuring that an employee’s most basic needs are met at home.
Some organizations choose to focus on physical wellbeing in line with Maslow’s theory by planning activities geared towards ensuring that employees eat healthily and stay fit. In a remote working set up, this could include holding live home workouts or yoga sessions.
Organizations may also help ensure that remote employees have safe access to healthy food and drink and have reasonable working hours and enough time to rest. It’s ever safe to assume that everyone has this basic need met.
The second level explore’s our need as human beings for a sense of safety and security.
How does this manifest in the workplace? Employees work better when they are assured of their job security and are treated fairly at the workplace.
One of the most critical elements in a remote working environment is trust. With physical distance and flexible working hours, managers must trust that the employees will put in the hours and stay committed to achieving the tasks related to their role. Employees must also be able to trust that the organization has their best interests at heart.
The biggest challenge the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown at us is constant uncertainty. This uncertainty, coupled with challenging economic situations and constant “doomscrolling” through social media, can cause employees to doubt their organization’s value. A culture of trust is vital to alleviating some of the anxieties your employees are facing.
It is also essential to recognize accomplishments and improvements in the workplace. This simple act inspires pride and helps employees feel like a critical part of the team and contribute to the company’s survival.
Taken from a study from Harvard Business School, Dr. Jooa Julia Lee suggests that reminding people who they are when they are at their best can inspire them to achieve more of their potential. In a virtual setting, you can do this using online rewards and recognition(RnR) boards. Use apps such as Bonusly, where your employees can applaud each other for achievements and managers can celebrate their teams.
This level addresses the social needs of an individual.
We all need to feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves, to have a sense of belonging. Social interactions have huge impacts on our lives, and it is no different when it comes to the workplace. Relationships at work, be it employer-employee or employee-employee relationships, affect engagement and motivation significantly.
Both communication and collaboration, which we have discussed in detail, are factors that fulfill that need for connection. By creating a culture of collaboration and engagement in work-related and unrelated issues, bonds strengthen and serve as support systems.
According to Maslow, each individual needs esteem and a sense of personal achievement.
At work, people need to derive satisfaction from their work. Employees also need to feel respected, and their contribution is appreciated. To meet this need, companies should foster a culture of ownership.
Adopting a “power to the people” philosophy fulfils the need for autonomy by allowing each individual to control their work decisions. Granting employees an appropriate decision-making level ensures that they feel independent, which is especially important when working from home or generally away from the office.
Finally, each individual needs to achieve “self-actualization” or to reach one’s full potential in life.
This top-level of the hierarchy is the ultimate level in the fulfilment of employee needs. When all other requirements are met, an employee should feel like they are serving a larger purpose. This higher purpose should ideally align with the company’s vision.
Employees need to feel that their contribution is valid. They can voice their ideas in safety and develop valuable concepts that solve problems or improve certain aspects of their world.
Keeping in mind that employees’ engagement level significantly affects an organization’s productivity, it is essential to connect with remote employees regularly and remain engaged in their lives.
Although there are unique challenges to remote workers, an employee’s needs are quite similar across the board. Avoid focusing on the technicalities of remote working at the expense of your employees’ physiological, social and other development needs. Remember, virtual or not, we are all humans being.
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