Make remote work productive and engaging for employees with these empathetic but practical actions.
In a recent Gartner poll, 90% of HR leaders said employees would be allowed to work remotely even once COVID-19 vaccines are widely available. Most organizations have had months to work on remote-work experience to keep employees productive and engaged, but many still viewed remote set-ups as temporary.
When organizations first experienced large-scale remote work, few had much experience.
“At most organizations, scenario planning focuses on the necessary operational responses to ensure business continuity. Few of these plans address the ability or bandwidth of employees to focus on their work,” Brian Kropp, Distinguished Vice President, Research, Gartner, said at the time.
The shift required HR to offer managers specific guidance on how to ensure employees get the requisite support to tackle the emotional roller coaster of this crisis — and are productive and engaged. That guidance hasn’t changed. In fact, it has become even more crucial now that the crisis has endured for so long.
1. Be on the lookout for signs of distress in your employees
Use both direct conversations and indirect observations to get visibility into employees’ challenges and concerns. Use every opportunity to make clear to employees that you support and care for them. To facilitate regular conversations between managers and employees, provide managers with guidance on how best to broach sensitive subjects arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, including alternative work models, job security and prospects, impact on staffing and tension in the workplace.
2. Equip employees
Make sure employees have the technology they need to be successful, which may be more than just a mobile phone and laptop. For example, if you expect employees to attend virtual meetings, do they have adequate cameras?
Even if you don’t have an extensive set of technology and collaborative tools available, you can equip employees to function effectively when remote. But don’t just assume that people know how to operate with virtual communications — or are comfortable in that environment.
Acknowledge that virtual communications are different — and won’t be perfect — but should still be professional and respectful of others. Be mindful that virtual communications may be less comfortable and effective for some, and coach employees on when and how to escalate ineffective virtual exchanges. For example, if you haven’t settled an issue in six emails, the conversation may need to be elevated to a virtual meeting to get closure.
Two-way dialogue between managers and employees ensures that communication efforts help, rather than hurt, engagement. Gartner research shows that employees’ understanding of organizations’ decisions and their implications during change is far more important for the success of a change initiative than employees “liking” the change.
Two-way communication with managers and peers provides employees with the information and perspective they need, and enables them to express and process negative emotions and feel more in control. Managers can create opportunities for two-way dialogues that focus on a realistic picture of both the positive and negative implications of the current COVID-19 outbreak.
4. Trust in your employees
“The best thing you can do as a manager right now is to suspend your disbelief and put utmost trust and confidence in your employees that they will do the right thing — which they will if employers provide a supportive structure,” says Kropp.
Managers may be concerned and even frustrated to lose the constant visibility they once had into their employees, but don’t respond by micromanaging. That will only disengage and fatigue already stressed employees. Don’t fixate on perceived performance problems; you’ll have plenty of time to lean on established performance management systems once the height of the crisis abates.
“Even before this crisis, employers were increasingly treating employees as key stakeholders. During this crisis, you can show employees that you plan to look out for them for the long haul,” says Kropp.
Many companies have spent the past couple of years building a set of values that describe how much they care about their employees, and how it's important for them to create great lives and experiences for their employees. Make sure to reinforce these values with employees.
Also continue to model the right behaviors — and encourage employees to call out unethical conduct. During periods of uncertainty, employee misconduct increases by as much as 33%. Remind employees of the channels for reporting misconduct and highlight punitive measures for noncompliance. This will promote work well-being — which has a huge impact on feelings of psychological safety.
6. Use objectives to create clarity
Role definitions may start to fall apart during the disruption, leaving employees unsure of where to focus. Focus on what employees should be accomplishing. Emphasize objectives over processes to create greater clarity for employees — and drive greater engagement levels.
“One of the top engagement drivers for employees is seeing their work contribute to company goals,” says Kropp. “Employees who feel confident about the importance of their job to the success of the organization feel less anxious about their job security.”
7. Focus on outputs not processes
In the remote landscape, where many people are juggling work and family commitments in their own homes, enable employees to complete their work in ways that are easiest and most productive for them.
Your 9 a.m. team meeting may have to go or you may have to forgo a lengthy approval process. Schedule collaboration at a mutually agreeable time, and lean on virtual tools wherever possible. Providing flexibility empowers teams to complete their assignments in their own way.
“As a manager, you have to stop paying attention to the process and pay more attention to what things are getting done. Just talk to your team about what you want them to accomplish,” says Kropp.
“During periods of disruption, employees' desire for being recognized for their contribution increases by about 30%,” says Kropp.
Effective recognition not only motivates the recipient, but serves as a strong signal to other employees of behaviors they should emulate. Recognition doesn’t need to be monetary; consider public acknowledgment, tokens of appreciation, development opportunities and low-cost perks. Managers at organizations facing a slowdown can take this opportunity to provide development opportunities to employees who normally do not have capacity.
Managers previously identified employees’ work and contributions within the traditional office space, but they are now required to recognize more with less visibility. Remote workers and managers have limited unintentional interactions and fewer group interactions where colleagues can meet and share stories.
Given the lack of visibility in a remote environment, try to improve your monitoring techniques and relationships with direct reports. Use simple pulse surveys to ask specific questions or track output to collect data and find areas of recognition. By meeting with employees virtually and asking what barriers they have overcome or ways peers have helped them, you can identify elements to recognize, thank and share the accomplishments of teams and their members.
9. Encourage innovation
With businesses sheltering in place amid high levels of uncertainty, managers and employees may understandably become more risk-averse. “There's a natural hesitancy among employees during disruptive times to be afraid to try something new,” says Kropp.
But it’s during such times that innovation and risk-taking become even more important for employee engagement and organizational success. The disengaging effect of constraints on innovation and risk-taking are particularly severe for high-potential (HIPO) employees, who tend to have a stronger desire for these types of opportunities. Even when the organization has constraints on new investments, managers can emphasize the need and provide opportunities for incremental innovation or process improvements.
Provide opportunities to share successes and safety for potential failures. The confines of social distancing mean that when employees take a risk and succeed in improving their productivity, only a few connections can build on that success. Make an effort to highlight the value of employees’ continuing to scale their activities, and ensure that any risks are worthwhile.
This article has been updated from the April 2, 2020 original to reflect new events, conditions and research.
Gartner ReimagineHR Conference
Join your peer group of CHROs and senior HR executives from leading organizations to discuss specific HR challenges and learn top HR trends and priorities.