While recent events have encouraged large-scale home working, this has only accelerated an ever-increasing trend towards flexible and remote working practices in many job roles. During the pandemic, companies have been forced to allow their people to work more from home where possible, which poses a number of benefits and challenges for organisations and employees.
The office as we know it has been such an important part of defining workplace culture - but that is now changing. O2 Business Research ‘The Flexible Future of Work’ shows that “nearly half (45%) of the workforce believe flexible working will increase permanently, and a third (33%) expect to increase the amount they work from home by at least three days a week.” As a result, the dispersed / remote based workforce of the future is likely to increase and it will be much more complex to manage and motivate.
So, what are the issues and how do we motivate and engage all our employees in a satisfying career journey and ensure sustained productivity – whether they are physically present or not?
Offer a strong sense of purpose
Despite many remote workers now actively choosing to work from home and with less contact with their offices - they still need (and want) to feel like they are a part of a team. The COVID-19 crisis suddenly separated people from their organisations, sending many to instant home working. While this was a necessity and has been surprisingly effective for many, the distance inevitably caused a disconnect for some.
That’s because many people now working remotely originally joined an organisation with a physical location, colleagues they could see and talk to and with an obvious sense of purpose. In fact, it may well have been their main reason for joining.
Remote workers need a strong sense of direction and purpose to engage (and re-engage) with the organisation and retain their feeling of team and belonging. Giving meaningful work aligned to the vision with clear ownership of projects can reinforce each individual’s identity within the organisation - as will contributions to the organisation’s successes and recognition for work well done.
Leaders can do their bit too - being authentic, inclusive and visible, communicating a clear message about the purpose and cause so everyone can understand and connect.
Don’t be afraid to over-communicate as we move towards a dispersed workforce - more is better than less to keep everyone aligned.
Build a positive culture
Organisations are complex places and silos and factions can exist in normal times. So, add in a crisis and they often become more noticeable. It’s been widely felt that factions have emerged during the COVID-19 lockdown - between those that feel they’ve been ‘running the place’ while others are at home on furlough. Likewise, people being furloughed may be anxious about a shift of power while they’ve been out of the business. These issues have an impact on engagement levels and need to be addressed as work reconvenes.
A positive ‘no blame’ culture will definitely help. A culture where employees feel listened to and supported, have a voice and feel they can all equally contribute to the success of the company.
Remote working brings the additional challenges of prolonged isolation which can affect well-being. A positive culture will recognise this and have in place the means to build and nurture those all-important relationships needed to bond, including strong manager / employee relationships built on trust and respect as well as positive connections within teams.
Genuine appreciation and recognition from leaders, managers and peers also play a vital part in creating positive morale, employee connection and engagement. Regular virtual meetings and team initiatives can help - how about social team calls or that virtual pizza party? Good on-boarding will allow new joiners to feel part of the company and a buddy scheme will help new starters integrate.
Connect and communicate
Being present through togetherness contributes to giving meaning to what we do. When we are not all working in one place it makes good communication all the more important to create that connection. Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work shows that difficulties with Collaboration & Communication and Loneliness are the top challenges remote workers struggle with most.
So, have a plan detailing how you will communicate going forward with a defined company-wide message but that also works on a personal level. That means making 1-2-1 time an equal part of your communication.
Put in place regular comms and visibility opportunities. That could include an online conference on an organisation-wide level as well as more team based interaction through weekly video calls. This needs to become the norm in the remote based organisation, further investment in technology will facilitate this.
Asking for feedback is an essential way to show employees that you value their opinion - so run employee engagement surveys and ask them. Their opinions will be invaluable.
Create a drop-in hub
Despite the trend towards remote working, some people will still want to be visible and present. It is perhaps understandable if some still feel that they want to be in the workplace and want their line manager to see them - at least for some of the time.
Could senior managers be based in a hub where employees have the option of working 1-2 days a week to meet-up with their managers and colleagues? This could improve relationships and combat possible feelings of isolation from extended home-working.
Strong line managers and development
As the dispersed working culture grows, line managers will play the role of being the ‘glue’ that ties an organisation together. They will be the first point of contact for all the issues their teams are experiencing and their ability to listen, show empathy and respond will have a big impact on engagement levels.
Remote working should not damage promotion prospects and line managers who have active and on-going conversations about skills and career development will ensure continued employee progression. There is a risk that workers with different skill sets and experiences will miss out on learning from their colleagues who will no longer be in the same building. This learning is a key part of their skills development. A mentoring process (including reverse mentoring) could offer employees the opportunity to share their skills, abilities and experience and ensure everyone feels as supported, engaged and encouraged as before.
Line managers need to develop the skills needed to build trusted relationships with their employees - and they might need some help doing that, changing any micro-manager tendencies to those that work better with remote working. Harnessing the power of diverse remote teams and focusing on outcomes rather than inputs can help encourage effective remote working. And after all, most employees stay in a company (or choose to leave) due to their relationship with their manager and colleagues.
Creativity happens when people collaborate, often spontaneously by being present. That’s why some of the best ideas are often unplanned. This isn’t so easy with a disparate workforce.
That means involving your employees in thinking and improvement initiatives, fostering a supportive environment for contribution and creativity. It takes leaders and managers to create enthusiasm and get everyone involved, draw out suggestions and ideas and treat any contributions with respect. This will generate the trust and openness required to evolve opinion and nurture creativity.
The organisation that can find a way to channel this creativity remotely and the passion that it creates will experience higher engagement levels.
Nurture hidden talent and a diverse workforce
By transforming how organisations work, the COVID-19 crisis has given some people an opportunity to demonstrate talents they were perhaps unaware they had. Those that have been able to work effectively, maintain their motivation levels and manage and lead others have shown why they deserve to be noticed.
How good is the organisation at recognising this and further hidden talent? It could mean the difference between maintaining an engaged team of highly capable people or seeing them de-motivated, leaving to go elsewhere.
A diverse workforce will offer different views, voices and creative ideas, often resulting in better solutions, How can organisations ensure that all groups are supported in a remote work setting?
There is a risk that remote working will mean that parents will inevitably get involved more in childcare, which can affect their opportunities for visibility and progression – and this could potentially affect more women than men. And how can organisations draw out contributions from introverted people and those on the spectrum?
What leaders say and do also makes a real difference. Deloitte’s research shows that “the behaviors of leaders (be they senior executives or managers) can drive up to 70% of difference between the proportion of employees who feel highly included and the proportion of those who do not.” This feeling of inclusion translates into an increase in perceived team performance (+17%), decision-making quality (+20%), and collaboration (+29%).
So the more people are nurtured and feel included, the more they contribute, speak up, go the extra mile and collaborate – all of which ultimately enhances organisational performance.
Organisations that view diversity as important and are mindful that individuals or groups have particular, and potentially different, needs for support in a remote setting, and hold sensitive conversations to ensure equality of opportunity, diversity and inclusion, will have the edge.
Whether it’s in response to a pandemic or because organisations and their employees are simply tired of the commute and wish to spend more time at home, we can be sure that remote working is here to stay. The numbers are only going to increase further - which requires action from employers to match.
If you are concerned about how your organisation is equipped to manage and motivate this changing workforce, please contact me for a chat on 07795 608145. I offer a free 30-minute call to discuss your people requirements and will share with you my thoughts on how your organisation can create improvements, maintain certification and generate efficiencies.
Gesa Grabis runs HR Influence Ltd. As an outsourced HR Director she helps leaders and owners within SMEs achieve their vision through their people by resolving HR challenges, improving performance and maximising people potential.
I'm passionate about helping small to medium-size businesses with their people challenges - finding the right talent, putting employee support systems in place to look after the workforce and…
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