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5 tips to foster remote employee engagement

COVID-19 has left many businesses no choice but to send their employees home to work. Here are some things that HR can do to keep remote employees engaged and productive.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new work-from-home reality for many organizations that few were prepared to deal with.

Due to the pandemic, 88% of organizations have either encouraged or required nonessential employees to work from home, according to a Gartner HR survey conducted in March 2020.

Many leaders struggle with remote employee engagement since they relied heavily on in-person interactions for everything from guiding workflow to training. Yet, despite the struggle to adapt to remote work, many organizations will embrace the shift.

Here's how HR teams can deal with this unexpected shift and encourage work-from-home success.

1. Implement new strategies

To facilitate work-from-home success, HR leaders need to come up with new strategies.

"In this current environment, many HR professionals may not have existing practices for remote work, so I would say: Don't sweat the policies, but focus on getting tips, tricks and some online learning options to management and teams," said Linda Sala, director of HR at ISACA, an international professional association focused on IT governance, based in Schaumburg, Ill.

Strong partnerships with service areas of the business are also important, she said.

"This is necessary for troubleshooting and new process development, especially when onboarding and offboarding employees [virtually]," Sala said.

HR should also create guidelines on how to tailor leadership for a remote workforce.

Both top executives and managers are likely to need guidelines and coaching on how to communicate with a remote workforce, said David Johnson, principal analyst of employee experience at Forrester. For example, managers will need to learn new ways of communicating, and executives may need coaching on how to better express empathy and convey new demands.

2. Create a remote toolkit

To foster remote employee engagement, some companies are relying more heavily on HR tools they already had.

"We've seen great success with internal human resource tools, like BambooHR and Atlassian Confluence," said Eugenio Pace, CEO of Auth0, an identity and authentication provider based in Bellevue, Wash.

Auth0 uses BambooHR to organize employee and company information and Atlassian Confluence to create an internal wiki that keeps employees up to date.

The company also uses features in its existing technologies to keep remote employees engaged.

"Through Slack, we encourage our employees to make use of an opt-in integration with Donut, which randomly matches employees for virtual coffee hangouts on a regular basis," Pace said. "With all employees working remotely, tools like these are essential for facilitating cross-departmental relationships, along with minimizing stress and isolation when in-person interaction is not possible."

HR can customize the remote toolkit to its needs, said Gaurav Jain, co-founder at MageComp, based in Bhavnagar, India. Here's a list of potential tools HR teams can use as general guide:

  • an internal communication system, such as Skype or Slack;
  • a project management system, such as Asana, Trello or Jira;
  • a time tracker, like Time Doctor or Hubstaff; and
  • a remote meeting system, such as Zoom or Google Meet.

Using familiar tools and processes where possible is helpful when everything else about the work environment changes, said Kirill Petrov, CEO of Just AI, a provider of conversational AI technologies based in Amsterdam.

HR's efforts should be people-centric, no matter whether it is working with employees, managers or executives.

"Just AI uses a number of virtual communication methods and holds meetings via Skype, Slack, Google Hangouts and Zoom," Petrov said. "It really helps that we've always been a very transparent company, so now, we continue to keep every member of our team in the loop with weekly corporate digests."

3. Focus on the workforce

HR's efforts should be people-centric, no matter whether it is working with employees, managers or executives. HR teams shouldn't make assumptions about comfort levels. Some employees will be comfortable, and some may feel overwhelmed working from home.

"For many, it is a brand-new experience," said Chris Sinclair, head of people and culture at PMG, a marketing agency headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. "Even those who have worked remotely in the past have [not necessarily] done it for extended periods of time."

PMG created comprehensive "work-from-home guides" for different teams, Sinclair said. One is tailored to support managers, and another is designed to be used by all employees.

"The manager guide covered everything from how to project manage virtually, how to adapt communication and how to ensure they maintain connectedness with their team members," he said. "The employee guide gave practical advice on how to set up a workstation, how to structure their day and how to ensure they take the mental breaks needed to stay happy and healthy."

HR should also be open to updating policies, as some may no longer fit new work realities.

"For example, many employees are working from home with young kids in the house who would normally be in school but, because of social distancing mandates can't be. So, the burden falls on the parents," Johnson said. "Relaxing remote work policies and including language that permits more flexible working hours when circumstances demand it would be a great start."

Snapshot of the new remote workforce

Here are some numbers collected from companies around the United States:

  • "Nearly all of our employees are working remotely due to the pandemic; prior to the crisis, we had just under 10% remote staff." -- Linda Sala, director of HR, ISACA
  • "Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 100% of Auth0's workforce -- 650+ employees across 35 countries -- is currently working remotely. Prior to this, 55% of Auth0's employees already worked remotely." -- Eugenio Pace, CEO, Auth0
  • "During a normal period, Genesys has a strong full-time work-from-home population, which represents approximately one-third of our workforce. However, given the current situation, more than 90% of our global employees are working completely virtual today." -- Daniel Phelps, vice president of global talent acquisition, Genesys
  • "For our company, we had only 6% of our workforce working remotely, and now, it's all of us. That's a 94% increase with offices around the globe -- U.S., U.K., India, Israel, the Netherlands. From our customer network -- over 300 global employers -- 85% are working remotely full time." -- Brad Goldoor, chief people officer, Phenom
  • "Today, 100% of the company now works from home. Before the outbreak, only 30% worked remotely. In numbers, that's 130 employees that are now working remotely and didn't before." -- Ilan Stern, vice president of HR, Guardicore

By comparison, 29% of wage and salary workers could work at home in their primary job in 2017 and 2018, and 25% did work at home at least occasionally, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled in September 2019.

4. Use pulse surveys

Measuring the employee experience is important in the best of times. In this time of ramping up to work from home, it's critical.

An ongoing pulse survey is a good place to start, Johnson said.

Measuring remote work engagement isn't a one-and-done prospect but rather includes many aspects of the employee experience, he said. Some variables to measure include the following:

  • overall employee engagement -- for example, how energized and enthusiastic employees are feeling about their work most days;
  • how well they feel engaged with and supported by their manager;
  • how easily they're able to connect with and collaborate with colleagues; and
  • how well technology is enabling them to work remotely.

5. Collaborate with other HR teams

HR teams should feel comfortable reaching out to a cross-section of colleagues for advice on how to promote remote employee engagement.

"With a rapidly changing environment, it's critical to have a group of trusted advisors, fellow HR folks or other professionals who you can bounce ideas off of," said Renee Holland, global head of people at Contentstack, a content management system producer based in San Francisco.

HR teams can share or collaborate on best practices and get suggestions when they need them, she said.

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