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Employee Engagement at Home (with Your Cat)

With the vaccine being distributed, you may be thinking…

I can’t wait for life to be normal again… but do I really want resume my long commute just to sit in a cubicle all day with annoying fluorescent lights flickering above me???

Well then I have good news for you. Though the pandemic may be on the way out, the remote workplace is likely here to stay. Employers have begun to shed their brick and mortar offices as a cost-saving measure, and most have learned that creating a successful remote workplace is possible. Critical to a remote workplace’s success, however, is employee engagement.

What exactly is employee engagement, again?

SHRM says that employee engagement “relates to the level of an employee's commitment and connection to an organization,” but does not provide a specific definition for the practice. Because employee engagement encompasses so much, it cannot be confined to just one description. Employee engagement relates to an employee’s mental and emotional connection to the workplace, to employee commitment, and to the trust between an employer and employee. Employees can be engaged through job enrichment, training and development, and facilitated internal communication.

How is true engagement possible when we are all working from different locations?

It may be time to rethink that point of view. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, companies that did offer telework to their employees did so to save the cost of real estate, as well as to offer flexibility for employees. However, these decisions were often made at the perceived expense of engagement. Many employers viewed decreased engagement as a necessary trade-off for the flexibility and cost-savings of remote work. Research, however, is beginning to indicate that this trade-off may be imaginary. A Gallup poll found that employees who work remotely at least three days per week are actually more engaged at work. As employee engagement is a driver for business success, it behooves employers to innovate their strategies to promote both employee flexibility and engagement.

Ok…employee engagement is important in the remote workplace… but how?

Consider applying the Job Demands-Resources Model to your strategic engagement process. This model characterizes all working conditions as either job demands or job resources. Job demands can include job-related stress, role ambiguity, or workload, and can result in stress. Job resources are positive factors such as strong work relationships, autonomy, and harmony that help an employee achieve their goals. This model can be applied to both traditional office settings and the remote workplaces.

As with other aspects of strategic HR management, the perception is that providing job resources is a costly endeavor, particularly when adapted to the remote workplace. The COVID-19 pandemic has had adverse effects on the economy, and businesses may be unwilling/unable to contribute funds to employee engagement initiatives. Fortunately, not all remote engagement opportunities need be a financial burden to the company, with many of these engagement practices costing no more than staff participation. According to researchers at the Mittal School of Business, non-monetary best practices for employee motivation can be grouped into five categories: Growth; Renewal; Enabling; Aspirational; and Transparency. Training programs that promote employee growth can be implemented virtually and at no cost if internal leaders and experts are used. Renewal can be achieved through flexible work schedules, vacation time, or even through virtually guided relaxation/meditation programs, many of which are available for free online. Jobs that are designed with flexibility, autonomy, and purpose help enable employees to do their best work, in both types of settings. The aspirational lever can be activated by carefully shaping the workplace culture through conducting surveys and implementing staff-bonding activities.

The final, and perhaps most challenging remote engagement category to emphasize is transparency. In the remote workplace, most meetings are private, as they require an invitation/access code. Leadership should evaluate who is invited and excluded from remote meetings and consider shared meeting calendars, weekly all-staff meetings, daily newsletters, etc. to encourage transparency.

However, cultivating employee engagement is as much about removing barriers as it is about promoting engagement opportunities. Certain stressors can negatively contribute to engagement including high workload, poor work relationships, role ambiguity, and excessive bureaucracy. In a remote environment, the solutions to many of these barriers lie with the supervisor. In an office setting, a supervisor is likely to have regular interactions with their direct reports, and may be able to intuit information about the employee’s morale through physical and social cues. In the remote workplace, supervisors should compensate for this by scheduling regular well-being check-ins with their employees, and using chat-functions to replace daily interactions. Companies must also invest in their remote employees. Inexpensive technology upgrades such as headsets and laptop stands can help employees create home offices that are comfortable and ergonomic. Finally, employers should examine their processes to remove any unnecessary bureaucratic steps for remote employees such as internal approvals or unnecessary timekeeping measures.

TL;dr, can you just give me some concrete ideas, please?

Sure! Here are some low-cost, minimal time-investment tips to create and maintain an engaged remote workforce:

- Invest in the remote communication software. Though companies can purchase software like WebEx and Microsoft Teams, there are also free programs that provide a similar service such as Google Meet and Zoom. Video meetings allow employees to simulate in-person connection and can be used to provide support to colleagues or supervisors.

- Commit to one virtual communication tool for the entire organization. You will lose out on important connection opportunities if you, say, promote Slack while others are already comfortable with Zoom.

- Recreate those small moments of connection that occur throughout the workday. Most virtual communication tools have channels that you can dedicate to various topics of small talk including forums for discussing current events, pop culture recommendations, and sharing best practices for how to set up one’s home office.

- Time-zone differences should also be considered and respected for teams spanning a large geographic area. Consider core workday hours (such as 11-3pm EST) where all employees must be available for meetings, while allowing for flexibility for how employees schedule the rest of their workday.

Thank you! I now see that it is possible to cultivate an engaged workplace from the comfort of my own home!

You’re welcome. Now go forth and enjoy introducing your colleagues to your cat.


Michael McElroy is current VUHRD graduate student and an Associate Consultant at Nonprofit HR. Connect with him on LinkedIn!


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