Telework or remote working is not a novel concept. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of U.S. employees who work remotely increased by 115%.1 In 2019, more than 26 million Americans—about 16% of the total workforce—worked remotely at least part of the time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But as COVID-19 cases have surged, so too have the number of companies asking their employees to work from home. Forty-six percent of American businesses implemented remote-work policies as of mid-February.2
Successfully managing a remote workforce does not happen by accident. Research offers guidance to support top engagement as well as career and organizational wellbeing.
Recent data-gathering efforts have documented many of the challenges that remote workers face.3 Barriers include factors such as lack of face-to-face supervision, lack of access to work information shared interpersonally, and social isolation. Researchers have learned that contributors to isolation include absence from traditional office environments, lack of such critical growth factors as interpersonal networking and limited access to informal learning and mentoring.4 One such study found that remote workers can feel “left out and even mistreated” in certain circumstances.5 In just the last couple of years, organizations such as Yahoo!, Best Buy, Hewlett Packard, Reddit, IBM, and Honeywell mandated employees to physically be at work where possible, due to risks of remote employees feeling disengaged and leaving the organization.6 On the other side, it has been well documented that distractions at home also can interrupt the workflow and in some cases the engagement of employees in a remote work environment.
Finding the best fit for remote work
The “fit” of the individual to the role represents a significant complexity in attempting to ensure engagement and effectiveness of remote workers. A decade ago, organizations considering remote work may have had the luxury of more time when making such evaluations. Many of these evaluations had more to do with decreasing brick and mortar real estate costs. Now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly over night organizations find that the remote workforce decision has been made for them. As such, some roles and individuals naturally may be a better fit for remote work. For example, jobs that require a knowledge-worker component may naturally work better as a telecommuting role. Examples include computer programmers who can do most of their work on a laptop creating software code, reports or spreadsheets. Roles for which productivity is easily monitored, such as insurance claims adjusters or call center customer service, also work well remotely.
Similarly, certain individuals may better fit remote work based upon their preferences and personality characteristics.7 For example, self-motivated employees who naturally establish and maintain relationships, and who seek out opportunities for connection, may enjoy remote work.8
Researchers often cite conscientiousness as the most robust personality-based predictor of performance across all jobs.9 Specifically, conscientious employees who exhibit personal integrity and detail-orientation also may function more effectively in a remote work environment. Such attributes become especially important in the face of distractions and lack of in-person contact with colleagues.
Since technology is a driving force behind remote work, those workers who are both comfortable with technology and who feel equipped and supported by the organization and their managers are more likely to be a better fit for remote work environments.10
Aspects of remote work experience that drive engagement
But beyond fit of role and personality, what motivates individuals to perform in these remote work environments? We sought to understand what, if any differences may exist in the motivators or aspects of the work experience that drive engagement in traditional work environments versus those in a remote work environment.
Characteristics of successful remote workers
It’s helpful to review the characteristics of engaged employees. They are:
- A strong sense of job satisfaction and proud to work at their organization
- Willing to put in extra effort and can see how those extra efforts tie into the organization’s success
- Compelled by the organization’s mission
- Willing to promote the organization as a great place to work
- Not seriously considering other opportunities outside of the organization
Gallagher’s employee engagement survey practice has worked with hundreds of organizations across numerous industries including healthcare, energy, technology, financial services, and manufacturing, among others, to better understand the specific employee experience factors that positively impact and improve engagement.
Recognizing impactful drivers of remote workers
Every organization is unique, and factors of employment experience can affect engagement differently. Examples include how the organization rewards its employees, how teamwork and collaboration are supported, the degree to which career pathing is clear, the emphasis on quality and safety, and a variety of others. In a large healthcare organization of over 18,000 employees, we found that for more traditional, in-person roles, the most impactful drivers of engagement included:
- Loving the opportunity to work for the organization
- Growth and development opportunities
- Feeling challenged to do one’s best, not being able to imagine working anywhere else, and
- Strongly recommending the organization as a place for those needing care
When we examined roles in which employees performed in a remote environment, we found some interesting shifts. Specifically, the most significant work experience factors to remote workers’ engagement included the supervisor’s manager displaying principles that guide behavior in the organization; employees working well together to provide high quality service; and receiving context and reasons for major changes in the employee’s work group
As we put ourselves in the shoes of remote employees, we could practically hear these individuals saying:
- “I need a clear sense of structure, boundaries and expectations from my leaders and their leaders.”
- “I need to feel connected when changes occur that affect my team and potentially my role within the team.”
- “I need to know that my individual contribution makes a difference to the customer experience.”
These findings have important implications for leaders:
- Remote workers need a sense of structure, boundaries and expectations from their managers and “what these leaders stand for and expect.”
- When changes occur in the organization, employees must feel connected and in the loop when shifts occur in the work environment that affect the team and potentially the employee’s role in that team.
- Working remotely actually drives the need for employees to feel like their work makes a difference in providing a high quality experience to customers.
Next Steps for Managers and Employees
Given these findings, managers can play a key role in driving connection and engagement with remote workers. Several practices can set your organization up for success with a remote workforce.
- Equip managers for success. The organization must recognize that managers need a different set of skills to manage a remote workforce than those needed to manage a workforce down the hallway. Providing training and resources to managers specific to remote workers can support managers in leading from a distance. Consider establishing a manager to manager a networking group so that the managers can learn from and support each other in developing management skills.
- Establish a check-in routine for all remote employees. With a remote workforce you are unable, as a manager or as a co-worker, to connect in a break room or walk into someone’s office for a quick hello. Managers need to establish frequent check-ins intentionally, both one-on-one as well as in a team setting to drive connection. Check-ins should cover a variety of conversation topics not just about workload and performance. Because there is no casual water cooler talk, covering the social aspect in team calls offers valuable connection. For example, start remote meetings asking everyone to share a personal high point and a professional high point. Create a habit of dedicating the first five minutes of a meeting to this type of chatter to strengthen team engagement.
- Use a variety of communication options for check-ins, team meetings and organization-wide announcements to keep employees connected to the organization’s goals and current on changes. Communicating frequently with transparency, honesty and empathy can make a remote worker feel connected. Leverage technology such as conference calls, video conferencing, chat functions, emails and intranet sites. Remember however, that technology challenges can be a barrier to communication. Frequent training on how to use technology tools is critical for the manager and for the employee. Consider creating easy how-to guides, voluntary trainings, and a forum for sharing tips and tricks.
- Set clear expectations for employee and manager performance. Establish start and end times for the workday, response time to emails, and availability--all are potentially different when teams are not face-to-face at the worksite. Establishing rules of engagement from the start takes the guess work out of navigating a new remote work environment. Each employee and manager situation may vary, so be flexible where possible and appropriate. For some workers, their workday may start earlier or end later due to time zones or other personal circumstances. Establish a schedule right away between the manager and the employee and communicate this to the rest of the team so that everyone functions under the same expectations.
- Acknowledge and intentionally foster the culture you desire. Success may require extra effort with a remote workforce. Communicate openly about the vision of the company, carefully articulate changes, offer support tools for employee wellbeing, encourage team work and social interaction, as well as create opportunities for fun. These steps may need additional creativity and focus to engage a remote workforce.
Consider reviewing your common workplace practices and adjust them as necessary. Think about employee birthday celebrations and other personal milestones to celebrate with a team virtual happy hour. Remote conference calls can turn into walking meetings. Share photos of home office set-ups and “co-workers” (like kids, roommates, and four-legged friends) on your intranet.
Taking the steps to carefully consider how to engage and connect with your remote workforce is an important component of driving employee wellbeing and overall organizational wellbeing. Using our consulting approach, Gallagher Better Works, we help leaders develop strategies and take action steps to make their organizations better every day, whether in one work location or hundreds of remote locations globally. Gallagher can help your organization to face the future with confidence.