Remote Work in Times of Crisis: 3 Threats to Employee Engagement

March 27 - Posted at 2:08 PM Tagged: , , , , , ,

Did you know that the number of remote workers has grown by 140% since 2005? And with the current COVID-19 situation, even more people are working remote if even temporarily. Now consider this: 80% of employees reported they’d be more loyal if they had more flexible work options, such as working from home. These numbers prove my point: Remote work has tremendous value for both employees and organizations—and it’s here to stay.

But for all its rose-colored benefits, remote work has some pitfalls that can take a toll on employee satisfaction, productivity, collaboration, and engagement. This is especially true amid the current coronavirus pandemic.

Many businesses find themselves in a unique situation. Large workforces, who have traditionally worked full time at physical offices, have now been mandated by HR to work remotely for extended periods of time (some for 2 weeks and others for at least 1 month, possibly longer)—and rightfully so given the current situation. 

This is an opportunity for HR teams to inform, communicate, and nurture their newly remote workers through this new landscape and give them the resources and tools to be as productive, engaged, and collaborative as possible.

Threat #1

Social isolation can breed loneliness. And loneliness can spur disengagement.

Employees crave human contact and interactions. One of the great benefits of going into an office every day is the relationships with colleagues. Office workers sit together for lunch (or go out to restaurants together); they share personal stories about their social experiences, families, and friends; they tell each other jokes; and they even share photos and videos from holidays, social outings, and more.

But when regular and meaningful human interactions are suddenly taken away, it can be hard for employees.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, many business executives have been asking employees to embrace the practice of “social distancing” right now for the sake of keeping employees safe and healthy.

But that’s inevitably going to lead to feelings of loneliness. This is supported by the findings of Buffer’s 2019 State of Work report, which found that 19% of the surveyed remote workers struggled with loneliness. This can, in turn, take a toll on employees’ mental health and well-being.

Now consider this: According to a meta-analysis coauthored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.

How to tackle it: 

  • Take several breaks throughout the day so you can be refreshed and re-energized to do great work.
  • Keep the camera turned on when using video conferencing tools.
  • Disconnect (both mentally and digitally) when the workday has ended. That means enabling the “Do Not Disturb” feature on your mobile devices and apps you regularly use like Slack.
  • Don’t be afraid to set up online one-on-one meetings with colleagues just to catch up (without a specific business purpose).
  • Get more personal during one-on-one meetings with teammates. Instead of jumping straight into work-speak, make a concerted effort to spend the first 10 minutes just catching up personally and talking about current events.

Threat #2

Distractions are everywhere, making it hard to stay productive.

In a home setting, the types and number of distractions multiply drastically from those employees might find in office environments. No one is sitting nearby to hold employees accountable. It can be so tempting for employees to watch online videos, scroll through Facebook and Instagram to see what friends are up to, and hop on personal phone calls with friends and family.

A big part of hiring smart people is instilling trust in them to do great work and be responsible for meeting their goals. So instead of panicking about the sudden shift to full-time remote work (or taking on a “Big Brother” mentality/approach to managing them), give employees the necessary technology and digital tools to be as productive as possible. They’ll thank you for it.

How to tackle it:

  • Create a schedule, and stick to it. Accept the meetings that are time-critical and impact-related first. Add in additional meetings as they make sense.
  • Don’t send employees messages or requests outside of regular working hours (even if they are at home). And make sure managers are cognizant of scheduling meeting times that would be inconvenient and cut into their early mornings/evenings. You’d be surprised by how often this actually happens, according to a recent Work-Life Survey.
  • Integrate internal communications tools, like Slack, your employees already use on a daily basis into your scheduling software.
  • Be strategic with time management. Implement time blocking within calendars (to focus on key projects for specified periods of time and avoid wasteful meetings).

Threat #3

Social distancing can cause misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication. 

There’s an art to effective, engaging communication. It’s hard enough to do when your employees are standing (or sitting) face-to-face with colleagues, teammates, customers, partners, and other stakeholders. So as large workforces now set out to work remotely full time for a prolonged period of time, communication will get even trickier.

What will likely ensue are misunderstandings, miscommunication about project expectations/deliverables, and possibly even performance issues. Those can lead to tension and animosity among coworkers, which will inevitably give employees more reasons to avoid, or even cancel, meetings that are necessary to brainstorm, innovate, manage projects, and deliver business results. No business wants these outcomes.

How to tackle it:

  • Enable the video functionality when holding virtual meetings. Facial expressions and body language can say a lot and work wonders to establish personal, human connections with team members, colleagues, and even clients.
  • Be selective in who you invite (and keep group meetings to smaller sizes). Elon Musk has a critical rule for running efficient meetings: If a person isn’t adding value, he or she doesn’t need to be there.
  • Be mindful of other people’s times, and be punctual to scheduled meetings.
  • If you want meetings to run smoothly (and have the desired input and action items), make sure to ask participants the necessary questions ahead of the meeting.


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