How to keep employees engaged as they work from home

Well, it has happened…a mass exodus of workers from the office to their homes of people. For years, the subject of remote working has been proposed and simulated but sparsely adopted by organizations in most countries. With Ghana clocking Day 4 of lockdown (as at the time of this post), most companies may still have questions as to the future of work, IR and performance.

The advent of COVID-19 seems to have ‘forced’ the adoption of remote working, and with many companies now having to let their staff work from home, one issue of the key issues running in the minds of management is…how do we keep employees engaged and committed to productivity?

What is Employee Engagement?

Some managers often mistake employees that are happy while they are taking part in staff meetings or company events, as being engaged employees. This is very inaccurate.

Engaged employees are not necessarily those who show up happy to work but those that are fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and so take positive actions to further the organization’s reputation and interests.

The engaged employee gets up in the morning thinking, “I feel great about going to work. I have some great ideas for what I’m going to do today. I’m looking forward to seeing the team and helping them work well today”.

For you as an employer, this means positive attitudes and behaviors that lead to improved business outcomes, in a way that they trigger and reinforce one another; pride and loyalty working for your organization, being a great advocate of the organization to its clients, users and customers, and going the extra mile to finish a piece of work.

All this further translates to a deeper commitment from your employees hence fewer leave, declines in sick absences, accident rates, and conflicts, and an increase in productivity.

In the times when we had our teams on-site and in our offices, employee engagement meant hosting for forums for them to speak, having an out-of-office session, providing adequate tools for work, sponsoring their development and such.

With most, if not all your staff away from the office, the question now is, “how can you keep them engaged as if they were in the office?”

The simple answer - you don’t.

Working from home comes with different dynamics from the traditional office and with those come different challenges. Thus you cannot use the same methods of engagement as you would if they were on-site. It has to be tweaked to fit their new status.

The focus should be on what can be done to keep employees engaged whilst home or remote.

How do we do this then…?

1. Make it possible for work to be easier from home.

By this, I’m referring to the tools needed to complete tasks. The internet, computer, messaging service, etc. Employees will need all of this if they are to still be productive. What managers can do is to provide these readily and as soon as possible. Employees do not need to worry about data if they know it will be provide or paid for by their businesses. They don’t need to worry about how to send in work, or how to reach you in case of unplanned circumstance. Providing the tools for work means making it possible for them to actually work.

2. Be present and online.

This is the time for managers and supervisors to be more present than ever. Your teams will need your guidance as well as ears and voice to navigate their task in the coming days. This does not mean constantly dishing out instructions or micro-managing, but making it clear that you can be reached and also make an effort to reach out through regular virtual meetings or catch-up sessions. Regularly scheduled calls to your team members about how they're doing and what you can do to support them will enable them feel connected and less isolated. It may well be time to also invest in digital tools for collaboration and remote working. From Microsoft Teams to Google Docs, there are many product management and collaboration tools that can help keep everyone on the same page as well as offer timely feedback.

Understand that the overall success and productivity of any remote team depends upon the strength of communication and collaboration channels. Where a lack of communication is apparent, it leads to frustrated workers and poor work being produced. Your role as a manager is to promote communication as much as possible.

3. Make time for feedback.

Equally important after being present, is giving an opportunity for your team to give feedback. Allow them to share details about challenges and successes, and then ask how they think it can be solved. It is best to have them propose a solution that you can support so as to give them the power to decide. Further boost morale by connecting employees with supportive networks where they have space for peer-to-peer support meetings and can appreciate each other.

Providing the tools for work means making it possible for them to actually work.

4. Be flexible and malleable.

The workers you're sending home have lives that may not be conducive to working remotely. They might have kids who've been sent home from school or a spouse who is also working remotely.

Working from home means they will be interrupted by their kids, laundry, spouses, etc. They may be working whilst tutoring their children or even preparing meals.

Now is not the time to question or scold them for going off to address some of these distractions. Be willing to cope with and expect some of these. It is not their fault that these distractions occur, the environment does not make it possible for them to eliminate it entirely. What should be encouraged is spontaneous meetings from them, less concern about the hours they work and more concern about the results they pull in. Offer to extend deadlines, if doing so will lessen the stress they're feeling trying to balance your needs and that of their family. By this, they will be more prepped to take on tasks without worrying about a backlash.

5. Address issues of Loneliness and Isolation immediately.

Believe it or not, as employees stay away longer from their office, they will feel lonely and isolated, if there are no avenues of engagement. The good news is both situations can be addressed swiftly. First, it helps to understand that loneliness is an emotional response to lack of connection -- and people can feel just as lonely in the office as outside of it.

Isolation, on the other hand, is related to access -- or lack of it. The isolated can't get the materials or information they need, they think their achievements or development are ignored, they feel cut off from the business. That isn't an emotional issue, it's a technical one.

Loneliness is emotional. Isolation is structural.

To address either of them, it comes down to how often you communicate with them and the structures you provide to support their work. That is why as a manager your top priority will be providing the materials and equipment they need to work. This is fundamental to engagement.

You can cure isolation by adopting collaborative tools that allow real-time interactions. Software to consider include Microsoft Teams, includesYammer, WhatsApp, Google Meet and Slack - I will review some of these in a future blog.

With regard to loneliness, the solution will lie in constant communication with a genuine interest in wellbeing i.e, making use of the tools above to remain in touch.

Gallup workplace research recommends frequent, ongoing conversations with specific questions framed for remote workers such as "I need to know how you're getting along. So tell me, is it too quiet at home? Do you miss having people around? Do you feel left out?"

Loneliness can contribute to isolation and isolation can contribute to loneliness, but managers can address both by talking about the issues that cause them.

Regular scheduled calls to your team members about how they're doing and what you can do to support them, will enable them feel connected and less isolated

6. Honor actual office hours and the weekends

It is easy for both you and your employees to slip into an "always-on" mode when working remotely. Phones and laptops are often within reach; technology has made it easy to check email in seconds, making it nearly impossible to tune out even when the day officially ends. However, just because you find it convenient to catch up on email later in the evening while watching TV doesn’t mean your co-workers or direct reports do. As much as possible, fight the urge to remain “always-on” by clearly communicating expected response times for emails or simply delay sending emails until the next day and insist they also do same.

7. Practice gratitude.

Whether you send a personal email, recognize team members by name on a call, or send a care package, every little act of appreciation could help your employees get through the day.

As with any engagement strategy, recognition and appreciation lead to deeper engagement and more effort from both the recognized and his team-mates. Recognition need not be fancy and can range from a simple handwritten thank you note to shout-outs during calls, or mention via email.

8. Bring out the games!

Just because your employees are away doesn't mean you cannot have some fun. Search for interesting activities that can be completed over Skype or any other conferencing software, get the team together, set a prize and reward the winners. You could try picture challenges, where they can share photos of their life from home based on a prompt, or take it a notch higher with video. This can be done once a week just to get them fraternizing even though they are apart.

There you have, 7 ways to keep employees engaged. This is not exhaustive, and there may be more. The key thing is to communicate more, provide tools and allow more room

About the writer

David Ampofo-Nkrumah is a budding HR practitioner, with experiences in consulting, FMCG and auditing firms. Outside of HR, he is a personal development trainer, an amateur artist, and a minister at the Makers House Chapel, Adenta

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