Engaging Your Newly Remote Workforce

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

By: Leslie Berger-Associate Professor Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University & Adam Presslee-Assistant Professor School of Accounting and Finance, University of Waterloo.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed many workplaces from bustling offices with shared work spaces to remote, telecommuting networks. Employees around the world now find themselves working in isolation away from the familiarity of their colleagues and their workplace. This unplanned, but profound, shift in job design can have detrimental effects on employee engagement.

Employee engagement is the level of physical, cognitive and emotional energy workers dedicate towards their job and company. Engaged employees are passionate about their work, which has an acute effect on their productivity.  In this article, we explore the psychology behind employee engagement, discuss why newly remote working can have a detrimental effect on employee engagement, and provide some ways in which organizations are actively addressing this engagement issue.

What is Employee Engagement?

Employee engagement happens when employees perceive three fundamental attributes about their work: meaningfulness, safety, and control.

Employees assess the meaningfulness of their work by considering what they get in return (both financial and non-financial) for their job-related efforts. Engaged employees tend to believe their hard work makes a difference and that their efforts are not taken for granted by their company.

Employees desire safety wherein they can trust their co-workers, their boss, and their workplace. A consistent, nonthreatening environment provides employees with a clear understanding of what is expected from them.

Employees desire control wherein they have the necessary resources to do their job to the best of their ability. Importantly, resources in this context are not limited to the physical resources that companies provide their employees such as technology and equipment. Rather, resources more broadly include other aspects of the job such as the autonomy and the time.

While individual employees may not desire these three attributes to the same extent, typically organizations that offer more meaningful work where employees have a greater sense of safety and control over work related outcomes experience greater employee engagement. 

The Risk of Disengagement in the Newly Remote Workforce

Managers of newly remote employees face particularly unique challenges relating to employee engagement. While working remotely can increase employees’ autonomy and sense of control, it also leads to a dramatic decrease in meaningfulness and sense of security. This decrease results from changes to the structure of their job and the social isolation caused by the pandemic. Further, employees are accustomed to working in the office beside their colleagues and managers, and the physical distance caused by working remotely can develop into a psychological distance between the employee and the company, which creates significant declines in employee engagement.

Ways to Foster Engagement in a Newly Remote Workforce

  • Keep a long-term vision.  Working from home creates many obstacles that simply don’t exist in a workplace. Be patient and understanding of family challenges, connectivity limitations and other issues that arise in a remote working environment. Managers should avoid a myopic focus on short-term productivity decreases, as negative feedback may have lasting implications in terms of employee engagement over the long term.
  • Be available to provide informal feedback and encouragement. The workplace once offered many opportunities for employees to bump into other employees. This informal interaction is important for employees to establish psychological proximity to their work. To ensure that these interactions continue employers should create opportunities for virtual coffee breaks to provide employees an opportunity to informally connect with one another. Further, regular and consistent communication informing employees of the status of projects and joint outcomes serve to remind them that they are part of a team.
  • Continue to reward and recognize employees. Rewards and recognition for good work are shown to have profound impact on employee engagement. However, the constraints of a remote working environment result in limited opportunities to provide employees that go above and beyond with those rewards and recognition. In the current environment, rewarding employees with tickets to the basketball game, lunch at a nice restaurant or even a cruise are not necessarily feasible or even desired. Instead, consider rewarding employees with cash, small-dollar electronic gift certificates, or even a donation to the charity of their choice. While financial rewards during this difficult time may seem counter-intuitive, such rewards when tied to performance can greatly improve productivity and firm performance. When providing these financial rewards, do not miss out on the opportunity to include words of encouragement and thanks, which are shown to positively affect engagement. For instance, personal emails to recognize employees’ efforts are shown to be highly effective.      

Leslie Berger (lberger@wlu.ca) is an associate professor at the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics, Wilfrid Laurier University. Adam Presslee (capressl@uwaterloo.ca) is an assistant professor at the School of Accounting and Finance, University of Waterloo. Leslie and Adam’s research is in the area of performance management with a particular interest in understanding workplace factors that affect employee engagement and effort.

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