Remote work and employee engagement in times of pandemic

remote work
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

With the current remote work situation a lot of the usual parameters that make us enjoy our workplace are missing. No personal meetings with our colleagues to discuss or challenge ideas and projects, no informal chats at the coffee machine. There is no intake of the vibrant office atmosphere and no lunch meetings at favourite lunch places. Instead we find ourselves in front of our laptop the whole day, our workplace is the screen. We prepare and drink our own coffee. We organise home schooling and try to share the available work spaces at home. We prepare lunch for everyone and have to do the cleaning up afterwards.

Challenging times for expats

Over the past twelve months I worked with a large number of expats who started their new roles abroad. Some continued working for the same company as before, others were new hires. They all arrived at their host countries during the pandemic. Most of them have hardly ever met their new colleagues in person.

Not only did they start a new role in a remote work setting, their private lives could not unfold as usual. Socialising opportunities were limited. Children could not make friends with schools closed and play dates rare. These newly arrived expats could not discover their new host country. They could not go back to their home country to see friends and family either.

Investments into infrastructure

In the past many companies have invested in the work place infrastructure. From state of the art equipment, interior design, art work, complimentary coffee and water to service providers like dry cleaners, child care centres, pharmacies, restaurants and similar on site. This is one way of showing appreciation for your work force by making their lives easier and more comfortable. As “face-to-face interactions are by far the most important activity in an office” (Workspaces That Move People by Ben Waber, Jennifer Magnolfi, Greg Lindsay), many workspaces have been designed to maximise chance encounters. Chance encounters and unplanned interactions improve performance. Investments in the work environment support companies in communicating culture and values. Giving direct access to service providers of all kind helps to improve work life balance. 

Keeping employees engaged and committed

Over the past year most people gained flexibility, trust, independence and control over their own work through the remote work situation. Commuting time is gone which means a better work life balance for many. But chance encounters and unplanned interactions are also gone, limiting the possibilities for collaboration, innovation and performance improvement, and ultimately reducing the sense of belonging.

New hires or assignees who go through a difficult settling in phase might need additional support in times of pandemic. Remote work can lead to emotional detachment and dwindling loyalty. Offering similar career opportunities or similar compensation and benefits, employers might become interchangeable.

What companies can do

Leadership skills, mentorship, training opportunities, ethics and care for employees as individuals become even more important. In their survey: “What the “Best Companies to Work For” Do Differently” Michael O’Malley and Bill Baker discovered already before the pandemic (Dec 2019) that the best companies to work for focus on life satisfaction instead of job satisfaction for their employees. These companies invest in mental and physical health improvement programmes, they give their employees opportunities to pursue their passions and they bring people together and create shared experiences. By letting employees rearrange, modify and improve assignments they can take ownership.

With the lack of personal connection leaders now need to support the mental well being of their teams. They need to create community in a remote work setting and allow for chance encounters. Currently employees fill their agendas with either online meetings or time to work alone on their projects. One option for teams to break this routine could be to create common online work spaces. Those are set times in which team members connect online, check in with each other and state what they are going to work on. They can use each other to discuss problems in break out rooms and can report on their progress at the end of a session. As a sole proprietor I have seen this model work for myself and for many of my friends and colleagues around the world. It allows us to stay connected, to bounce off ideas, be accountability partners, and inspire each other. We get an incredible amount of work done in this time and at the same time we create a sense of belonging.

What are you doing to enhance personal connection and the feeling of belonging in your team?