Written with Ben Motteram, aka CXpert.
Starting in mid-March this year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries around the globe locked down their residents, requiring them to stay at home for all but a handful of “essential” reasons. Physically going to work was not one of those reasons.
It’s fair to say that this caught many businesses off guard. Organisations that for years had pushed back against employees wishing to work remotely were left scrambling to organise remote access for their workforce to ensure they could continue to operate under the new temporary laws.
Having staff work remotely presents a unique set of challenges for businesses, not the least of which is how to engage employees when you’re not seeing them daily. At a time when Gallup is reporting that only 15% of employees globally are engaged (and that’s when they’re physically coming into the office!), what can business owners and line managers do to maintain the emotional connection between remote employees and the company and ensure they have the enthusiasm they need to give their jobs 100% every single day?
We came up with five important ways to engage staff as they’re working from home.
#1 Maintain Your Culture
Your organisation’s culture – the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs of your employees and how they behave – is its foundation. It is rooted in your mission, vision, and values and becomes especially important in times of crisis. Culture does not change during a crisis; instead, it’s what holds the organization together. You must continue to operate with your core values in mind, even – especially – when everyone is working from home.
Ensure that decisions, processes, policies, actions, and behaviours continue to be aligned with the organisation’s core values. In addition to this, build connectivity into your culture and contribute toward employees’ wellbeing by hosting things like virtual happy hours and online events such as trivia, yoga, and meditation. Check out this video from Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, in which he explains how he keeps his workforce connected.
Communication is so important in any relationship; it’s no less critical in your relationship with your employees, especially during a crisis. You’ve got to start by answering all of the key questions about the crisis and the business shift – who, what, when, where, why, how, etc.? – and then communicate updates on an ongoing basis. You’ve got to be proactive, transparent, authentic, timely, and consistent. If you aren’t, angst and panic set in, and employees start to create their own scenarios of what reality is – or will become.
Don’t forget to take a moment every now and then to speak from the heart. Express gratitude and appreciation for your employees and the work they continue to do, even when there are a million other distractions in their days and in their lives. Hold your company, department, and team meetings, just like you did before. Schedule 1:1 time with your staff so that you can check in on each and every individual. And if you’ve got to communicate bad news, take a page from Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky’s masterclass on how to communicate with employees and stay true to your culture. Plus, check out how it impacted one employee.
Speaking of distractions, working from home isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Many have never done it before. And yet they’ve been thrown into a situation where they’re figuring out how to work full time, home school children, care for loved ones, and search for a quiet place in which they can sneak a few moments of silence to participate in the never-ending stream of Zoom meetings. All while still being as productive as they were in the office because their employers expect as much.
Providing feedback to employees about their work and their productivity will help them get comfortable, feel confident that they aren’t falling behind, and give them the reassurance they need that we all truly are in this together, dealing with some of the same issues. Unless there’s something egregious or problematic, provide kudos and recognition for a job well done. Coach on problem areas. Share positive customer feedback widely – let everyone in the company know that customers appreciate their efforts, too. And make the feedback loop a two-way street. Provide the time and the means for them to share feedback with you about how things are going as well.
#4 Tools and Resources
A large part of the employee experience is ensuring your people have the right tools, resources, policies, and processes in place to do their jobs well. At no time in your organisation’s history has the need for this become more critical. You’ve got to make sure employees have what they need to do their jobs as if they were onsite and as per requirements for how business has changed during the crisis.
Of course, technology plays a huge role when employees are working from home, but it’s not just about the technology. Are you providing the furniture, hardware, and supplies they need to do their jobs from home? Or are you providing them with an expanded expense account to ensure they can buy the necessary supplies they need? And what rules and policies have been updated as a result of a dispersed workforce? What processes have been changed to accommodate this new world order? Refer back to #2 (Communication) on this – be sure that any and all changes are clearly communicated to employees.
#5 Autonomy and Empowerment
Trust becomes an even more important virtue between employer and employee at a time when employees are not in the same room or building with a manager or with other employees. Out of sight, out of mind becomes a concern – for both parties. But autonomy and empowerment are the greatest gifts you can give to your employees at this time. When you hired them, you did so because you felt that they brought some needed values or some needed skills to the table, perhaps that you didn’t have. Give them the freedom to do their jobs. As long as #1 through #4 above are in place, this one should be a no-brainer.
You won’t be able to monitor everything employees do while they’re working from home the way you may do in an office, so let it go. Let them do their jobs. Many mid-level managers have never had to manage staff remotely before, so provide the necessary training to help them reduce the risk of alienating their direct reports. Trust. Give staff autonomy and empower them – to engage them. They will do their jobs within the guardrails that have been set, and they’ll be more productive for doing it. (We now know that productivity has actually increased while employees have been working from home, so much so that many companies will continue allowing remote work when the lockdown ends.)
Keeping employees engaged while everyone is working from home might have seemed daunting at first, but employers and employees are getting settled into what that means. Continue to refer to these five ways to engage and connect with your employees. Ensure that your culture is infused into everything that you do. Communicate openly and candidly and in a timely manner; get ahead of things. Provide feedback and ask for feedback. Make sure employees have the tools and the resources they need to do their jobs and to do them well. And embrace autonomy and empower employees to do their jobs and to serve their customers. In the end, when this is behind us, it will feel like you didn’t miss a beat along this journey…
Everyone talks about building a relationship with your customer. I think you build one with your employees first. -Angela Ahrendts, former Senior Vice President, Apple Retail
Ben is the Founder and Principal of Melbourne-based CX consulting company, CXpert. With 25+ years of experience working with some of Australia’s most recognisable brands, he has helped many organisations to become more human in the way they deal with customers and employees. Ben regularly shares his thoughts on all things related to customer experience, customer service, and employee engagement via his blog.