How to engage employees when working remotely: five top tips

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Of the 32.6 million people in employment in the UK in 2019, just 1.7m reported that they mostly work from home, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. With such a small proportion of employees used to their home being a workplace, the COVID-19 lockdown presents a huge challenge for them and their employers.

Alongside sorting logistics, research suggests that maintaining a strong organisational identity during hard times can help to keep employees productive and happy. A study by the University of East Anglia looked at how a sense of belonging in the workplace helped organisational resilience during the 2008 recession.

The concept of belonging was measured by asking workers how loyal and proud they were of their employer, and if they shared the organisation’s values. The results were stark. Where employees had a strong sense of identity, organisations were four times more likely to resist the negative impact of the recession on workers’ wellbeing – and, importantly, four times more likely to maintain high performance – compared with workplaces with a weak sense of identity.

“The human stuff is really important here, as well as making sure the production lines are still running and delivery is going ahead,” says Professor Kevin Daniels from the University of East Anglia.

But keeping organisational values alive and employees engaged from afar is tough. So we asked sector professionals and experts to share their tips on how they are keeping the team spirit going without the usual water-cooler moments.

Buy-in is essential. Values can join colleagues together but they must have been reached by genuine consensus and be team-/peer-led, says Steve Nicholls, managing director of career coaching company Executive Connexions. “Embedding values is only going to happen if buy-in and ownership is a core approach to creating them,” he adds.

Once you have this, Nicholls says, consistency across the management structure – both in terms of living the values and encouraging them amongst the team – is key.

Keep in touch. “Engaging with existing employee networks can help reinforce company values, with regular communications to help foster a sense of community and belonging,” says Justine Campbell, managing partner for talent at EY UK.

Technology enables companies to establish virtual communities, webcasts and other ways of staying in touch, she says. “This will be vital to reminding people of their business culture.”

Alastair Barlow, founder and partner at accountancy start-up Flinder, says his team is making a conscious effort to connect visually at this time. “Where we would normally just send a Slack message, we try to have a Zoom call,” he says, as this option is a bit more personal.

Talk about experiences and exchange tips. Storytelling and sharing coping strategies can help to connect employees, says Campbell. The team at Flinder, for example, uses Slack to share workouts – particularly fun exercises – and recipes.

There is even some healthy competition, says Barlow. Some employees track their steps and compare totals with each other. “It is good from a health and mental wellbeing perspective to get out of the house, away from the computer and get some fresh air,” he says.

That said, it is worth recognising that your employees will all have very different experiences of lockdown. “Acknowledging a spectrum of experiences can help build a feeling of inclusivity in the virtual workplace,” adds Campbell.

Make time to not talk about work. The team at Flinder always had a weekly “Cake Wednesday” meeting where everyone got together socially for 15 minutes over a slice of something delicious. These have continued, but over Zoom instead of in-person.

These short breaks are an important step away from business-as-usual. “We have plenty of Zoom calls where we talk about work and actions, but we do not have enough where we just chat,” says Barlow, adding that the team is also enjoying more frequent socials such as online pub quizzes.

Keep up the best practice. “It can be easy to unconsciously overlook the daily usual or best practice,” says Campbell. For example, when allocating work or choosing project teams it is tempting to give tasks to colleagues with whom you are familiar. But, she adds, professionals should make “concerted efforts to maintain a diverse and inclusive approach” while working remotely.

Overall, the advice when it comes to remote promotion of values and engagement seems to be “do whatever you normally would”. But even for those with established processes, remote engagement takes careful planning and sensitivity. Be mindful that communicating virtually is different to in-person encounters and every employee will face a unique set of challenges in lockdown.

If you would like to read more about values-based recruitment and how it could benefit your organisation, read our guide here.

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