Who moved my cheese? Engaging remote-working employees post COVID-19

Who moved my cheese? Engaging remote-working employees post COVID-19

By Sandra Botha, OIM International Associate

In March 2020, the Covid-19 epidemic resulted in announcements of states of disaster across the world. Almost overnight, employers moved office workers out of the office and into temporary workspaces at home for what was expected to be a short-term solution for a couple weeks.

What many employers did not anticipate, was the extension of the lockdown and the permanency of the ‘new way of work’. According to a recent Gartner poll (1), 48% of employees will work at least part of the time remotely post Covid-19, compared to 30% prior to the pandemic. While some employees experience the move to working from home stressful, more than 50% indicated in a Forbes survey (2) that they want to retain their home offices post Covid-19.

The ‘new normal’ way of work requires a different mindset in terms of how organisations will engage with employees. Gallup’s twelve elements of employee engagement are based on four levels of needs (3):

  1. Basic needs

Employees’ basic needs are met when:

    1. they know what is expected from them and;
    2. when they have the material and equipment that they need to do their work.

Covid-19 lockdowns will have a significant impact on business operations – decreasing revenue or profit by up to 58%, according to a PWC survey of CFOs (4). Organisations need to redefine business strategy, possibly shifting focus in the short-term to recovery, rather than growth. It is critical to cascade this new strategy to employees and revise team scorecards and employee performance objectives to ensure a clear line of sight on how employees will contribute to the achievement of changed organizational goals. 

Employee expectations will further be clarified through revised policies, including working from home or flexible working, procedures for virtual work and how productivity and output will be measured.

While employers will be conscious of cost management, the implementation of the digital strategy should be prioritized. Technology initially selected to manage work-from-home during lockdown may have been based on short term needs, however, cloud computing and collaboration applications need to be fit for purpose in the long term. Furthermore, employee benefits such as a travel allowance may need to be replaced by a cellphone allowance or contribution towards home internet or data.

  1. Individual needs

According to a study by McKinsey & Company (5), most companies responded appropriately to the Covid-19 crisis, protecting the health and safety of their employees and providing the necessary guidance to employees to adjust. While overall employee engagement improved during strict lockdown levels, companies need to provide continued support for permanent work-from-home agreements including adequate employee assistance benefits and programs. The focus of these programs will change from physical well-being through fitness and nutritional support, to ensuring work-life balance and providing mental health support.

In additional to enhanced well-being support programs, companies will be required to review recognition programs and emphasize non-monetary recognition in the absence of performance bonuses and annual increases during the financial recovery period. As work-from-home not only impacts the employee, but his or her family as well, rewards may include time off, vouchers for movies or dinner, and tickets for family events. 

Digitalized public recognition will ensure that employees can feel appreciated by their peers, managers and leadership at anytime, anywhere. This includes recognition in digital forums such as online INVOCOM® meetings and acknowledgement in digital company communication channels such as newsletters and blogs.  

  1. Teamwork

The greatest disadvantage stated by employees working from home is isolation and experiencing a lack in a sense of belonging to a bigger community. While companies may have implemented technology for the primary purpose of ensuring that employees are able to work from home effectively, the use of this technology should include peer-to-peer communication and collaboration.

While INVOCOM® meetings should be adjusted to an online format, it is possible to continue driving the objectives of these meetings, ensuring performance, focus and accountability.

As working from home has strongly integrated the employee’s work and personal life, it is important to ensure that check-in’s are not only focused on work-related matters, but also used as a platform to encourage employees to share personal feedback. In the latest Ernest & Young Belonging Barometer study (6), 39% of respondents indicated that when colleagues check-in both personally and professionally, “they feel the greatest sense of belonging at work”. Collaboration can further be encouraged through online brainstorming sessions that create the platform for employees to share their creative ideas, while at the same time fostering a culture of innovation.

  1. Growth

The need for budget cuts during the pandemic has resulted in many companies pausing its development activities and reconsidering what is deemed as ‘critical’ learning. This decision was supported by the perception that employees are mentally in a mode of survival, rather than seeking opportunities for growth. 

But as the world is slowly starting to recover, companies are finding themselves in unchartered territory as changes in strategy and the new way of work require a different skill set.

Improved technical capability will continue to be a key requirement for employees working from home. Not only has Covid-19 forced companies to fast track their digital transformations, but also to equip them to become more resilient to future disruptions.  Job roles that traditionally did not require a high level of computer literacy will now require the ability to work effectively with technology tools.

In addition to technical capability, organisations need to review the key competencies that are required to drive the revised strategy. Behavioural competencies need to include a high level of agility and flexibility, self-management, emotional intelligence and innovation.

In summary, for many companies work-from-home arrangements are here to stay. With remote work becoming the norm, it will become increasingly important for companies and HR leaders to pay close attention to employee engagement to ensure that employees remain well, connected, efficient and productive.

Sandra Botha

OIM International Associate: Talent Management & Organisational Development