A man on sitting at a desk with a laptop. He is on a video call while taking notes, symbolising remote work.
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Is remote work the scapegoat for employee disengagement?

21 Feb 2023

HireRoad’s Otto Berkes discusses the best way to ensure remote work is effective in organisations and the questions leaders need to ask.

Are you doing remote work right? Maybe not.

Employee engagement is at its lowest point in a decade, trends like quiet quitting and quiet firing are on the rise, and reports of high employee burnout persist.

Although organisations have spent the past three years adjusting to remote and hybrid work routines, it’s clear that many are still struggling to get a handle on remote work.

As we enter a year of economic uncertainty, organisations’ ability to manage remote employees remains a key ingredient for success.

To achieve measurable improvements in employee engagement and productivity, tech executives and HR teams must let go of outdated notions about remote work. Instead, it’s time to develop smarter, more intentional people practices that keep employees’ interests in mind.

Does remote work really hinder productivity?

Debates over the merits of in-person versus remote work show no sign of slowing down. Many business leaders have urged their employees to return to the office, only to be met with widespread resistance from workers who have grown accustomed to the flexibility that remote work provides.

From the employer perspective, this desire is understandable. Many businesses are locked into multiyear office leases and don’t want to see their real estate investment go to waste. Additionally, many business leaders have struggled to adjust to the reduced visibility of remote and hybrid work. A Microsoft survey found that 85pc of business leaders said the shift to hybrid work has made it difficult to have confidence in their workers’ productivity. The only problem? Research shows these fears are unfounded.

In reality, employers that have figured out the remote work experience are experiencing better employee satisfaction and business results.

Remote and hybrid workers report 4pc higher productivity than in-office workers. These workers are also more likely to say their company culture has improved since the pandemic began and they now engage more with fellow employees.

However, a looming recession has many experts predicting that these debates are far from over. In the midst of layoffs and an uncertain job market, employers’ arguments for returning to the office may be more persuasive to anxious employees.

But business leaders shouldn’t pressure employees back into the office for productivity’s sake when the data tells a different story. Instead, employers need to recognise that remote and hybrid work is here to stay and, with the right approach, it can serve as a driver of business growth.

Remote work can unlock improved employee satisfaction and productivity, but only if you approach it in an intentional and thoughtful way. To begin, here are three questions you should ask yourself to assess the effectiveness of your remote work practices.

Are my organisation’s tools working the way they’re supposed to?

At the onset of the pandemic many businesses adopted new communication and project management tools, but haven’t taken the time to reassess their effectiveness since.

Your internal communication tools must align with the tools employees need to do their jobs effectively. A misalignment causes unnecessary stress. A good starting point here is to identify tools that employees underutilise and trim the fat.

In addition to implementing the right tools, you need to establish guidelines and protocols for the use of the tools. For example, I come from a software development background, which often requires hours of uninterrupted focus time.

If an account manager reaches out with an urgent request, it’s difficult to turn them down, which ultimately makes me, the developer, less productive.

Instead, developers (and all employees) should have a way to signal their availability to coworkers, for example, status and availability features on Slack or Microsoft Teams.

Ensuring remote employees have the right tools and guidelines in place helps reduce miscommunication and makes remote work more efficient. The reduced stress also helps keep employees engaged and enables them to complete projects more quickly.

How effective are virtual one-to-one meetings?

In remote settings, it’s easy for well-meaning managers to miss the mark when leading one-to-ones. There are two areas where remote managers often go wrong: Failing to build a mature relationship with their direct report and failing to put the direct report’s work into context.

Some managers under-emphasise the interpersonal nature of one-to-ones. They see small talk as a formality to get through before they move on to more important matters.

But without the casual connections that come from working in an office, building camaraderie in virtual one-to-ones is essential for employees to feel comfortable.

This is especially important in hybrid settings. You don’t want remote employees to watch their in-person colleagues build relationships with each other in the office while they remain isolated at home.

Failing to put the direct report’s work into context is just as problematic. Across the board, employees are looking for an increased sense of purpose and value in their jobs. In remote settings, employees can feel disconnected from this sense of purpose if managers fail to clarify expectations or explain how their work fits into the organization at large.

To avoid this, managers need to make virtual one-to-ones count by connecting the employee’s work to company or team-wide goals, as well as to the employee’s own goals and motivations.

Putting work into context incentivises employees to put their best foot forward and fosters a greater sense of belonging in the organization.

Are performance reviews clear, actionable and relevant?

Nowhere is goal-setting more important than performance reviews. The goals a manager and employee agree upon in these reviews dictates the employee’s trajectory for months to come.

Goal-setting is essential in remote environments where employees have far more unsupervised time than in the office.

Managers have less visibility into an employee’s day-to-day, which means their goals must be an effective motivator. If they aren’t, some managers can end up micromanaging their employees, pushing and prodding for updates on the employee’s progress.

To avoid this, ensure the goals you develop during performance reviews align with company values and targets, resonate with both the employee and manager, and are easily measurable.

It’s managers’ responsibility to ensure conversations about goals aren’t limited to annual reviews, which can fill employees with dread rather than excitement.

Instead, managers need to continuously encourage remote employees to reflect on their progress toward established goals and hold them accountable.

Creating this consistent feedback loop is essential for keeping remote employees engaged. When goals fall by the wayside, employees often suffer from a lack of motivation.

Employees continue to voice their desire for flexible working conditions, even as return-to-the-office calls grow louder.

Set your business apart by listening to your employees instead of playing tug-of-war with them. By optimising remote management practices, you can maintain pre-pandemic levels of productivity and secure greater employee buy-in.

By Otto Berkes

Otto Berkes is the CEO of HireRoad, a HR tech platform focused on improving employee engagement.

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