After a year that found many schools and institutions going remote, the dust is still settling on what it all means for the future of educational institutions and workplaces themselves. What is less uncertain is that remote work -- in some form or another -- is the wave of the future. In a 2019 Upwork report (long before COVID-19), an estimated 73% of all U.S. workforces expected to have remote workers by 2028. That number will almost certainly be fast tracked in the face of the pandemic, where many employees and teams have proven that they are able to work effectively from outside of the physical office, and organizations have realized there’s a cost-savings advantage as well.
However, even when employees work from home, the lack of personal interaction with an employee’s supervisor and team members can not only trigger feelings of loneliness, but it can also make someone question their worth because they feel underappreciated. A recent Gallup poll found that an astounding two-thirds of employees felt that their efforts had not been recognized in the past week -- something that was twice as likely to make them look for other work within the next year.
Though traditional physical workplaces may still be a ways off -- and remote working will continue to become a reality even after the pandemic -- there are ways you can connect virtually with your employees to ensure they are valued, recognized, and equipped to succeed. Here are a few tips to maximize productivity and engagement.
- Ensure employees have what they need to do their jobs
Critical tools like laptops, power cables, access to databases, and key office supplies are all important to keep employees from feeling isolated or neglected. But what about a desk chair or a second monitor? If those items are available in the office, come up with a process that enables employees to check them out through a form that can be submitted, routed for approval, and tracked.
Providing office creature comforts is another step towards ensuring employees are as productive as possible. Ask managers to meet with their teams to compile a list of items that would make their work easier to do remotely like ergonomic keyboards, laptop stands, or lumbar support pillows to make them comfortable from their home office. If you can eke out a budget for it, a little can go a long way. Choose a few from the list or give the department a small budget and a process for submitting requests.
- Integrate plenty of (virtual) facetime into your schedule
After months of working remotely, many of us are pretty accustomed to (and maybe even slightly burnt out on) Zoom life. However, in addition to critical meetings and team updates, you should make sure that you are scheduling one-on-one video check-ins with employees to give them space to air concerns and share their recent experiences in a safe space. This is also a great opportunity for supervisors to take stock of how their employees are coping in general, not just in relation to work. Fostering this sense of camaraderie and vulnerability can improve your relationship with your employees, and lead to a greater sense of employee satisfaction and belonging.
An important component of these meetings is making sure managers are sharing their own stories as well. As the highly regarded leadership author Patrick Lencioni notes, when leaders openly share their real experiences, mistakes, and fears with the people they manage, it “presents the leader as a fully human, imperfect person. When leaders always portray themselves as successful and competent, employees hesitate to trust them as people.”
- Be open and honest about the institution’s state of affairs
It’s a scary time for people on many levels. Concerns about one’s health or their family’s is only compounded by fears of joblessness, being furloughed, or having your position restructured. In an office, employees may be able to suss out what’s happening behind closed doors, which can provide a level of comfort. However from home, it can be hard to judge the overall state of affairs. This can cause some employees to create their own stories, which are often more devastating than reality. Even worse is when those rumors spread and create uneasiness or toxicity across an entire department.
As an HR leader, you can alleviate these concerns by encouraging leadership to be transparent about what’s going on -- both with regards to the institution as a whole and how it might impact employees directly. Chances are, many workers are anxious to know if and when they will be required to return to the office, for example. They may be worried about childcare or their own personal health. Those with underlying conditions may not want to share that information with their manager or even HR, but it may be on their minds. So, providing a timeline or explaining how those conversations are shaping up behind the scenes can help employees feel less like they are going to be blindsided by critical information.
- Small surprises can delight hard-working employees
Acknowledging that these are unprecedented times might seem unnecessary at this point in the pandemic, but it’s important for employees to feel as though their employer understands the stress they may be feeling outside of work and how it can impact their job responsibilities. Empowering managers to give employees in their departments a mental health day (or half-day) or treating employees to gift cards from a local coffee shop or restaurant as a “thank you” can make employees feel recognized while also supporting the local community.
If budget or circumstances don’t allow for a day off, there are other ways to show an employee that the organization has their best interest in mind. One such example is encouraging employees to find learning opportunities (virtual conferences, online training courses, etc.) that will enrich their careers and be useful in their current role. Allow them to take a day or two to enjoy the sessions without having to worry about answering emails or responding to requests.
And finally, don’t forget to encourage your department heads to schedule fun, non-work related events for the whole team. Some managers need to be nudged a little, and some are more resourceful than others. As an HR leader, get the ball rolling by coming with ideas that can be executed at a department level. Be creative -- there are plenty of activities that don’t require a budget. To get your brain-juices flowing, here are some ideas we’ve done at NEOED:
1.) Schedule a Friday morning casual team coffee date where employees hangout together. Come up with a few questions to ask beforehand and have each person take turns sharing. Maybe they each talk about their weekend plans, a series they’re currently binging, or an easy to prepare meal or dessert.
2.) Play the game “Among Us”, which can be downloaded for free on their own device. Set up a private room which accommodates up to 10 people and figure out who the impostor is. It’s an easy game to learn on the fly that results in lots of laughs.
3.) Run an old school game of “name that tune” by putting together a playlist from an era of time your team is likely to know. If there are multiple generations on your team, choose a mix from different decades. Play each song from your phone into your laptop’s mic and have team members raise their hand when they know the answer. Keep score on a pad of paper and reward the winner with a half-day .
- Make recognition an organization-wide habit
While recognition from immediate supervisors and key collaborators is essential to promoting job satisfaction, when it comes from a higher level the impact can be even greater. By implementing an organization-wide effort around acknowledging the good work being done across the institution virtually, HR can make recognition a habit.
One suggestion might be to require that managers call out one employee for completing a project or coming through in a pinch in the presence of their peers during a weekly or monthly departmental meeting. Have them send the information to HR and compile a list of good deeds that’s emailed out on a monthly or quarterly basis. Although being named in an email is enough to make most employees feel special, consider adding the names to a drawing for home pizza delivery on the day of the winner’s choice.
Another approach we use at NEOED is to create a form that anyone can use to submit acts of (virtual) kindness. Perhaps someone witnessed another person going the extra mile or helping someone outside their department. Whether it’s a small gesture or a bigger feat, we use our virtual townhall meetings to recognize individuals that are making every day contributions.
This repetitive act of noticing and noting a job well done (no matter how small) can encourage others to pay it forward eventually fostering a culture of recognition that lives on way beyond the pandemic.