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You can encourage remote employee engagement by setting expectations early, creating opportunities for socialization, and leading by example. The novel coronavirus expedited the movement towards remote work as millions heed stay at home orders to flatten the curve.

Flexible in-office schedules grew substantially over the past decade with nearly half of employees (43%) telecommuting at least part time in 2017. While businesses moved towards more remote opportunities, the impact of a pandemic are conditions for which few businesses could’ve prepared.

The rapid succession of regulations set forth by governments across the world accelerated the remote work trend exponentially. One survey found that 66% of US workers are remote as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the growth in remote work over the years, a sudden transition to an entirely remote workforce without an end date are conditions for which few businesses would’ve planned.

To maintain a productive workforce, you should invest in employee engagement as remote operations persist for the foreseeable future.

1.    Create Daily Work Expectations

You can support employee engagement in a remote environment by setting expectations for work hours and performance.

Many businesses refrained from remote work options for fear of creating a fractured culture or a loss in productivity. Fortunately for the current workforce landscape, the latter is a misconception.

In fact, employees in a remote environment are found to be more productive outside of a traditional office setting. Remote employees are more likely to work longer hours and, unfortunately, experience greater levels of stress.

Remote employees’ state their greatest challenges as unplugging after work, loneliness, and collaborating and/or communication.

With an entire workforce remote, it’s important to address these unexpected challenges to prevent burnout and a subsequent loss in productivity. Burnout leads to disengaged employees who have 18% lower productivity and contribute to an 15% loss in profitability.

To prevent this loss of productivity, set times for when employees are expected to be available. Similar to working in an office, establish a 9–5 schedule for remote employees.

It’s important that you honor this schedule. While you may find it convenient to catch up on emails in the evening, your employees may not and see it as a sign for them to do the same. Avoid sending emails outside these work hours to demonstrate your adherence to this policy.

You can further clarify your expectations by detailing expected response times in your email. If it’s sent at the end of the day, write that you expect a response tomorrow to give your employees the opportunity to shut down at 5pm.

The same policy should apply to the weekend. It’s natural to feel compelled to work overtime in response to this economic downturn. However, it’s important not to hold employees to the same standard. Excessive work hours will only undermine the ultimate goal of a more productive workforce.

You should establish clear standards for remote work hours to mitigate burnout and increase engagement.

2.    Dedicate Time for Social Interactions

You can promote remote employee engagement by committing time for virtual events to keep employees connected.

A significant number of employees are likely to be remote for the first time. In fact, the number of telecommuters doubled as a result of Covid-19.

Employees who experienced professional and social connection in the office are now cut off from that network. Stay at home orders and social distancing guidelines compound this isolation, preventing millions of workers from their usual in-person social engagements.

You can mitigate feelings of loneliness and isolation through virtual social events. A popular remote work event is virtual happy hour using video conferencing technology such as Zoom or Google Hangouts.

Schedule a regular happy hour depending on your company’s size. If you have a larger head count, schedule them more often to give every employee a chance to participate. This will also allow frequent attendees a chance to socialize with more colleagues.

If your company uses Google Suite, you can schedule a happy hour on the company’s calendar and link to the meeting. Encourage people to use grid view, which allows users to view all participants on one screen.

Google expanded Google Hangouts to any users with Google accounts. This new expansion allows up to 100 people to attend the meeting for any amount of time.

To future generate engagement, encourage employees to connect with each other beyond work-related topics. This will help employees to connect personally and reduce stress as the topics will be more amusing.

For example, create a company-wide channel for employees to share their hobbies and talents. If any of these activities spark interest, encourage that employee to host a video event to share their pastime with their colleagues.

For example, if one of your employee’s a gifted artist, encourage them to host an art class. These events can be after work to encourage employees to shut down and relax at the end of the day.

By allocating time to virtual social events, you can reduce feelings of loneliness and cultivate employee engagement.

3.    Demonstrate Desired Qualities

Business leaders should demonstrate their expectations for remote engagement to encourage employees to adopt the same habits.

It’s important for you to enact the behaviors that you expect from your employees. The abrupt shift to a remote environment exacerbated by the consequences of a global pandemic makes emotional leadership especially important.

As a leader, your moods and behaviors hold significant influence over those of your employees. Leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence promote cultures characterized by trust, which is essential to employee engagement.

You should acknowledge employees’ stress, anxieties, and concerns to set a tone of support and encourage remote work engagement.

Dedicate time at the beginning of one on one or team meetings for casual conversations. Begin meetings by telling employees that part of the meeting is reserved to conversions about teammates’ mental and physical wellbeing.

Ask employees how you can better support them in this chaotic time. If employees are overwhelmed, offer to extend deadlines. By responding to their needs, you demonstrate a sincere concern for them, which builds trust.

Business leaders who remain engaged in a remote environment spark a chain reaction that results in an engaged remote workforce.

Adapt Your Strategies to a Remote Environment

A remote environment doesn’t necessitate a decrease in employee engagement. Rather, a remote environment involves a change in strategies to maintain an engaged workforce.

By setting expectations that reduce the risk of burnout, you can help employees remain engaged with their work. This is especially important as a date for our return to an office is unknown.

You can reduce feelings of isolation by scheduling frequent virtual events. This encourages employees to connect with each other, which builds a sense of community remotely.

It’s important that you lead by example and demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence to support remote employees. 

Kate Russell is an Editorial Associate for Clutch — an Inc. 1000 private company that helps decision-makers determine the best B2B service providers to solve business challenges. She is also an HR research and content lead.

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