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Engaging a Remote Workforce – Maximizing Productivity

There has been, and will continue to be, a lot spoken and written about working remotely.  As an organization which embraced virtual working from our inception twelve years ago, we’d like to share our insights on key tips for an engaged and productive remote workforce. It’s a tough adjustment for many. However, we are an ingenious and curious species, and although our very nature as social animals is being is tested right now, our best and most innovative selves are rising to meet the challenge.  

We consider the impact of the following six areas on engaging a remote workforce: Platforms, Physical Workspace, Communication, Empathy, Well-Being, and Learning and Development. 

Invest in Platforms and Processes That Work for You

We suggest that you invest in technology and other tools to enable effective communication and allow for productive and interactive virtual team meetings. Whether it’s Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Webex, Slack, Skype, GoToMeeting… find the right combinations of platforms that achieves the right mix to meet your organizational needs. Do not necessarily follow the latest bright shiny tool, but make sure that usability is high (taking into considerations different levels of tech-savviness in the team) and the platform is stable and secure with effective IT support readily on hand. Seek feedback from your teams on which tools they find useful.

The light is on, but no one is home

Most instant messaging platforms like Skype have an option to highlight to your colleague if you are “Online/Active’, ‘Away’ or ‘Offline/Do Not Disturb’. Set clear guidelines on what definitions these mean to your team how to use these tools to set expectations on availability. Without being able to look across the office, using these traffic light-esque systems helps avoid the creeping in of mistrust and frustration of ‘S/he is online but they’re not responding to me”. 

Cameras on

Be present. Always have your cameras on when on calls. This sends the signal that you are engaged and willing to contribute to the meeting. It also helps to build a connection with others on the call. Mohit Misra, Senior Advisor at McKinsey & Co and an experienced global talent management leader says,

It’s a very democratic medium. We are inviting each other into our homes, literally. That leads to a level of candor and trust in the dialogue.

This also lends to greater visibility and access to senior management. Mohit points out an advantage that might not be possible in a physical townhall setting:

An opportunity exists right there, a camera in front of the CEO, CHRO and they can speak to employees as if in a 1-1 situation.

Establish a central source of truth

With the relative fluidity of a remote working environment and style it is essential to establish sources of truth. This may mean setting expectations on how you will use each platform or to ensure that there is one central location for critical documents and resources which each employee can access. This could be something like OneDrive, Dropbox or Trello, a platform which helps team track progress on projects. These documents should be reviewed and updated regularly so that the ‘truth’ remains ‘live’.  

Record meetings

Ensuring communications can be measured, recalibrated and course corrected quickly is key. Do not record all communications but those which set direction, individual/team/business goals and action items need to be accessible by all. It allows us to listen, download and ‘catch up’ if necessary, so that we are on point for the next meeting.

Replacing the Physical Workspace

Companies have invested significantly in creating, break-out areas, installing lighting and temperature sensors, gyms, rest areas, pods and multiple cafeterias all geared to help facilitate collaboration and communication. Impromptu huddles and group think sessions are extremely valuable, and that human connection can generate a real buzz, energy and enthusiasm for a project or course of action. The idea is that proximity facilitates closer interaction and helps to establish trust. The challenge for HR and business leaders is how to create sharing mechanisms in virtual spaces that still ‘feel’ like the culture and experience companies aim to create by the rejuvenation of workspaces.  For job seekers, having a visual-physical connection to these spaces can often be a key differentiator. A great amount of design thinking went into ensuring these spaces reflect the culture and EVP of an organization. Feeling a sense of belonging and connection is key to any EVP strategy and so these intangibles need to be recreated in a remote setting, but how and with what tools are key questions?

Replacing the watercooler chat

These impromptu chats and grey spaces between meetings are often where the magic happens. One of the key challenges for anyone joining a virtual work set-up is isolation and a lack of physical human connection. We are by our very nature social beings and so this new way of working can feel uncomfortable at first and it may not be easy to see or feel how you are making a positive impact/contribution. Mohit Misra identifies that,

One of the biggest challenges is collaboration… {on a virtual meeting platform} people are putting ideas out there, but they are not building on each other as much as in a face to face interaction. With a physical setting there is a kinetic energy which people feed off.

These short interactions daily can be many and they themselves form a culture of how work gets done.

Cynthia Burkhardt, Global Head of Talent Acquisition at Philips shared that managers are setting aside time for 1-1 or small group discussions, establishing “coffee corners” where the topics are anything and everything but work. Creating this space and time for these conversations is key and can also help to ensure we have a release valve—something we’ll look at later regarding well-being. 

Make it fun!

Establish a ‘workplace’ setting which promotes openness and transparency and lays a foundation of trust and togetherness. Embracing vulnerability will increase and improve communication and collaboration.

We have heard such wonderful examples of innovation and fun from those really embracing new remote workspaces. People are recreating their own office or cubicle layout at home, hanging pictures and artwork which reflects their personality, mocking up landscape and background displays on Zoom and Webex. This brings a level of authenticity to the conversation which otherwise would not be there.

Plan Robust Communications

Creating a culture of clear, concise communication and defined outcomes is even more important in a virtual set-up and we should all be thinking about the following elements and constantly recalibrating to communicate effectively. 

Over communicate

Establishing a cadence of communication is essential to ensure those not in the office still feel a part of the team and know there is scheduled time to discuss key issues. While team communication is crucial, it is equally important for remote employees to have more frequent 1-1 time with managers. These create an opportunity to discuss non-work-related issues and demonstrate empathy to specific challenges faced by individuals, get detailed feedback and reinforce positive habits.

Praveena Nathawat, Global Head HR, Global Operations and technology at The Goodyear Tire Company echoes this importance and that of feedback from employees. Against the challenges they face through COVID-19, she says,

What gives us the energy to keep going is the feedback from our associates. We also double down on communication—our CEO, CHRO and CFO have done a wonderful job of sharing on a regular basis where we are at as a company. We have developed robust communication packages for our leaders.

Be clear

What is the desired outcome of each communication? Who needs to be involved and what is their expected level of contribution?  Numerous HR leaders we have spoken with have noticed an improvement in more succinct, solutions and outcome focused dialogue. Mohit Misra commented

Meetings start and end promptly. People are on point and not veering off topic. Focus is 100%. While people are getting comfortable with the virtual platforms, they know time is limited time and are making well-thought-out, valid points. We talk about the pyramid principle –in other words, the ‘so what” of your point comes first and then the facts supporting your argument follow. This makes communication much sharper.

Going one step further on ensuring these habits are embedded now and into the future, at Zurich Insurance the Group Integrated Talent Management team has pioneered a 12-week program, entirely webinar-based, to ensure clarity of purpose and to engage with their managers and employees. These are centered around four key topics:

  • Well-being. What does this means in relation to financial security, social happiness and health of employees.
  • Remote work. What does it mean in practice? How do you motivate yourself to be effective?
  • Coping with uncertainty during COVID-19. Recognizing as a leader that you do not have all the answers.
  • Post-COVID-19. What learnings do we take from a forced remote working situation that can help us be more effective communicators moving forward?

It’s been important to provide the framework for the organization in advance as there are many webinars available from universities, consulting firms at this point in time. To engage employees a key design principle for Zurich is to have these co-lead by senior leaders to bring the relevant context for employees

Celebrate Success

A win is a win no matter how small, and in a virtual environment celebrating success is key. Whether impromptu or a time is set aside at the end of the week to discuss ‘wins and learnings of the week’, this offers managers and teams a chance to reflect and reward. 

Get Rid of the Noise

As we assess which platforms work best for our teams, be mindful of how you use them. Every time you open a new channel of communication, you are lessening the attention span available given to others. As such, it is essential to make sure your team knows which to use and when/why. Having multiple groups or groups within groups can work if managed tightly. Otherwise, what may seem like collaboration is in truth distracting and that distraction can cause harm to productivity. 

Set Boundaries

Be honest with yourself and your colleagues. What can you realistically achieve given the other demands on your time? These may come in the form of family commitments, pre-arranged networking or gym/training regimes. Block out diaries and communicate in advance when you are likely to be offline. Working remotely does blur the lines of work-life balance unless managed well. It is important to allow yourself and team members the opportunity to unwind, recharge, and address personal matters—it’s another form of respect. If you are a manager who thrives on working long hours and has the ability to do so, make it clear to other employees that this is not expected of them and there is no need to be checking their phones all hours of the evening.

Show More Heart

We each have different remote work arrangements and challenges that might prevent us from operating at our maximum. Be cognizant of your individual team members’ situations. Seek to understand how you as a manager can help through periods of uncertainty and provide reassurance and guidance.

Cynthia Burkhardt, Global Head of Talent Acquisition at Philips, shared this sentiment when we asked how she was engaging her teams during the current COVID-19 crisis:

It’s important to put a lot more heart into the discussion. We try to understand what people may be struggling with personally before engaging them in a professional dialogue.

We feel this awareness of how we bring our whole selves to work is key and extends beyond the current situation. Cynthia has indeed extended this further into their recruitment process where interview conversations are encouraged to start with a more personal check-in.

While there may be long lasting positives to the way we work and drive digital innovation coming out of the current COVID-19 crisis, we must remember that this unprecedented situation is a source of significant stress for many. Where this unease exists in your team, think carefully about messaging. A ‘one-size fits all’ message may not be appropriate.

Unique Wellness Challenges

With close to 70% of professionals working remotely at least one day a week, and 50% half the week, this presents some unique challenges to wellness programs for employees who are not in the office. The key to adapting here is flexibility. As much as possible for every on-site service offered, create an option that employees can take advantage of close to home, such as a discount/contribution towards gym membership, or being able to go to their local health provider for any check-up.

We have seen innovative leaders think about wellness across three areas: financial, social, and health (both physical and mental). Creating platforms, groups or ‘pods’ which enables employees sharing similar interests to get together and have a form of social bonding is important. Virtual happy hours are being rolled out extensively. We have seen leaders organize virtual fitness, hiking or cycling sessions. Creative plans to provide financial support for technology purchases and upgrades are also in effect.

Adaptable Approaches to Remote Learning 

COVID-19 has helped shine a light on learning and capability gaps, and as Mohit Misra puts it,

This transition allows us all to do some degree of skills review and capability building, identifying coaching opportunities.

Having a remote workforce requires a rethink of how learning programs themselves are designed and delivered. From a design perspective there is clearly a move away from the traditional all-day classroom environment to shorter online sessions, no longer than 90 minutes and with an activity every 20 minutes or so.  Some organizations are already using learning to enhance well-being by developing online meditation and mindfulness modules aimed to help improve productivity.

In the longer term, the focus is on creating an environment for proactive learning that is easily accessible for office based and remote workers and making this a core component of the employee experience.

Engaging External Talent  

While there is a focus on engaging our existing employees, it is also important to consider how to engage new talent and improve the virtual candidate experience. The onboarding of new employees can be one of the most impactful experiences (positive or negative). Being virtual does not change the importance of new employees quickly feeling connected to the company they are joining. Many organizations are redesigning programs that create multiple touch points during the first week and creating chat groups specifically for new hires. 

Philips has used to good effect its Recruitment Marketing teams to help train frontline recruiters and hiring managers on effective communication strategies, how to share the culture of the company, its EVP, etc., without physically stepping foot in the office. Cynthia also emphasized in the current environment how Philips is being more flexible on timing of interviews and extending beyond the usual working day to flex with the needs of the candidate so they can bring their best self to the meeting.

We are seeing an increased willingness to use videoconference for all interviews, and although there is still some hesitation from more traditional companies to make offers and onboard virtually, this is taking place at greater frequency. The war for good talent is not slowing in many pockets, and so it’s a case of evolve and be open to new approaches—or quite simply miss out on top talent to those companies which are embracing change more quickly.

10 Quick Tips to Takeaway

To summarize, please see below our top tips to help make your workforce more engaged and productive;

  • Invest in technology to enable effective communication and allow for effective and interactive virtual team meetings (ensure IT support is on hand and reliable).
  • Provide a platform for employee feedback and a mechanism to respond.
  • Create a culture that is focused on measuring results and real outcomes rather than hours at a desk.
  • Create a non-physical work environment that facilitates and embraces openness.
  • Communicate clearly, adapting where possible to different styles.
  • Create casual chat groups for “water cooler” conversations online.
  • Encourage leaders to be comfortable with vulnerability and allow others into your personal space. It’s extremely powerful as an engagement tool. 
  • Refine online learning and development tools to meet the needs of a blend of office-based and remote workers.
  • Make sure any recognition and wellness programs consider needs of both office-based and remote workers.
  • Design initiatives that allow all employee groups to participate. From a wellness perspective, this could be a something like a 5k walk/run from the office location, or for remote workers “walk 100,000 steps in a month”

So, what next?

Virtual/remote working is creating new cultures and subcultures as it becomes more widely adopted. We are looking forward to watching these changes shape how progressive organizations think and operate in future.


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