5 Ways to Engage Remote Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Yeah, I know. Using Tom Hanks and the film Cast Away as a metaphor for the mass migration over to working remotely is a bit twisted considering he and his wife, Rita Wilson, are among those who contracted the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. The latest word is they are doing well and apparently eating too much Vegemite on their toast, so I’m not going to feel too bad about it.  

The truth is, the shift to working remotely is much more disruptive than some employers think. If your employees have been Cast Away to their homes to perform their work, here are a few practices you might consider to keep them engaged until the pandemic “flows through” (whatever that means).

Celebrate Normal

As the global pandemic escalates, several of our clients are seeking our advice as to whether they should postpone employee surveys. As I advised one client, I emphasized that giving employees a sense of normalcy while working remotely can be advantageous. If certain meetings were on the calendar before, keep them there unless they truly cannot happen in a virtual format.  

When our world turns upside down, sometimes we instinctually abandon anything that resembles the way we’ve been doing things. If you actively resist this tendency, your people will be better for it. They will recognize core organizational behaviors that elicit that sense of “business as usual” (in a GOOD way!).

Engage remote workers with people initiatives.

Sustain Momentum on People Initiatives

Whether you are right in the middle of an engagement survey, awaiting responses on 360 evaluations or scheduled to hold one-on-ones with your team in the coming weeks, maintain your focus on these vital people initiatives. Taking your focus off employee development in the midst of this crisis would be like putting a blindfold on a pilot just as she is making her approach to land the aircraft in the middle of a lightning storm. Remind your people that they are valuable! Most of us have had at least waves of fear or doubt cross our minds. The last thing we need is for our leaders to lose sight of the runway right when it matters most.

Engage remote workers with connection

Enable Deeper Connection

In Cast Away, Chuck Noland (Hanks) makes friends with a bloody volleyball that he names ‘Wilson’ (watch the movie!). He vents to and seeks advice from Wilson for most of his time on the island. His heart breaks when his buoyant friend drifts away after a violent storm. Chuck’s desire to talk to someone represents a very real pull most of us feel to engage in human interaction.  

I remember how excited I was when I received my first job that allowed me to work from home. I thought it would be the best thing ever. My commute consisted of rolling out of bed and walking to the office we’d built in the back of our garage. However, I hated it! I experienced cabin fever so badly, I thought I would lose my mind. Even my walk to pick my kids up from school or my afternoon run didn’t completely help create professional balance in my life.

The Missing Piece

Other than weekly meetings and an occasional chat message, I interacted with my team very little. I really didn’t get to know anyone beyond the professional pleasantries we exchanged during meetings. Something was missing. Three elements from our engagement survey capture what that “something” was: “I enjoy working with the people on my team”, “I feel like I belong here” and “I feel comfortable in this organization’s culture”. The truth was I didn’t enjoy my team because I didn’t know my team. I didn’t feel like I belonged because, as a remote worker, I had no real feeling for the team to which I belonged. I also didn’t feel comfortable with the culture because I was completely out of touch with the characteristics of the culture.

Hardship or Help?

Depending on how long our current work format extends, you may onboard new members of your team as remote workers. This means they will shape their opinion of the organization based on virtual interactions with you and their teams. Deliberately plan ‘getting to know you’ calls/chats/zoom meetings to create real connection between team members.  

A client from a global organization and I talked about her office closure and the realities of working at home. “For people who work from home, it is more of a hardship than a help.” This leader understood this reality and was actively adjusting her modus operandi to compensate for the significant changes all of us are experiencing. 

If your existing team members haven’t worked remotely before, don’t assume they will assimilate into their new work format without some hiccups. Consider more one-on-ones until you get a good feel for how each person is coping with the new rhythm.

Engage remote workers with better listening.

Engage People with Better Listening

When I worked remotely, I often felt like my ideas didn’t matter. Here at DecisionWise, we talk a lot about employee voice. At its basic level, employee voice is a satisfaction element. For example, “I feel that I can share my ideas and opinions without fear of negative consequences.” Once employees transition to working remotely, the out of sight, out of mind paradox kicks in. The healthy chatter that keeps people interested throughout the workday is difficult to replicate in the virtual world but not impossible. 

Ask employees what they think about, what new ideas they have, or what keeps them up at night in their chaotic new reality. This will allow you to prioritize your efforts and help your people feel heard.  

We’ve helped many clients listen to their people through pulse surveys. You might ask something like, “What are your concerns as we navigate this Covid-19 pandemic?” Then, just listen. Once you’ve heard what your people are saying, show them you’ve listened and communicate how the organization will respond. Then your people will truly feel heard.

Engage remote workers with virtual lunch n' learns.

Virtual Lunch N’ Learn

With a temporary ban on dining-in at many restaurants, the lunch hour is nothing more than a continuation of isolation for many of us. This doesn’t have to be the case. We may not be able to sit across the table at lunch anymore, but we can still eat “together” using technology while we discuss a topic of interest or just get to know each other better. 

No one knows exactly how long it will take for the virus to “flow through.” Even if this is the new normal, we are much more powerful together—even if that means we are only together virtually. As you proactively help foster meaningful connections within your teams, you will get to the other side of this whole debacle in a place of strength and forward momentum.

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