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

Feeling Cast Away during COVID-19?

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.

7 Employee Listening Strategies for a World Turned Upside Down by the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

employee engagement ideas

Our clients are worried.  Their employees are worried.  Our friends, families, and neighbors are worried. It’s frightening, and it’s tough.  In fact, I just noticed that “Coronavirus” is now a recognized word in my spell-check dictionary.  Will life ever be normal again?  Of course, things will improve, and a good slogan to follow comes from some English WWII propaganda.[i] 

“Keep calm and carry on!”

You’ll find variations on this theme everywhere, and some feel apropos, like: “Keep calm, oh who are we kidding?”  Yet, in some ways, these internet memes distract from this slogan’s powerful message.  We can do this.  As Dory, the hippo tang in Pixar’s Finding Nemo, says, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”

In this blog, I would like to focus on the primary question in our business that we have been getting for several days now:

“How do we listen to our employees when it feels like the world has been turned upside down?”

listen to employees

1) Listen to Employees

First, rule number one is that you must keep listening.  Now, more than ever, you need to understand what your employees are feeling and experiencing.  Additionally, when done correctly, the act of reaching out to listen can demonstrate real empathy.  So, the key is don’t stop listening; instead, we need to change how we listen.  Our employees need to know that we care about them in good times, and when the environment is more challenging. 

2) Show Empathy and Care

Second, make sure your tone is empathetic and caring.  When you examine employee survey questions, they typically fall into one of two camps.  One set of questions is focused on scenarios that impact the employees on a personal level. For example, “I have the tools and resources I need to do my job well.”  These types of questions demonstrate concern and will likely be well received.  The other group of questions is focused on settings that involve the organization like, “I would recommend this organization as a great place to work.”  This latter question implies that we are more worried about the organizations’ reputation than about our employees’ immediate needs.  Try and use questions that are employee-focused. 

3) Follow the Goldilocks Principle

Third, follow the Goldilocks principle: not too much, not too little.  Try and balance how often you reach out and the length of your surveys.  Short surveys (1-2 questions) each week, and with the right tone, might be appreciated and welcome, but 20-question surveys each week would likely create additional internet memes that are to be avoided.  

Ask employees two questions

4) Include Two Open-Ended Questions in Your Surveys

Fourth, we recommend one or two open-ended text questions.  For example, “What is your experience like working remotely?”  Or, “Tell us about your experience right now.”  If you plan on using some standardized questions, you might consider adding something to the end of the survey like, “Is there anything else you would like to tell us?”

Good text-based questions come with no agenda, and they are neither positively worded, such as “Tell us what is going well,” nor negatively worded, such as “Describe what we could do better.”  Instead, a better question would be “Please describe your experience right now.”  No coaching one way or the other.  Just tell us your thoughts and feelings.

Historically, we have used questions that were either positively or negatively framed to help us categorize the comments.  Now, however, with stronger AI-driven text-analytics models, we can determine sentiment without having to prompt survey respondents one way or the other.  Anytime you avoid introducing sentiment from the question itself, data quality improves.  If you don’t have access to a robust text-analytics model, don’t worry.  Just ask the questions and then read them.  Instead of using AI to determine sentiment, you can use some HI (human intelligence). 

Listen to employees soon.

5) Survey Soon

Fifth, try and reach out soon – ideally within the next week or so (phase one).  Don’t bog down this initial survey by trying to gather demographics or other forms of metadata.  If you can gather hierarchy and demographics, great, but this survey isn’t designed for your data scientists.  Instead, this survey should be built to give senior leaders a quick snapshot of what is happening inside their employees’ heads and hearts. 

6) Follow Up

Sixth, once you get an initial survey out to your employees (phase one), focus on designing a follow-up instrument to be administered in 90-days or so (phase two).  See what insights you gather from phase one, and then use those insights to inform and guide your survey design as you develop and plan for phase 2.  Phase two might include open-ended text questions, but you might have the ability to add 15-20 standardized questions.  For example, maybe you discover a lot of negative comments about your messaging app.  Now, you might be ready to ask a standard question to see how people feel after emotions have calmed and time has passed, or, better yet, maybe your IT team has worked out the bug and you learn that the application is performing quite well. 

Share your ideas with employees.

7) Share What You Learned

Seventh, if you ask for feedback, the rule still applies that you need to share what you learned and what you are going to do with the feedback.  Continuing our hypothetical, if you discover that your messaging application is causing problems, then work with your IT folks to produce some short how-to videos, but don’t forget to say, “We heard you, and these videos have been produced to help you get more out of our messaging app.”

Again, now is the time to listen more than ever.  In six to twelve months, when things have somewhat returned to normal, our goal is to ask this question on each anchor/annual survey for our clients: “This organization responds well during times of crisis.”  We want to see as many favorable responses as possible!

Please contact us with any questions you might have, or if you have additional suggestions or ideas, please let us know and we will post and share your recommendations.  We are in this together, and we welcome any idea that can help each of us keep calm and carry on. 


[i] “The original phrase…”Keep calm and carry on,” [was] coined by the British government’s Ministry of Information in 1939 as part of an effort to boost morale at the outset of World War II.”  https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-xpm-2012-08-15-ct-tribu-words-work-keep-calm-20120815-story.html

Podcast: COVID-19 – Listening to Your Employees Through the Coronavirus

Should COVID-19 change the way we survey or listen to our employees? The answer is yes.

During times of uncertainty and challenge, it is critical to understand what your employees are experiencing—perhaps even more important than ever before. However, this doesn’t always mean surveying in the “traditional sense;” instead, listen, then act to help them succeed. Find out how to listen to your employees during challenging times. Please join our guest panel that includes CEO Tracy Maylett, President Matt Wride, VP of Assessment Services Dave Long, and VP of Consulting Services Christian Nielson.  They will discuss ways to modify your listening strategies in order to strengthen your employee experience during turbulent times.  Our panel will also take questions from attendees.

This audio was taken from a recent webinar of the same name.

Webinar: COVID-19 – Listening to your employees

Date: Thursday, March 19, 2020
Time: 3:00 pm Eastern / 12:00pm Pacific
Presenters:  Tracy Maylett, CEO; Matt Wride, President; Dave Long, VP of Assessment Services; and Christian Nielson, VP of Consulting Services
Cost: Free

Should COVID-19 change the way we survey or listen to our employees? The answer is yes.  During times of uncertainty and challenge, it is critical to understand what your employees are experiencing—perhaps even more important than ever before. However, this doesn’t always mean surveying in the “traditional sense;” instead, listen, then act to help them succeed. Find out how to listen to your employees during challenging times. Please join our guest panel that includes CEO Tracy Maylett, President Matt Wride, VP of Assessment Services Dave Long, and VP of Consulting Services Christian Nielson.  They will discuss ways to modify your listening strategies in order to strengthen your employee experience during turbulent times.  Our panel will also take questions from attendees.