Those of us responsible for a team of people will never forget the day the Covid-19 lockdown was announced. Everything we thought we knew was suddenly upended. There was barely time to process the shock of it all, as there were decisions to be made – and so many of them. How to ensure the safety of workers who had to remain on-site? Could everyone else work from home, and does anyone know what ‘furlough’ means? Nobodies first thought was “how do I keep remote workers engaged?”
Caught up in the complexities of HR and logistics, it felt as if there was scarcely time to breathe. A major concern when first setting teams up for remote working was ensuring that the IT was connected and everything worked. As time went on, this issue sorted itself out and became less problematic.
Understandably, with so much attention on the practicalities and IT, there was little left for the softer but still crucial aspects of work: company culture and the need to keep remote employees engaged. Whereas the technical and practical aspects of work tended to improve as time went on, companies were at risk of the opposite happening with culture and employee engagement. The impact that a dent in culture and engagement can have on an organisation should not be underestimated.
Why is culture and employee engagement important?
Culture is all about the ‘soft’ stuff – those hard-to-define yet essential elements at the heart of a company. Once dismissed as a buzzword, culture has enjoyed a lot more attention in the past few years, as it’s come to be recognised as the essence of what makes a company different – and successful. Culture is what allows newcomers to learn the way things are done without having to be told every detail, while values guide people in their everyday decision-making.
And if people understand what the company stands for and why it does things a certain way, they are more likely to engage fully with what’s going on, and less likely to want to leave. In fact, voluntary turnover (staff quitting of their own accord) in companies who see culture as important is often only 65% of that experienced by other businesses.
So if the culture gets weakened in any way, it stands to reason this will have a negative impact on the essence of the company, make recruitment and training more difficult, and make it harder to ensure the business stays on track with its strategy, marketing and day-to-day activities. Before long, things could really start to unravel.
Engagement is essential if we want people to stay committed to the culture, feel motivated and make creative suggestions. It’s also a big part of attracting and retaining employees, especially the younger ones. According to a PwC report entitled “Millenials at Work – reshaping the workplace”, corporate social values “become more important to millennials when choosing an employer once their basic needs, like adequate pay and working conditions, are met. The report states that ‘millennials want their work to have a purpose, to contribute something to the world and they want to be proud of their employer.’”
The social aspect of work is also an important part of company culture – we humans need to interact with each other, and businesses that look after employees’ wellbeing, including their physical, social and emotional health, tend to be among the most successful.
There’s a good reason why ‘water cooler moments’ have become such an iconic part of TV history and office culture – exchanging views, jokes and opinions over lunch and coffee breaks helps create bonds and a sense of belonging through shared experiences. All of which makes the sudden removal of everyone from their shared spaces to the isolation of working from home potentially explosive. You run the risk of ending up with a dislocated, isolated, unmotivated home workforce – and nobody wants that.
So how do we try to ensure that the business culture we’ve spent so long building endures, and we keep remote employees engaged and feeling part of the company, even if they’re not physically present with colleagues?
Here are 7 smart ways to nurture company culture (and keep remote workers engaged)
1 Make company communications regular – and relevant
At times of uncertainty, confidence may be in short supply, but it’s what everyone needs. You can help by being open and transparent about what is happening (and why) and giving clear information on short- and long-term plans. If employees feel they’re in the dark and unaware of things they’d normally know about, their anxieties will only increase.
How you do it is up to you (you know your employees best!) but many businesses find a WhatsApp group is ideal; it’s instant, not too formal and people are likely to look at messages soon after they’re sent. Other channels are available; in the worst-case scenario there is always email but remember to use personal email addresses if people are not working. The furloughed and those still working should all be included.
Pick a regular day or time to send your comms, so people know to look out for them, and use them as a means to update everyone on what’s happening across the company, what the on-going COVID-19 plans are and anything else that you’d usually cover in company-wide news. If you’d normally mention work anniversaries, birthdays, etc., then continue to do so.
Here we did a weekly update of what’s happened in the week during the lockdown, as most of the team were furloughed or working from home and now those not in the office can join our regular monthly team meetings via phone or video link.
2 Don’t forget the ‘unofficial’ channels
Company news is important but so is the chance to continue the usual social interactions that take place among the team.
These can be company-wide and/or specific to departments and teams; whatever works best. WhatsApp is perfect for this. We’ve got an unofficial channel so the usual office chit-chat can carry on. Pictures of home-bakes, fitness classes, cocktail-making videos, favourite lunches – you name it, it’s been shared and discussed.
It might seem trivial and insignificant, but if you think about all the things you casually chat about during the working week, there’s always quite a lot of nonsense involved. Trivia and humour can be vital to help people feel connected and get through a period of isolation, as well as helping with team bonding.
Keeping going communications that might take place in the office is beneficial for the company as well as the staff. The beauty of it is that people can opt-out if they don’t want to be a part of it.
3 Stick to routines (and encourage others to)
If you manage a sales team and usually have Monday meetings to discuss plans for the week, then keep doing it. It’s important for those who are working to try and follow their usual work patterns as much as possible. Encourage employees to stick to scheduled start times, lunch breaks and home-time.
This is assuming they can do this, however – people with children or others to care for might need to come up with a different regime. Work with them to create a practicable timetable, with reduced hours if necessary. It’s better for everyone’s mental health to stick to a routine – it creates a structure for the days and weeks, and provides some of that much-needed certainty we mentioned at the start.
4 Get social with technology
The social interaction of a workplace is potentially even more vital to keep remote workers engaged than those present in an office with colleagues. There’s no reason that you can’t have coffee or lunch breaks together via a video call. It doesn’t have to happen every day, but encouraging your team to have short social interactions to replace what they would do naturally at work is a great idea. Without those normal, daily interactions, it’s easy to feel isolated.
Having your team disbanded, with no communication except that needed for work, can undermine the team spirit you have worked so hard to foster. It can be especially important for recent recruits, as they may not have had time to build friendships before lockdown.
Company organised social events can successfully take place online too. Procurement Leaders Zoom cookery classes were a roaring success judging by all the Linked-in posts from their team members showing off their completed dishes.
5 Plan one-to-ones for managers and team members
Group information-sharing and chat are great, but dedicated one-on-one time between team members and their manager is important too. While you might not have had regular formal meetings before the lockdown, there will still have been casual chats – when passing in the corridor, meeting in the kitchen, at the lunch table.
These casual chats are invaluable ways for managers to gauge the mood of their team members, show interest in their lives and wellbeing, and connect on a more personal level. With remote working, you need to create these occasions purposefully, as they don’t happen as a result of the natural flow of the day.
It’s important to keep remote workers engaged that they feel that the company cares, and that managers ensure that people coping with new arrangements and employees have the opportunity to air any anxieties or concerns. These meetings should happen regularly, no matter what else is happening in the world.
6 Encourage online learning
This isn’t a time to abandon all HR activity, including staff development; it’s actually an ideal opportunity for people to engage in online training, especially when on furlough. There are lots of free courses available, including LinkedIn Premium, as well as many low-cost options.
Why not offer a sum per head to use towards training courses to encourage self-development during this time? It will provide your team with stimulation and a sense of achievement, and better prepare everyone for whatever lies ahead.
7 Show your teams they matter – send them something special
An unexpected item in the post is always a delight. Make it a branded gift so they’ll really get the message: the company is still here, you’re an integral part of it and we all have a future to look forward to.
A surprise gift creates a feel-good factor, positive associations and helps everyone feel connected to the business, no matter how far away they are.
If you are looking for gifts to keep remote workers engaged then get in touch and let us create a gift set for you – we’ll even do all the mailing out for you.