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Fostering engaged employees in a virtual environment

This article is the second article in our series about the challenges of remote work for both team leaders and employees. The first article on why remote work is here to stay can be read here. The next article about employee morale can be read here. A complete overview of the articles in this series is shown at the end of this page.

What is an engaged employee?

Imagine that the following two people work on your team:

Jane loves her job. Not only does she enjoy the activities needed to accomplish to complete her job, she is also a true believer that your team’s mission is critical to achieve the company’s vision which she signed up for when she joined. As a result, she approaches every task that comes her way with a positive and enthusiastic attitude. She has the team’s interests first, and is aware of business context. Therefore, she works with her team to improve performance for the benefit of the organization. Jane always tries to go the extra mile. And because she believes in the organization’s mission, she feels compelled to develop solutions that improve the customer’s experience. Jane is an engaged employee.

Now consider Anna. Anna has lost interest in her job. When she starts her workday, the only thing she can think about is the moment when she will shut down her computer in the evening. Throughout the day, Anna is doing the bare minimum to get her tasks done, or might even work counterproductively for the rest of the team. She comes to work only because she needs the money. Potentially, Anna is already looking for a new role somewhere else. Which is a pity, because when she started a few years ago, Anna was just as excited about her job as Jane is today. Anna is a disengaged employee.

Why does engagement matter?

A study published in the Harvard Business Review that looked at companies with over 500 employees found that 71% of managers felt that employee engagement is one of the most important factors in overall organisational success. Yet, according to a research from Gallup, historically only one in 3 employees feel engaged at work.

The potential for improvement is thus enormous. Given the benefits of employee engagement for employers are impressive, it is a goal all team leaders should strive for:

Dedication: engaged employees take pride in working for your organization. They go the extra mile to excel in their work. To the outside world, they are great advocates towards customers and users.

Innovation: engaged employees look for opportunities to improve products, services and processes. They want to be creative to improve the status quo.

Loyalty: engaged employees see themselves working for your organisation in the long run. Their retention rates are really high.

Commitment: employee engagement drives a desire to be there for the team. This results in fewer leave, sick absences, conflicts or accident rates.

How engagement dropped in June 2020

Surprisingly, employee engagement reached an all time high in May 2020 (38%), according to Gallup’s survey. However, this high was quickly followed by a tremendous drop in June (31%), reaching an all time low, and setting a trend that is more in line with what could have been expected with increased work from home.

So what caused the short term improvement of engagement? First, employers started to focus more on communication towards employees with regards to latest developments. Employees felt that their employers cared for them. Second, there was a shift in the employment base. Not only was it smaller, we also expect the most engaged employees to have maintained their employment disproportionally when companies needed to decide who to lay off. Third, the employees who remained in their positions felt deeply fortunate to have kept their job, which might have provided an extra boost in engagement. 

But what happened in June? First, social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s killing shifted leaders’ efforts to the numerous challenges around diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Second, as states and countries started to re-open, employers stopped being as clear in their communication as in March and April. And Finally, some previously laid-off employees returned to work, with lower engagement levels.

Thus, managers now need to find more lasting ways to increase and maintain engagement.

How to improve employee engagement in a remote environment?

Let us come back to the story of Anna for a second. If Anna was an engaged employee until March 2020, but started feeling disengaged since, chances are high that she didn’t receive the supportive environment she needed from her organization. And Anna will not be alone, as a lot of organisations will struggle to keep their employees engaged in a long term remote environment if their leaders do not take action today. As a team leader, you should absolutely not believe that the disengagement came from Anna herself, nor blame her for it. Instead, you should find ways to revert the trend, and bring Anna back on the path of engagement. The following is a list of key strategies to make Anna an engaged employee again. In remote environments, team leaders can take these simple steps to keep their employees engaged:

  1. Build trust between employees and management

In remote environments, it is harder for team leaders to consult their teams when they need to make decisions. Most managers therefore wrongly feel pressured to make decisions on their own, as they no longer have watercooler moments or corridor talks where they can quickly discuss ideas with their team members and collect their feedback. The result is that employees who were used to contribute to ideas now feel disconnected from the decisions their team leaders make, and they struggle to buy into these decisions.

On top of that, informal communication flows in remote environments spread more slowly than in person, and some employees feel that they are now made aware of changes and decisions way too late.  They feel forgotten and gradually lose trust in their leaders.

When teams work remote, the best way to maintain trust in managers is to create a culture of open and transparent communication. The worst thing leaders can do in this environment is to wait until a decision is made before they start communicating about it. This will leave employees felt treated as executers rather than as builders. Instead, team leaders should be super transparent about what the important issues are that they are working on, and how far their decision-making has progressed. They should also more than ever create formal opportunities for employees to participate in the process, and challenge and influence ideas. Not only to build trust, but because in a new environment additional perspective adds tons of value. This does not mean more meetings. Simple written communication tools can do the trick. But the opportunity must exist.

  • Empower employees

As a manager, you are not the only one who is adapting to a remote environment, so are your employees. Therefore, your leadership style needs more than ever to focus on giving them the tools and inputs to thrive, rather that to tell them exactly what to do, when and how. Otherwise, they will never perceive their role as important, will feel resentment, or might feel bored. Quit micro-management, show flexibility.

To do so, make sure to align beforehand what you require from your team members. Set clear objectives, in terms of deliverable depth, quality, and timeline. From there, trust your employees to find the best way for them to deliver results in this new environment. And be there to support them along the way if they need it.

Make sure your employees are on track by providing way more feedback opportunities than you did in the past. Be clear on the targets required for promotion, and regularly provide your view on how well they are performing against those. And if you sense creativity, by all means, nurture it by providing bandwidth to work on new ideas.

  • Offer opportunities to build relationships across the organisation

Social connections are at the core of well-functioning organisations. They allow to share information beyond the traditional siloes that exist. But they are also super important for employee engagement.

First, by getting to know lots of people within their organization, employees feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. They realize how everyone else is experiencing the company’s vision, mission, values and goals. This inspires them to also contribute to its success.  

Second, social connections give employees joy. They lead to friendships. And a smile from these friends enriches your day. It provides positivity that is sometimes required to get through some tasks or difficult periods.

Third, having connections at work helps your team members to know who to reach out to for help. As people can no longer physically work to another department’s open space to ask who would be the most relevant person to help out on an issue, they need to tap into their personal networks. Missing the right relationship and not knowing who to reach out to provides a feeling of powerlessness and embarrassment not often escalated to superiors. Employees feel that they don’t now the people in their organisation, and start to feel disengaged.

So how do you create these opportunities to build relationships?

First, make sure your employees attend many the virtual events your organisation organizes. Make it a priority for them to attend rather that to spend a few extra hours to finish an analysis or finetune a presentation. These company-wide events often have networking moments or breakout rooms.

Second, open your address book. However tempting it may be to take the lead yourself on all the projects with other teams and departments, you need to also send people from your team. These collaborations will be opportunities for them to connect and meet new people

Finally, don’t limit your virtual happy hours only to your team. iungo is a great platform to hold informal virtual events dedicated to meeting colleagues from other teams in the organization. Imagine that every Friday during lunch break all employees are invited to connect on iungo for an hour. That means that they can be randomly connected to and meet 5 to 10 new colleagues, every week. Time well invested into keeping them engaged.

In this series about the future of remote work:

For team leaders:

  • Challenge 1: How to keep employees engaged?
  • Challenge 2: How to keep morale high?
  • Challenge 3: How to keep productivity high?

For employees:

  • Challenge 4: How to get to know new colleagues?
  • Challenge 5: How to stay in touch with colleagues?
  • Challenge 6: How to build deeper connections with colleagues?
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The future of work is remote – and it will require new ways for employees to connect

This article is the first of 7 articles in our series about the challenges of remote work for both team leaders and employees. The second article can be read here. A complete overview of the articles in this series is shown at the end of this page.

In 2020, the world was hit hard by the Coronavirus. In more ways than we would have hoped, our lives changed forever. In our personal lives we have had to restrict in-person activities to protect ourselves and our communities. We needed to rethink how to stay in touch with the people we love and how to maintain social interactions in a safe and responsible way. To adapt to the new normal, each and everyone of us has had to demonstrate strong resilience and adaptability to cope with the new and everchanging circumstances. And whether we like it or not, despite the promising perspectives of mass vaccination, many experts believe that the change is here to last.  

Outside of the personal sphere, many organisations were completely disrupted as well. Schools closed, sports games were held without fans, conferences and events were cancelled. From one day to the other offices closed, and millions of people who had never known anything else than to commute to work on a daily basis, sit in meetings with colleagues, and chat with co-workers suddenly were stranded at home staring at their screens all day, with kids playing in the background. 

Initially many of us were planning to spend only a few weeks at home. But as the virus spread, it became clear that we will have to brace ourselves for months, if not years of work from home. Mass remote work was born.

Why do we believe remote work is here to stay?

We have spent hours reading papers about the future of work, employer and employee surveys, and press clippings. In conclusion of all that research, we believe that remote work is here to stay across the 20s for at least three reasons.

Reason 1: The stigma is overcome

Mass remote work was definitely not in the cards of most employers who had been fighting work from home for decades. In the US, only around 8% of all employees worked from home at least one day per week before COVID-19.  Companies claimed that employees would work less hours and that distractions at home would decrease productivity.

But as 2020 progressed, more and more scientific research was done on the topic to distinguish inuition from facts. And interestingly, results of recent studies seem to point in the other direction:

  • On individual tasks, 75% of employees seem to have been able to maintain or improve their productivity, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
  • With savings in commuting time, remote workers work 1.4 more days every month (out of the 34 hours saved), or 16.8 more days every year than people who worked in an office, according to an Airtasker study
  • 56% of office workers report finding ways to avoid working when screen time or mouse movement is tracked, for “only” 39% of remote workers, still according to Airtasker

Reason 2: Investments have been made

Both employers and employees have invested important amounts to make working from home possible and more pleasant.

Employers have invested in new and faster communication technology, collaboration tools, and redesigning their floor plans for social distancing. Additionally, many employers are already have taken action to get rid of unused floor space in their offices to decrease rent costs, now that all offices are running empty.

Employees have invested in setting up comfortable home offices and  in telecommunication technology at home.  

Now that the initial cost is made, it is easier to continue.

Reason 3: Employees don’t want to come back full time

According to a BCG survey, thirty-seven percent of companies expect that more than 25% of employees will work in hybrid models that combine remote and onsite work. According to another survey, the Survey of Business Uncertainty, this jump in remote work is expected across all sectors.

One of the main drivers behind hybrid work environments are employees themselves. In a survey by Slack, 83% of respondents stated that they do not want to return to the office full time. Yet, only 20% want to work remotely full time. That means that 80% believes that there is still a benefit of occasionally going to the office in person. This is for events, meetings, creative kick-offs. All activities for which informal information exchange are invaluable, but have not yet been solved by existing videoconferencing and collaboration tools.

Without adequate tools to build connections with their coworkers, most believe that they need to continue to go to the office occasionally to stay socially connected.

But it’s not all green. The challenges ahead are carried be individuals

Despite positive numbers around productivity, remote work does bring its important set of challenges. Especially employees in highly collaborative environments have been struggling to adapt to the new normal:

  • We mentioned that 75% felt more productive for individual tasks. But on collaborative tasks, only 51% of employees seem to have been able to maintain or improve their productivity (still according to the Boston Consulting Group). Zooming into this,
    • When employees are satisfied with social connectivity, 63% is as or more productive than before, 37% less productive
    • When employees are NOT satisfied with social connectivity, only 20% is as or more productive than before, and a worrisome 80% is less productive!
  • The mental burden for employees seems to be harder remote than in the office. 54% of remote workers and 49% of office workers said they felt “overly stressed during the workday”, 45% of remote workers and 42% of office workers “experienced high levels of anxiety during the workday”, according to the Airtasker study

From this data, it appears that the real struggle of remote work is not carried by the firms, but rather by their employees who struggle to cope with the increased pressure, and by their team leaders who need to keep morale and engagement high. And most of the struggle is coming from a lack of social connection.

So for remote work to be successful, both employers and employees need to overcome a series of challenges gravitating around lack of social connection in a remote environment. And if organizations want to help their teams to adapt, they should provide employees with ways to meet and stay connected with co-workers.

We have identified 6 challenges around social connectivity that organizations will need to address to survive in a remote or hybrid environment. Three are challenges that team leaders are faced with, and 3 are challenges employess are faced with.

In this series of articles, we will explore how these challenges can be pro-actively addressed and turned into a competitive advantage.

For team leaders:

For employees:

  • Challenge 4: How to get to know new colleagues?
  • Challenge 5: How to stay in touch with colleagues?
  • Challenge 6: How to build deeper connections with colleagues?
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iungo – Reconnecting people with their community

What we do

iungo allows people within an organization to make new encounters and have meaningful one-on-one conversations despite physical barriers. All of which boost employee morale, creativity and productivity through informal exchanges.

iungo is Latin for “I connect“, which reflects our deeper purpose.

Founder story

When the coronavirus hit the world in early 2020, Christophe was an MBA student at the Kellogg School of Management. What appealed him so much to that school was the strong sense of community that exists among students.

When he learned that the school would migrate to online classes as a response to the Coronavirus outbreak, Christophe felt deeply saddened by the lost opportunities to hang out with friends and meet the other amazing students in his class. As lockdowns and social distancing persisted, he experienced an increasingly growing need to have quality interactions with other human beings, even when we could not physically be together.

From this pain, iungo emerged. While the new company initially started as a way for students to meet virtually and get to know each other, we soon realized that not only students, but anyone within a community or organization, needed a better way to opportunity to create, build and sustain meaningful connections in a remote environment.

Remote work is here to stay. At iungo we strive to give people the opportunity to stay socially connected despite physical barriers.