The COVID-19 pandemic has presented employers and HR professionals with significant workforce challenges (and some opportunities) that need to be reckoned with and considered. For example, under the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, many business owners have turned to work-from-home staffing strategies to keep their employees safe and their companies running. For many companies, this has proven to be a very successful approach – causing some to even rethink their post-COVID working arrangements when this crisis has finally passed. However, there are also drawbacks to having a remote workforce that needs to be addressed as part of any successful work-from-home strategy. Chief among these is the difficulty in keeping employees engaged while they are physically separated from one another in work-from-home arrangements.
Keeping Work-from-Home Employees Engaged
Let’s face it; employees who work from home simply don’t have the same level of connection to their coworkers and managers as those who physically work together every day. It is much easier for them to feel “out of the loop” and disengaged from the company’s culture and values. And, as many Human Resources studies have shown over the years, disengagement can cause a decline in productivity and motivation among your employees that will show up pretty quickly on your bottom line. As business owners or HR professionals we need to implement specific strategies to keep our employees engaged in the face of pandemic-fueled factors that push them toward disengagement. Fortunately, the Society for Human Resource Management has developed some helpful tips (see below) on how to do just that. According to their research, there are 5 key elements to a successful strategy of employee engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Making communication a priority
- Setting clear and specific expectations
- Recognizing productivity and dedication
- Encouraging a healthy work/life balance
- Fostering a genuinely collaborative culture
Making Communication a Priority
SHRM recommends HR professionals or managers conduct daily check-ins to see how employees are doing, communicate relevant company news, listen to and address any concerns they may have. Employees working from home can easily become overwhelmed, isolated or anxious for a variety of reasons, and you need to stay in constant touch with them to make sure that you are aware of their state of mind in addition to the quantity and quality of the work they are producing. And, you also need to be open to making changes or adjustments to their home working schedule or set-up to keep them working at peak efficiency.
Setting Clear & Specific Expectations
Working from home is likely going to be a new situation for many of your employees, and they will need time to adjust to their new work environment. However, setting clear expectations from the outset will help them to make this adjustment much more easily. If you want employees to be online during specific hours of the day, or to give you daily or weekly reports on their activities, you need to clearly articulate those wishes and follow up if these expectations are not being met. Unspoken expectations don’t work well in any context and are particularly problematic when employees are working from home. In addition to setting and following up on clear expectations, it is also important to be patient with workers who may not have an ideal work-from-home environment.
Recognizing Productivity & Dedication
Recognizing and rewarding employees for their hard work and dedication enhances employee engagement regardless of your employees’ workplace whether it is at home or in the office. However, when employees work from home, it is even more critical to incentivize their continued productivity and commitment to the tasks at hand. This kind of recognition can take any number of forms – from recognition of a specific employee’s accomplishments in an online meeting to digital gift cards for local food delivery services or amazon purchases. Whichever methods you choose to employ, make sure they carry some level of the personal touch to them – when working from home that can often mean the most to your employees.
Encouraging a Healthy Work/Life Balance
Employees working from home can have an especially challenging time maintaining a healthy work/life balance, because they do not have a physical separation between their work and personal spaces. In much the same way as the physical space between work and home can become blurred, time boundaries can become blurred in a work from home arrangement as well. Home responsibilities can “bleed into” work hours, convincing employees to work during what should be their personal time. This can cause employees to feel permanently “on-call,” leading to debilitating stress and eventual burnout among overworked employees. HR professionals can help employees maintain appropriate work/life balance by encouraging managers to stick to “regular work hours” as much as possible – and expecting the same from the staff who report to them.
Fostering a Genuinely Collaborative Culture
Over the years, many Human Resources studies have shown that workers will tend to display high levels of engagement when they are made to feel like important members of a team. Without the physical connection of group meetings and other activities in the workplace, this can, unfortunately, be a difficult feeling to engender among employees. That’s why it is critical that managers and HR professionals to everything in their power to give employees working from home the feeling that they are working together toward a common goal with other team members who are there to support them.
Seizing New Recruitment Opportunities
While many of the adjustments that HR professionals and managers must make during this pandemic often feel like “second-best” options or “necessary evils” to adapt to the negative realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be some new genuine opportunities that are created as well. The necessity of shifting to a work-from-home model, for example, can uncover what increased telecommuting could offer your company in a post-COVID world. This could include new, more efficient ways of completing certain tasks or even new sources of employees for certain positions among those who would prefer to work from home due to disability accommodations or other personal responsibilities such as child or elder care. The COVID-19 pandemic is also beginning to fuel population shifts away from densely populated urban areas – potentially altering the labor pool available to your organization in significant ways.
The Phenomenon of “COVID-19 Refugees”
The realities of COVID-19 have many urban residents rethinking the conclusions that led them to settle in the city in light of the new pandemic-fueled realities. Many of the pluses of urban living such as restaurant options or social events and festivals have been eliminated or lessened by pandemic-related concerns, while many of the perceived negatives of urban living such as smaller living spaces and denser concentrations of people have been exacerbated by COVID-19. For example, working from home in a tiny, cramped apartment is far less appealing to many than the suburban counterpart (that has even seen the rise of the backyard “office shed” in some suburban communities).
“COVID-19 Refugees” Represent Recruitment Opportunities
This has caused many to flee densely populated urban areas for more suburban locales. In the NYC metro area a case study of this phenomenon is occurring in Montclair, NJ where a real estate agent described the hypercompetitive bidding on suburban homes by NYC emigrants as a “blood sport” with houses receiving 20 offers and selling for 30% more than the asking price. Clearly those fleeing cities such as NYC are already having a big impact on the real estate market in the suburbs – and the labor market should be no different. If your company is located in a suburban area outside one of these cities, now is the time to recruit these “COVID-19 refugees” or even induce current urban residents who may be considering joining them in their flight to the suburbs. This can give you access to whole range of new talented individuals and skill-sets as your company retools to face a post-COVID world.