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The remote work revolution: Engaging employees during COVID-19

COVID-19 has forced most employers to rethink where and how their teams work. For many, the transition from office to home literally happened overnight. But even as we consider the health and safety logistics of returning to the workplace, this is an opportunity to empower employees to emerge more engaged than they were before the pandemic — so they’ll bring even more value to your business.

Why engagement matters — no matter where employees work

Engaged employees are dedicated, loyal, and passionate about their jobs. They demonstrate their engagement in their interactions with co-workers, their approach to challenges, and of course, the quality of their work. This has a direct, positive impact on your bottom line — highly engaged workplaces can claim 41% lower absenteeism, 59% less turnover, and 21% higher profitability.1 Conversely, each disengaged employee can cost their employer more than $15,000 extra a year.2

The high cost of low engagement: Employers lose $15,000+ per year for each disengaged employee.
Before COVID-19, engagement rates for remote and on-site employees were identical – a mere 30%.

Sharing a physical workspace doesn’t necessarily drive engagement. Before COVID-19, less than a third of employees were actively engaged — and remote employees and on-site employees had identical engagement rates.3 Even during the pandemic, engaged employees have reported lower levels of stress and better overall health than their less-engaged peers.4 Actively engaging your team is possible — even from a distance — and it’s worth it.

How COVID-19 debunked old myths about remote work

Before COVID-19 made working from home mainstream, 80% of employees wanted to work from home at least part of the
time. Over a third would even take a pay cut in exchange for the option. But only 4% of employees were working from home
half-time or more.5

Traditionally, many employers have been reluctant to offer flexible working arrangements — mostly due to productivity
concerns. But COVID-19 has forced them to trust employees to deliver results without direct, in-person supervision. After all,
results are what really matter — and in this case, they speak for themselves: Nearly 9 in 10 employees feel fully productive
working from home — and engagement has reached a 20-year high.6,7

COVID-19 has proven that remote work can work. 86% of employees feel fully productive at home. 70% of managers say job performance is the same or better. There has been a 4% overall increase in employee engagement.

Consider this: Remote work was always a good idea

The benefits of flexible working arrangements — for employers and employees alike — were well documented prior to the pandemic:

  • Healthier, more productive employees. Remote workers were 35% to 40% more productive than their office counterparts.8 And 80% reported lower stress levels and improved overall health.9
  • Substantial cost savings. A typical employer can save about $11,000 per year for every employee who works remotely half of the time. Primary savings are from increased productivity, lower real estate costs, and reduced absenteeism and turnover. Employees can save between $2,500 and $4,000 a year, mostly through the reduced cost of travel, parking, and food.10
  • Attracting and retaining top talent. Employers who offered flexible work options had an easier time hiring and keeping high-performing employees. Flexibility was equally important as salary and benefits to 70% of employees, and 30% of employees said they had left a job due to a lack of flexibility.11,12

The competitive advantage of a remote workforce: Employers save $11,000 per year for each employee who works remotely half the time.

How leaders can maximize engagement from a distance

Regardless of where employees sit, management style accounts for 70% of engagement.13 And despite the slight uptick in engagement during the pandemic, employers still have work to do. While many of these tips are basic best practices for good management in general, they’re worth exploring through a different lens as you help your team navigate the uncertainties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the evolving landscape of remote versus on-site work.

Encourage and model a healthy work-life balance
We’re all figuring out new ways to work, and many employees are balancing work with home schooling or caregiving. Encourage healthy habits, and talk about the importance of self-care. Allow for flexibility to accommodate distance learning for parents and help protect your team from burnout. Inability to unplug after work is a top concern for remote employees, so make sure to promote healthy boundaries.14

Set clear expectations early
Managers who communicate their expectations have teams that live up to those expectations. About half of all U.S. employees — remote or not — don’t know what’s expected of them.15 Now is the time to be especially crisp about roles, responsibilities, and deadlines. And make sure your team knows you’re not expecting perfection — we’re all adjusting to new ways of working, and learning as we go.

Stay connected — and individualize your approach
The key to successfully managing a remote team is consistent, transparent communication. This is especially important right now. But each employee is different — while some may thrive on the routine of short, daily phone check-ins, others might find longer, less frequent updates more valuable. Pay attention to the cues employees are giving you, and ask them how they prefer to keep in touch.

Create a virtual community
Casual team check-ins can easily fall by the wayside when everyone’s working in a separate space. But informal conversations can help employees feel more connected to each other — and less isolated overall. Hosting a virtual coffee break, happy hour, or walking meeting can help break up the workday and foster a sense of belonging.

Be an advocate for mental health and wellness
Fear and uncertainty about COVID-19 have caused tremendous stress. Make sure employees know about the mental health resources available through your employee assistance program (EAP) and health plan. Ask questions about how they’re taking care of their mental health, and share how you’re taking care of yours. If you have concerns about how someone is doing, reach out to find out how you can help.

Celebrate success and recognize good work
We all need to hear good news right now. Employee recognition can take many forms, but the main goal is to encourage continued productivity and dedication. Positive feedback doesn’t need to be formal to be effective — a simple thank you email or shout out during a meeting can go a long way to make employees feel valued and engaged.

Foster connection to your organization’s purpose
Employees who feel connected to their organization’s purpose are 4 times more engaged than those who don’t.16 Linking individual contributions and larger organizational goals can help employees find deeper meaning in their work and bring their best to their roles each day.

How will you seize this opportunity to increase engagement?

It’s still unclear when and how many teams will return to the physical workplace, but experts agree that the uptick in remote work will likely continue. Some employees will go fully remote. Others will return to the office full or part time. But the reality will most likely be a hybrid of these scenarios, where leaders must reimagine the role of the office in employee engagement. The future is bright for employers who successfully lead blended teams of remote and in-person employees, preserve the fun and humanity of work, and grow engagement from a distance — as these skills will be in high demand in the post-pandemic workplace.

About our expert

Ryan Berger, Director, Strategic Customer Engagement Product Innovation and Evaluation, Kaiser Permanente

Ryan is the Director of Product Innovation and Evaluation for Strategic Customer Engagement at Kaiser Permanente. He has led innovation and change, revitalized and managed product roadmaps, and brought multiple solutions to market for Kaiser Permanente, Hearst, Amgen, Intel, and other global market leaders.