Five ways to manage disengaged remote workers

Can you re-engage apathetic employees?

Five ways to manage disengaged remote workers

Being resilient doesn’t mean you’re always engaged at work. Case in point, a recent study showed that employees in Singapore were some of the most resilient in the world. They came out fourth in a list of 25 countries, with 19% of employees found to be ‘highly resilient’ during the pandemic. However, the city-state continues to face a highly disengaged workforce, with only one in 10 workers saying they felt ‘fully engaged’ in 2020. The findings in Singapore presented a ‘unique case’ and suggested that while workers were able to withstand challenges ‘without breaking’, they’re not bringing their best version of themselves or contributing their ‘very best’ at work. Researchers also described such workers as ‘stoic’.

Read more: Does remote work cause communication breakdown?

Are remote workers communicating less?

The situation may be a cause for worry as leaders focus on efforts to sustain engagement levels, be it during or after the pandemic. What makes things more complicated is that with remote working arrangements, leaders can’t easily identify disengaged staff, which is crucial to help them figure the best approach to help workers out of the rut.

With hybrid working becoming the norm, a global study found that the natural decline in opportunities to interact with co-workers have affected the way we opened up about issues at work. For instance remote employees are more than twice as likely to keep to themselves if they had issues with their teammates, as compared to working face to face. Specifically, more than half (54%) of remote workers would rather say nothing until they reach their breaking point.

According to VitalSmarts, some of the most common frustrations faced by staff now include team members’ poor performance, behaviour concerns, perceived bias, failure to meet deadlines or concerns about team strategy – all of which contribute to an employee’s daily work experience. Ultimately when employees evaded conflict, they said they also experienced:

  • More stress (23%)
  • Wasting more time (21%)
  • Lower morale (21%)
  • Lower productivity (14%)

Read more: Is your company investing in employee experience?

Top drivers of employee engagement

VitalSmarts’ study thus suggested that communication, whether among teammates or between leaders and staff, is crucial to sustain engagement. Findings from another study by Qualtrics similarly concluded the main drivers of employee engagement. They include:

  • A clear link between work and the company’s strategic objectives (52%)
  • Confidence in senior leadership to make the right decisions (46%)
  • Managers who help employees with career development (44%)
  • Opportunities for learning and development (57%)
  • Recognition for good work (52%)

Additionally, closing feedback loops remain vital to drive engagement. Research showed that almost two-thirds of workers believe it is ‘very important’ for employers to listen to their feedback. The report also found that engagement tends to increase the longer an employee remains at the company, peaking around four years.

However, engagement drivers change over time, reflecting the need to continually understand and act on important issues. The key engagement driver for employees with less than two years tenure is having a clear link between work and the company’s objectives. Engagement for employees with more than four years of tenure is mostly driven by confidence in senior leadership. So how can leaders manage disengagement in our virtual world of work? HRD spoke with two leaders to get some tips and insights.

1. Communicate clearly and regularly

Joey Kwek, SVP of HR & Corporate Services at Senoko Energy shared that from their pulse surveys and data analysis in the past year, employees cited feeling ‘generally engaged’ at work. The HR leader attributed this to a frequent and transparent communication strategy. Unfortunately, there have been ‘a handful of people’ who have shared their worries, concerns and frustrations through anonymous surveys.

“We’re not able to identify specific people, but we are able to draw out the specific divisions – [so] we spoke to the division heads,” Kwek told HRD. “Then division heads will try to analyse the situation and try to manage it.

“We also have employees who actually came forward directly to us to share that they do have some concerns…They raised their concerns, be it with HR or their supervisors, and we talked to them. Then we follow up with them more regularly and see whether we can make some changes to working arrangements.” While they weren’t fully disengaged yet, the HR head shared that the employees were struggling while working from home. They cited reasons like the lack of a proper workstation or being separated from their loved ones, who were overseas.

Read more: Remote work: How can leaders improve their communication?

2. Be clear about company strategy and policies

She added that it pays to involve staff when developing policies. You can do this by getting employee feedback as well as explaining any new updates from the company. This helps employees feel connected to the organisation and the direction that it’s moving towards. “Every time we roll out any communications to employees, we request all the heads of divisions to talk to their people,” she said. “So that it’s not just a paper [exercise], not just a document. [And] to explain to them because employees may have queries: ‘Why do I need to do this? Why do I need to do that?’. So, we explain to them the rationale of doing things and that’s one part to ensure that they are engaged.”

3. Set clear expectations about work

Besides being clear about policies, Juliana Ang, CHRO at NTUC Income believes it’s crucial to set expectations and help them ‘make it work’. “I believe that once people understand expectations, they will figure it out,” she said. “But when they are guessing – ‘Are we supposed to do it like that?’ ‘Can I do that?’ When it’s not clear, then they will look at [work] very differently.”

This is why a couple of months into working from home, her team deployed the future of work initiative. “We basically told everybody that this is the future of work,” she said. “Whether there’s a pandemic or not, we’re going to work like this now.” They set up things like desk booking systems and a hot-desking arrangement so nobody “owns a table anymore”.

“The intention behind that is so that people don’t see this as temporary,” she said. “When people realise this is the future, [managers] take it a lot more seriously on how they should engage their staff.” Once the organisation has accepted the arrangement as a ‘normal’ part of work, HR should work closely with managers to manage any engagement issues.

Read more: How to collect honest employee feedback

4. Listen and be genuinely interested

Additionally, she reminded company leaders to pay attention to their staff. Only then will you be able to identify any differences in productivity levels or the way they worked. “Really set aside time to listen to staff, observe and really be interested,” she said. “It’s not just about doing the work, and what they deliver or what they don’t deliver. Because I think when you pay attention, you understand when [performance is] going up or going down. And then you can address issues early – before things go wrong.”

5. Bond with staff and have fun at work

Above all, she suggested that leaders remember to have fun with their team. “In the midst of all the work that’s going on, find time to have fun with staff,” she said. “Because fun is ‘big’ at work.” Bonding with your teammates may sound simple, but employees will appreciate the social relationships and sense of community. This is especially important if you onboarded staff remotely and they never got a chance to experience a sense of camaraderie at work. “If not, I’ll have staff coming to tell me: I feel like I come to work by myself,” she said.

She recalled a recruit sharing her work experience thus far. The recruit said: ‘I feel like after I joined this company, I come to work by myself. I go home at the end. Whether I survive – if I can do it or not – it’s like nobody seems to care, because there’s no one when I look left and right.’ After that conversation, Ang spoke with the recruit’s manager and set up a formal buddy system to make sure that new staff got to meet and interact with the team for at least the first two weeks of work. “It’s about paying attention, listening, and making sure [staff are] engaged at various levels,” she said. “And make sure you have fun at work!”

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