Whatever way the return to the physical workplace rolls out, a large number of people are going to be working remote for some, if not all, of their working lives. And when the pandemic finally subsides, a large number of people are also going to be working from the office. It is also likely that many workers will be offered a hybrid work model and given the option to work from home or in the office, depending on needs.
Before COVID-19, measuring worker effectiveness and productivity was a difficult task. With two other workplace models – hybrid work and remote-only working – it is even more challenging to get an enterprise-wide picture of employee engagement. With three different models, should enterprise leaders now be looking at how to measure the impact of these models on engagement separately?
The State of Employee Engagement After COVID-19
According to the Gallup State of the Global Workplace: 2021, engagement reflects the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace. Business units with high employee engagement, the report said, achieve higher productivity, higher customer loyalty and engagement, better safety, lower turnover and higher profitability, among other positive business outcomes.
The report also showed that following a steady rise over the last decade, engagement decreased by two percentage points, from 22% in 2019 to 20% in 2020. With enterprise responses to COVID, employees reported higher worry, stress, anger and sadness in 2020 than they had in the previous year. Nearly half of employees in the United States and Canada reported experiencing a lot of stress before the pandemic in 2019, and they were even more stressed in 2020, with 57% reporting high stress — far above the global average.
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Remote and On-Site Engagement Is Diverging
To add to the challenge, Workbuzz’s The State of Employee Engagement 2021 report suggested that engagement for remote workers and engagement for on-site workers appears to be diverging. The research reports that the ability to work at home, even if part time, has offered many workers advantages, such as financial benefits and better work-life balance.
In addition, there is the benefit of saving many hours per week by avoiding the commute. This additional time has on occasion resulted in employees working longer hours by logging on earlier or finishing later whilst still being able to have more time with family.
It remains unclear if the flip side of the remote coin — the isolation and lack of personal interaction with colleagues — is taking away from remote's advantages. Is it possible to use the same standards for assessing engagement for on-site workers as for remote workers?
The Principles of Engagement, On-Site or Remote
The core principles of engagement are the same regardless of whether employees are working on-site or remotely, said Alex Chenery-Howes, marketing manager at Orlando, Fla.-based Totem, an employee experience app. These include cultivating a culture of recognition, particularly amongst peers, giving employees space to share their thoughts and opinions on management, and giving them incentives to find new ways to help reach long-term goals.
"That said, remote workers are often at a higher risk of becoming disengaged," he said. "In the absence of an immediate community of peers, remote workers may slip into an individualist mindset that is not conducive to long-term engagement."
Chenery-Howes argued that risk can be managed by applying the same principles used to engage on-site workers. The only difference is that leaders will likely have to make better use of digital channels, such as internal communication apps and video conferencing. In terms of measurement, metrics such as productivity and morale are just as applicable for remote workers as they are for on-site teams. However, leaders should track both metrics separately for clearer benchmarking. This will allow them to identify pain points and areas of improvement that disproportionately affect on-site or remote workers.
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Focus on Engagement Measures
While the hybrid model is a new phenomenon for many organizations, and it can be tempting to come up with new metrics and criteria for measuring engagement between the two teams, organization leaders should stick to what they know already, said Paul French, managing director of Bournemouth, UK-based Intrinsic Executive Search, a global recruitment and staffing consultancy.
The reality is the experiences of remote-first and office-first employees might be different. Office-based employees can easily retain their social ties, feel less isolated, and solicit engagement from managers more easily than remote employees.
“Despite these glaring and sometimes inevitable unequal dynamics, a leader-led approach is needed to bridge this gap between the experiences of remote and office-based employees,” said French, whose team operates on a hybrid model.
Having the same engagement measures or using similar metrics to measure engagement is a good place to start in bridging this gap. After all, the goal is to ensure that remote employees are as engaged as their office counterparts and vice versa. Using the same metrics and comparing the results against each other will reveal critical information about engagement gaps and differences in engagement that need to be filled to ensure equality and fairness in a hybrid setting.
Address Structural Problems First
If work conditions differ to the extent that performance management cannot be standardized, this is an indicator that there are underlying structural problems which must first be addressed, said Mike Grossmann, CEO of Redwood City, Calif.-based GoodHire.
One of the most common causes of this issue is information disparity, when some employees have more tools and resources at their disposal than others, leading to discrepancies in output across the workforce. Office workers tend to have greater access to software, information and support compared to their remote counterparts, Grossman said.
"As a manager, this is always something to avoid," he said. "Left unchecked, remote workers will be less effective at their jobs, or seemingly less productive when compared against their peers. This can give you a warped idea of who might be underperforming in the workplace, thereby decreasing the accuracy of your management decisions."
Work conditions should not play a significant role in the evaluation of a team. “Rather than putting a Band-Aid on the situation by manually restructuring your engagement metrics on an individual basis, standardize the whole process by making sure there's complete equality,” Grossman said. “The best course of action would be communicating with each of your employees, remote and in office, to give them the provisions they need to do their best work.”
Tackling the Consistency Challenge
Organizations with hybrid work environments cannot look at engagement for these two different categories, on-site and remote, separately. They need to give a consistent experience to all employees. Otherwise, one population will feel short changed and begin thinking the grass might be greener elsewhere, said Gaurav Chaubey, co-founder of San Jose, Calif.-based Mesh, a performance management platform.
There needs to be a redesign of engagement practices that deliver the same inclusive experience to both remote workers and onsite workers, and measure their engagement by the same yardstick.
One measurement tool that can be used for both remote and on-site workers is frequent pulse surveys to understand how employees are feeling at a particular point in time. Conducting these surveys frequently will allow employers to understand their eNPS (employee Net Promoter Score) among the different types of workers.
Frequent check-ins to really understand workers’ needs are also important in a hybrid work environment. This can be as simple as a weekly 15-minute catch up. There's no additional technology required, and this can happen either in person or remote. The end goal is to recognize that employee engagement is a moving target and create a process to measure and adjust approaches to how employees work.
“Employers must acknowledge that onsite workers experience a collective sense of belonging due to their presence in a physical space, something remote workers often miss out on,” Chaubey said.