How to Make the Most of Growing Employee Engagement

Despite the challenges of remote work, employees are more committed to their jobs. The leader's job is to make sure technology supports their commitment, instead of standing in their way.

Workers may not like the reasons why they’ve been working at home in 2020. But even with the stresses of a pandemic and various challenges to work-life balance, they’re feeling good about remote work. According to research from the HR software firm Quantum Workplace, the percentage of employees who described themselves as “highly engaged,” spiked in the early months of the pandemic, in some cases more than 10 percentage points over the same period in 2019.

Similar research from McKinsey & Company found that remote workers “are more engaged, and have a stronger sense of well-being than those in nonremote jobs with little flexibility.” Leaders are taking the hint. According to a survey of CEOs by the accounting firm KPMG in July and August, more remote-friendly offices are in the works: More than two-thirds (68 percent) say they’ll downsize office space, and 76 percent say that plan to build on “use of digital collaboration and communication tools.”

Remote work demands more than thrusting new technologies upon employees.

This isn’t temporary, to hear the CEOs tell it: According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey conducted this summer, solid majorities of CEOs say that remote collaboration (78 percent) and low-density workplaces (61 percent) will be “enduring shifts” that will last beyond the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whether employees are working better because they prefer the flexibility of remote work, or are digging in harder because they’re anxious about their job status in the midst of a recession, they’re clearly demonstrating commitment to their employers. But they deserve a boost from leaders to make sure they continue that engagement.

Doing that right can be a matter of providing the right tools. Earlier this month my colleague Ernie Smith shared some examples of productivity software that equips workers to better manage work-at-home life and its attendant distractions. But leaders also need to be training up their workers for what a remote workplace culture looks like—after all, you likely didn’t hire for remote-work tech skills before 2020. So part of a leader’s job now is lowering the barriers to technology in your organization.

It’s easier said than done. As two corporate chairs, Frank-Jürgen Richter and Gunjan Sinha, pointed out recently in Harvard Business Review, many organizations cite a lot of barriers to a remote-savvy workplace: “employee skills, lack of senior management awareness, lack of remote working opportunities, organizational culture, issues of complexity, cost and risk, and inadequate infrastructure.”

To combat that problem, Richter and Sinha recommend building incentives for employees around technology—applying their engagement to performance review scores, for instance. But employers also need to make the investment in both tools and training. As they write, “rather than thrusting new technologies upon employees, organizations should provide them with the right training and support to better use and adopt those tools.”

This isn’t just IT strategy: Richter and Sinha frame the issue as a cultural one, which I think is the right way to look at it. Every tech tool from Zoom on down is essentially a means to facilitate communication and collaboration, which is where your organization’s culture lives. As the McKinsey report points out, remote work doesn’t eliminate culture, but instead puts more pressure on leaders to emphasize it. “Having a foundation of involvement, fairness, respect, and equality can help employees adopt to new ways of working and interacting,” the report explains. “Building such an integrated culture now will only benefit organizations in the future.”

Technology in itself won’t create your culture. But it’s worth making the effort to ensure technology isn’t standing in culture’s way.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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