It’s been more than eight months since many offices switched to telecommuting, while on-site employees continued working on the front lines of critical businesses in industries such as health care, energy, retail, and agriculture. Two manufacturers have reported favorable COVID-19 vaccine results and expect an initial quantity of vaccines to be available in 2020 under emergency use authorization. (Reuters: Moderna vaccine gives world more hope)
Yet, regardless of how quickly or widely effective vaccines are available, there’s no going “back to normal,” at least from an employment perspective. The pandemic has created long-term changes in how people work, live, and care for their families.
With several months of work being completed by our remote workforce under our collective belts, now is the perfect time to examine your company, executive, and team communication and engagement programs. What’s working and what isn’t? Assessing your cadence, channels, and content now allows you to make improvements, secure the necessary budget, and gain leadership approvals for the coming year. It also gets your organization thinking about the organizational point-of-view and corresponding policies for how people work post-pandemic. Improving communications now with an eye toward the future will help you start 2021 on a better (if still challenging) note, and ensure you have a robust framework in place to keep your employees engaged through the wave of changes to come.
Let’s look at ways to communicate with and engage your employees during the next 6-12 months, particularly those who are likely to remain remote to some degree.
THE NEW NORMAL – A REMOTE WORKFORCE
COVID-19 is producing seismic shifts in every aspect of people’s lives, including how we live, work, learn, shop, seek health care, and socialize. People will be eager to return to pre-COVID-19 activities, but not in the same ways or to the same degree. Work shifts will remain, and “48% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19 versus 30% before the pandemic,” according to a Gartner poll. (Gartner: 9 Future of Work Trends Post-COVID-19)
- Companies that had flexible working arrangements already will maintain them or take them further now that other companies have made the shift.
- Companies that didn’t embrace flexible work in the past know the benefits (and challenges) of remote work and will try to find the best blend of both, often surveying employees to learn how they want to move forward.
- The talent market will shift, as candidates and recruiters are free to look for the best job match without the constraints of location or relocation budgets.
- Employees have become adept at remote work and will want to tailor a return plan that works for their unique needs.
- Remote work, combined with shifts in consumer consumption, will change the capital spend mix for many companies, especially for real estate. Think less office and storage space, and more warehouse and e-commerce investment.
What does an optimal blend of remote and office work look like? That depends on a variety of factors, from the industry and type of work being done to team dynamics, employee/leader preferences, and personal factors such as children or online learners in the home.
Regardless of the blend, COVID-19 fatigue has reinforced that we are social creatures who need connection and collaboration. And, just as in the pre-COVID-19 world, employee engagement remains critical to maximizing employee retention, productivity, effectiveness, discretionary effort, and morale. So how do you engage your remote workforce and employees amid all this change?
FOR YOUR REMOTE WORKFORCE: LEADERSHIP = COMMUNICATION
Communication is a core element of engaging your team, and effective leaders have to be much more deliberate about communicating with their remote teams.
If you’ve been working remotely, you’ve likely noticed why:
- Many key moments of communication and connection happen naturally—the hallway conversation, the office drive by, or the impromptu lunch. Working primarily with a remote workforce means intentionally creating these moments in new ways.
- People may struggle to learn new behaviors when they’re already outside of their comfort zone—introverts enjoy remote work but could find it hard to reach out, while extroverts miss the energy of the office. Leaders need to be in tune with their employees’ respective working styles, communicate in relevant ways, and recognize progress as everyone adapts.
- When working virtually, it’s harder to pick up cues that are instinctual in person. Are you used to reading the energy in the room when you go to a meeting, or knowing who has doubts but isn’t voicing them? You can read people on Zoom meetings or conference calls, but it’s not as easy.
- Offices have visual reminders of a company’s mission, vision, values, and strategy. How many people can create a similar environment in their home office (which may be a living room couch or a kitchen table)? How many are relying on outdated documents because COVID-19 changed the company’s strategy? It seems basic, yet being surrounded by visual cues about work helps us stay grounded in, well, work. Leaders can leverage creative teams to help employees create a virtual environment and small physical assets that reinforce goals, strategies, and culture.
- The meetings and events that can be the most energizing and inspiring, such as national sales meetings and town halls, are the ones most impacted by COVID-19.
With so many challenges and unknowns, a leader who implements a proactive, deliberate communications cadence keeps their team connected, engaged, aligned, and moving forward. They also provide a sense of comfort and predictability when other elements of daily life are uncertain.
ENGAGING YOUR REMOTE WORKFORCE
Being a communications leader, I’m all for large, formal communication programs. But let’s face it: There were effective and engaged teams long before there were communication professionals and departments. Leaders are central to communicating with remote employees and integrating the work of remote and on-site workers. Keep your teams focused and fast with the following tips:
- Implement huddles to start and/or end the day. These help the team anchor their time, stay focused on deliverables, solve problems, assess progress, and allow opportunities for connection and recognition.
- Get used to asking powerful questions—simple, direct, open-ended questions—to draw out quieter team members and make sure everyone is on the same page.
- Are you in a “meeting after the meeting” culture? Asking powerful questions in the moment will help you avoid this common corporate trap, which can undermine efficiency, collaboration, and trust.
- Create a project tracker on your company’s preferred collaboration platform to drive structure and accountability, and review it in the daily huddles. Make sure it also reflects long-term projects to maintain progress against important, but less urgent, goals. Consider delegating ownership to a team member who would benefit from increased team connections and a broad, strategic view of the work.
- Keep weekly/bi-weekly statuses with your direct reports to discuss their projects, development, and wellbeing.
- Check-in with your team members each day, preferably at a scheduled time. These check-ins don’t need to be long or formal, but they’re imperative to keep the lines of communication open. If it feels odd to schedule a daily meeting, think of how many times each day you would talk with someone in the office!
- Be clear about preferred communication methods, availability, and expectations for replies. Let people know when you expect them to be on video vs. call in. Seeing each other in person regularly is important, but it doesn’t need to be every meeting.
- Consider scheduling office hours or virtual “hallway” time so people can pop in and out as they wish. This may be especially beneficial for maintaining community within mid-sized teams. The goal should be connection and conversation, not hard project updates.
- Don’t forget the most important question: “How are you?” There is unprecedented stress on your employees and their families. Be sensitive to their needs and concerns and refer them to the company’s EAP if they need additional support.
- Look for opportunities for fun, meaning, and celebration! Tap the creative people on your team to come up with recognition and team-building ideas (beyond Zoom happy hours). Send hand-written notes of appreciation or small gifts to your team. Take on a (safe) team service project. If it’s not a hit, try something else. The constraints of our current environment are all the more reason to try new things.
ENGAGING YOUR WORKFORCE
Your leaders have upped their team communications, but has your company cadence kept pace? Look at your communication mix: Is it working for you in today’s environment? Are the channels, content, frequency, length, and interaction delivering what your workforce and business need? COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of change, driving years’ worth of change in a few months. So, you need a 2025 communications strategy… today.
As workers have gone remote, here are some channels that have experienced the biggest impacts. Overall, communications that are shorter, less formal, and more frequent, real-time, interactive, and authentic will win the day.
- All-Employee Events with a Remote Workforce:
- Going virtual is a start, but what works in an auditorium won’t have the same effect online. If you’re still doing an hour-long meeting each quarter, consider switching that to 30 minutes monthly.
- Connect remote and on-site employees. Share achievements, recognition, short videos, photos, highlights from social, or guest speakers from the field. Celebrate frontline workers and consider a remote/on-site buddy program, pairing up employees for connection and learning. These efforts can create an integrated culture instead of an “us vs. them” sentiment.
- Orchestrate discussion after the event: Provide leader guides for team conversations or post thought-provoking questions on (internal) social channels. The information shared in events should be a catalyst for conversation and action.
- Find opportunities to reinforce material externally (where appropriate). Sharing recognition, highlights, or other key moments on social media gives your employees something they can be proud to share, building your brand in the process.
- Consider short surveys post-event to see where you can improve.
- If your events or communication channels typically have the CEO and 1-2 other leaders, expand your pool to feature other executives and senior leaders.
- Content from different parts of the business helps employees understand how you’re addressing challenges and instills confidence in the company’s strategy.
- Consistent messages from across the leadership team will demonstrate alignment and cohesion at the executive level, further increasing confidence.
- Expanding participation in company events or channels often showcases greater leadership diversity, reinforcing a company’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Leverage your executives’ communication strengths when possible. Some may be great on video, while others prefer social. Make sure they get excellent training for the channels where they’re less comfortable.
- How are leaders sharing engagement and communication ideas with other leaders? Consider your own engagement program for executives, officers, or directors, such as a regular meeting or drop-in time with a collaboration site for information sharing. They’ll appreciate the support.
- Unsure what your employees want? Ask. Start or move up your annual engagement survey and supplement with brief pulse surveys throughout the year. (Note: If you survey employees, be sure to report back and take action on key items, or you’ll create distrust instead of engagement.)
- Expect to over-index on channels already well-suited to remote work, such as collaboration tools, intranet, and social.
Leading your teams and workforce requires a relevant communication program that meets employees where they are now and leads them into the future. With the right communications approach, you can engage them in ways both effective and meaningful to deliver powerful results through 2021 and beyond.
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About the Author: Lena Michaud
Lena is a communications executive with 25 years of experience in the areas of public relations, crisis communications, media training, internal communications, change management, and speech writing and coaching.
She previously held leadership roles at Target Corporation, Optum (UnitedHealth Group), Cargill, and JCPenney, and has nearly 15 years of experience in the retail industry. Lena has served as a media spokesperson on critical issues in the areas of public affairs, social issues and activism, safety and security, corporate governance, human resources, and litigation, and most recently led communications related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She holds a B.A. in political science from Northwestern University and an advanced marketing certification from Southern Methodist University.
Learn more about Lena on her LinkedIn Profile