WHAT IT MEANS TO SUPPORT a remote workforce has been forever altered by the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of remote workers at different branch locations, businesses that sent employees home to work as a result of COVID-19 now find themselves managing “the branch of one,” says Ben Niernberg, senior vice president of sales and services at MNJ Technologies, a managed service provider in Chicago.
Handling any number of “branches of one” comes with some unique challenges that may continue long after it’s safe to return to offices. According to a June 2020 PwC survey, 83% of office workers want to work from home at least one day a week, and 55% of employers expect to allow that post-COVID, up from 39% before the pandemic.
As we approach nearly a year of navigating this new normal, some best practices have emerged, along with lessons learned, for keeping remote staff motivated, connected, and productive.
If a company had issues with trust, transparency, or communication prior to sending employees home, those problems have been exposed and exacerbated, according to Amiel Harper, founder and principal of The Morpheus Consultancy, which focuses on helping businesses scale. For those organizations that have good systems and good people in place, “navigation becomes a lot easier.”
Even so, Niernberg acknowledges that “everybody is getting ‘virtualed’ out,” so spinning up one more virtual staff get-together may not be the best way to sustain engagement. “[Enabling] climate and culture has become more of a question and more omnipresent than it ever has,” he says.
Another issue is the range of personal situations employees are facing, from having children at home doing remote learning to caring for an elderly family member to being single or an empty nester. “Each scenario brings a different level of stress and challenges to the person,” Harper says.
Niernberg cites the increased difficulty of onboarding staff remotely as another hurdle, one that surprised him. “Those first two weeks are the most important two weeks of the first year of an employee. Trying to create that amazing onboarding process in two weeks virtually is a lot tougher than I think we even imagined.”
The ebb and flow of the pandemic, with restrictions implemented, lifted, and reimplemented in parts of the country, were factors no one anticipated either, Niernberg says. “We just shut down the office again [in November], so I think that we weren't expecting to have to go backwards again, unfortunately.”
Keeping Employees Effective and Engaged
Businesses that have done well with this new normal have transparent leadership that is not afraid to show vulnerability, Harper says. “[Employees] don't expect their CEOs to know how this is going to end,” but keeping them informed about how and why decisions are being made helps to maintain trust, he notes.
Conveying empathy and compassion is key as well. “Everyone's struggling in some way,” Niernberg says, so MNJ encourages managers to check in weekly with staff. “Not about work,” he notes, “about anything else. Just talk.”
The company has also held virtual fun events for staff, and in the summer rented a drive-in movie theater and invited staff, customers, and their families to enjoy a night out in the safety of their cars.