August 27, 2020 | Q&A Spotlight

Make time to connect: How to keep remote employees engaged

While some employers have started testing the waters of returning employees to work in the office environment, others are taking a more cautious approach, waiting until 2021 or relaxing their work-from-home policies.

While employers have, for the most part, found that employees can be just as productive working from home, there are other issues at play that, if left unaddressed, could impact productivity down the road. These include burnout caused by the blurring of work/life balance, lack of employee engagement, insufficient development and growth opportunities for employees, just to name a few.

Recently, Susan Stelter, chief people officer at business and technology consulting firm West Monroe, shared with BenefitsPRO some of the tangible ways employees have come together to stay engaged.

Many organizations had office-centric cultures before the pandemic, but that’s all changed. What is your advice to companies looking to keep their now remote employees engaged?

Although they are not the only way, offices are a key part of creating community and culture. And if you are a culture-focused organization as we are, it was a key way to deliver the experience. The challenge for us, and all organizations, is how to create that in a digital or hybrid way. I think it is going to require us to be much more intentional and planning-oriented.

For many of us, that will mean taking a step back and rethinking how we do things and how we might have been relying on being in the office to get things done. Just doing everything the same way but online will not be effective.Some of the things we have done thus far include:

  • Rethinking how we deliver training. Instead of in-person, day-long training, we now offer half-day sessions online over multiple days. We have found that our people cannot take in information online in the same way they might in-person.
  • Rethinking what needs to be a meeting and how we conduct them. We have been a very meeting-oriented culture. We found that being on video calls all day was draining, so we have tried to create online meetings that allow for discussion and use breakout sessions to facilitate small groups. We try to use email or a phone call for quick decision-making between one or two people.
  • Creating social events online. We are trying to continue to bring people together for social purposes and our people have gotten creative. Some teams have a weekly lunch online, others have been listening to concerts online together, some have shipped wine to each other’s houses to have an online wine tasting, and we have even had teams conduct online 5Ks.
  • Making time to connect. Now more than ever, it is so important to keep the lines of communication open—and even expand them, if you can. Make sure people can reach each other (and are responsive) via multiple communications methods like instant message, email, phone, etc. Also, conversations that happen naturally in person—whether in-office during the workday or after-hours socially—don’t happen naturally when everyone is at home, so they need to be scheduled. To keep employees engaged, we schedule 1:1 time to just check in on folks, not conduct business.

How has West Monroe achieved this? What are some of the tangible ways employees have come together to stay engaged?

When we went all-remote in March, we decided to be an on-camera culture. That doesn’t mean every person has to be on camera for every meeting they attend. But we want to connect with them because we believe that “seeing” each other is a key part of engagement and understanding how they are feeling. Engagement is about connection, and that does happen best in-person, but it is more likely to happen when seeing someone face-to-face, even if on a screen.

Aside from this, we are holding company-wide town halls more often where we are transparent about decisions and projections. Now more than ever, people are anxious and providing transparency is critical. We also hold frequent office-level meetings and practice-level meetings more often than we did in-person—to boost transparency but again, to increase that face time and togetherness that would have naturally occurred in the office.

We’re also continuing mainstays of culture. For instance, every Friday an employee would walk around with a “bucket,” collecting for a non-profit. In place of walking around, an email is sent in the morning and then there is another email sent in the afternoon called “virtual walkaround” to remind people to donate, if they are passionate about that charity and are able.

Remote work doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere anytime soon, making this an ongoing, ever-changing goal. What are your company’s long-term plans for a remote workforce and digital workplace?

The world is changing rapidly so I am not sure anyone can say with certainty what the future looks like. What we can say, definitively, is that life will not be the same or go back to the way it was in 2019, and that includes our work life at West Monroe. We do believe in the power of community and collaboration, so we are planning to have a return to the office when it is safe to do so.

Exactly what that will look like will evolve over time. We’ve seen the tremendous level of interaction and productivity that can happen being all remote, and we have also experienced the challenges. Regardless of a return to in-person work, we are making investments in more digital employee enablement tools.

Can you tell us more about taking West Monroe’s National Day of Service virtual? How did employees participate?

Our National Day of Service is an annual event where all of our employees volunteer together around the country at different sites and for different organizations. Typically this is in the field. When we realized this year that we couldn’t be “onsite” together for this event, instead of canceling it we decided to take the volunteer day virtual. Employees were given several different options on how they could do this.

Are you experiencing any remote work and engagement challenges still? What’s the plan to overcome these challenges?

Of course, I don’t think anyone has “figured out” how to deliver their employee experience online with the same level of quality and connection online… although we hope to soon. Some of the challenges include coaching/development discussions, relationship building–especially for new employees, which can be much more difficult to do online. These are activities that are much more effective in-person–and ideally, we would conduct live when it is safe to do so.

We are looking at creative ways to deliver EX in a digital or hybrid way. As an example, we have created online orientation and have a schedule of ongoing onboarding where people can “e-meet” some people we think are critical to their onboarding. Some folks have even agreed to meet, when safe, at a location to have an outdoor lunch.

Ready to get started? Explore opportunities at West Monroe.