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Employee engagement in a WFH world: what to know

Hi from home. Are you at home too? The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has given companies with the ability to shift all or parts of their workforce to a work-from-home setup little choice in doing so (however remote-friendly or not they were before). If you’re a leader in a newly remote environment, you may be hungry for insights into what might make employees feel secure, supported, and motivated in this extraordinary time.

Working from home is appealing; working remotely may not be

My colleague Julie Yue, Data Insights Manager, recently published an enlightening analysis of how language about remote work in job descriptions impacts hiring. How candidates react to phrases like distributed teams and work from home in job posts can signal how employees may feel about various aspects of working remotely—and as is so often the case, language subtleties here have a surprising and significant impact.

Quick summary of a few of the findings:

  • The phrase work from home in a job description speeds time to fill by 6 days, specifically for non-remote jobs. (Mentioning work from home in a post for a remote job actually slightly delays hiring. Perhaps this is coming from those world-traveling nomadic workers we hear so much about?)
  • On the other hand, mentioning distributed teams—whether the job is remote or not—slows time to fill down. It seems the prospect of lots of video calls across timezones, and perhaps a lack of synchronicity and togetherness, is a widely shared turn-off.

Bar graph labeled "Effect of distributed teams on non-remote and remote jobs" demonstrating increased time to fill for the phrase "distributed teams" in job posts for both kinds of jobs

Taken together, these results seem to indicate that while being away from colleagues and potentially out of step with them is undesirable, being close to things that matter to you personally—and having the choice to be close to them—is a big benefit to many. And wow does that resonate in the current climate.

Inspired by these findings, here are a few areas to focus on (and things to experiment with) to bolster engagement in your remote-for-now workforce.

Combat isolation

First recognize that isolation and loneliness are not one and the same: loneliness is emotional; isolation is structural. There’s a lot of overlap in how you address them, though. We’ll touch on loneliness in the next section, but for countering isolation, take a minute to revisit how (or if) you’re connecting employees to the all the tools, teams, and information they need. When a person feels literally disconnected from the office and their coworkers, it’s difficult for them to stay engaged. What might you be able to improve?

Also consider how you’re talking about your distributed setup when you’re rolling out new guidelines, explaining new processes, etc. For starters, maybe don’t call it “distributed”! Choose language that highlights the ways in which you’re still connected as an organization.

Build belonging

A person can feel technically included and still culturally excluded. You have probably worked hard to build a sense of belonging in your usual work environment, but the new physical distance can shake up your company culture, and new norms and practices may emerge. Without intentional measures, some folks—especially those who already felt like they were at the margins of the “in” group—could start to feel left out.

As your company is likely relying on written communication—Slack messages, internal memos, etc.—more than ever before, you can do a lot to ensure people are still feeling part of the team by using inclusive language in all your writing. Eliminate bias, yes, always, but also consider the various emotional states employees might be in at the moment. Try to choose language that holds space for all experiences. (There's no universal, unchanging checklist of things you should or shouldn’t say here; it’s about bringing awareness to your words and how they may be received.)

Other ideas for creating a sense of belonging (that we’re trying at Textio!):

  • Virtual water cooler: We’ve got a #we-vanquish-loneliness Slack channel and “drop in anytime” Zoom room available to all, since many of us miss the serendipitous conversations we’d normally have in our hallways and beloved cafe.
  • Question of the day: We’re greeted each morning with a fun or thought-provoking (and typically not work-related) question from our CEO Kieran, which always ignites a meaningful discussion and is a way for us all to feel a bit more together. We create a specific Slack channel for it, and people can pop in and out as they please, and share as much or as little as they want, in whatever format they want.
    Screenshot of Slack message featuring Textio WFH Question of the Day example
  • Remote events: Our amazing People team creates a weekly calendar of virtual activities—yoga classes, happy hours, shared lunches and coffees—as a way of bringing folks together through multiple modes of access, so everyone feels invited to connect.

Emphasize choice

Life feels (necessarily) limited right now, and as we see in the language data, the feeling of choice associated with working from home is something you could (tactfully) celebrate. Invite employees to show off how they’ve chosen to set up their new workspaces. Ask about what fun, interesting, or calming ways people are using what would have been their commute time. Vocally support flexible schedules to accommodate new childcare or homeschooling responsibilities (and just the general weirdness of life at the moment).

Certainly, no one would choose our current reality, and most people now working from home didn’t choose that arrangement either. But there is a bit of additional autonomy that can come with working from home, and with so many other factors that may be weighing people down, highlighting the element of choice could provide a little boost.

It’s a weird new work world, and we’re all just doing our best. These insights should help you, help your team—and we’ll keep digging over here.

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