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The Real Engagement Challenge Is Just Beginning

March 25, 2021 Employee Experience
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

Online-only meetings. Virtual happy hours. Zoom entertainment. Informal meetings and open office hours online. Care packages sent to employees' homes.

The rhythms of the past year of remote work have become a normal part of life. When a friend tells me they had a trivia happy hour with their team, I ask them what they played rather than question why they would choose to spend more time in front of a computer and camera. 

Just as we are getting used to these new routines, they are bound to change again. For all the talk of work changing forever, there are many things that are bound to reset to something closer to what work looked like in 2019. 

One Less Thing to Worry About

The pandemic made working life different, and helping employees adapt was job No. 1 for HR and organizational leaders. Once it became clear that the duration would be longer than a few weeks, the impact on people’s personal lives became abundantly clear, though. 

We sent people to work remotely who had never done so before, in an environment where the normal ways of dealing with feelings of confusion, stress and joy were gone. People are still much more lonely than they were pre-pandemic. They are taking fewer vacation days away from work. They rate their overall well-being as being poorer

With lockdown restrictions loosening and vaccines rapidly rolling out, people will likely be able to resume some semblance of normal activity in the summer or fall. That means being able to socialize with friends and family, getting out of their houses and maybe even taking vacation. A return to a more normal personal life, where social activities are available for those who wish, is a good thing for employers. Trying to help your employees navigate this weird time is coming to an end. 

While a few may keep some of the virtual traditions that came with the pandemic, here’s guessing that most people are going to prefer to see people in person. Do I really need a Zoom happy hour with coworkers when I can go to an actual happy hour at a bar with them? Or with my other friends? Or when I have other commitments that seemed so normal a year ago?

Related Article: Is Your Voice of Employee Program Fit for the Remote Workforce?

The Real Challenge in Remote Engagement Is Coming

Keeping folks engaged wasn’t easy during the pandemic but the real challenge is coming. 

Very soon, if not already, you’re likely going to have a very different office culture. For organizations that put a premium on attractive real estate and top-end amenities, what happens when that’s less appealing than a corner of a bedroom or a decked-out home office?

Here’s a hint: That reality is already here.

There will be a number of people who will want to come into an office, but maybe not full time. There will be people who will want to be in the office full time but will find that many of the coworkers they want to be around won’t be there. 

Then, there’s a whole contingent of workers who used the challenges of the last year to move away from big city hubs. These employees will be experiencing real remote work for the first time. It’s going to get a lot more complicated. 

Related Article: Digital Transformation Leaders: It's Time to Advocate for Nationwide High-Speed Internet

Work on Real-Time Listening 

Pre-pandemic, most companies and workers gathered in the same physical spaces and worked together. Some may have worked from home on occasion. Some may have worked remotely. For the most part, though, companies worked in some sort of physical proximity. 

While there were obviously exceptions, they were just that. 

That’s why the temptation to go back to having everyone come back to the office is so appealing. It’s a known method, though not necessarily the right one. Organizations know how to prepare managers to work in this environment. 

But many organizations aren’t going back to that reality. Some are going fully remote and closing their physical office spaces. Some are taking the hybrid route and reducing office sizes to accommodate it. Some are doing a sort of shifted schedule. Others are encouraging employees to pick their own adventure, whether it’s work from an office full-time, part-time or none at all. 

With so many different permutations, it’s hard to give a blanket recommendation to guide organizations. How do you gather employees together? How do you minimize the loss of a strong office culture? How do you help teams connect when they don’t know exactly where each other will be on any given day? There are few best practices that cover how to handle a working environment this complex. 

One blanket recommendation is to work on real-time listening. You hopefully developed tools to listen to employees, both in and out of the office. Continue to use and hone those tools, especially as you make changes. Ask them what they need and, if things change, to let you know. When you listen, you get the information you need to act on your unique situation. 

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