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I’m coworking with the dog. How to keep your employees engaged when working from home

Your company has achieved the impossible – moving teams out of offices and into their dining rooms to work from home. Setting up the tech tools, defining new work processes, encrypting software and getting every staff member to permanently log into their video conference accounts were awesome.

Now comes the difficult part. You have staff scattered all over the city. How do you motivate people remotely? It is a question many employers are asking today. The coronavirus threat is not over. Experts are already discussing the possibility of a second wave. If that occurs, the government will not hesitate to shut the economy down again. You were caught by surprise the first time. Don’t get caught out again a second time.

A study by Harvard Business Review showed that working from home is less inspiring if you were forced into it. Employees are worried about potential job losses, mortgages and kids back at school. The barrage of news about unexplained COVID-related childhood illnesses, economic recession and rising death numbers are deeply distressing to everyone. Emotional and economic pressure during coronavirus work from home can result in inertia for work. These negative factors contribute to lack of interest, purpose and potential for growth.

Keeping staff motivated while they work from home has become one of the biggest challenges facing HR managers today.

How to keep your staff motivated as they work from home

We caught up with Iris Du, Co-Founder of Talentank, for some expert advice. A Self-discovery and Leadership Coach, Iris is a trailblazer with a passion for excellence. But nothing in her illustrious career has prepared her for the sudden transition from a traditional office environment to remote working from home. ‘Like many businesses, we struggled with productivity when we were forced into lockdown’, Iris said. ‘It happened so quickly, we barely had time to react. We had no strategy in place. We couldn’t find any solid advice externally that could help our business. We were spiralling out of control at an alarming rate,’ she explained.

But Iris and her managers found a way to help staff navigate the muddied waters of home and work. Her team not only increased their engagement during isolation, but they were also happier working from home. Productivity went through the roof and staff were completing projects ahead of deadlines.

It took Iris and her managers four weeks to change the work culture. Read what Iris has to say:

1. Be open and supportive

In an uncertain economy, it’s not surprising that staff are worried about their job security. The best way to assure your employees is, to be frank, and supportive.

In the early days of lockdown, my staff had many questions about the company’s financial stability and job security. Some of them were worried that they could be made redundant because they were not at work physically. I tried to answer all their questions truthfully. If I did not know the answer, I told them I would get back to them as soon as I could. The team still has questions although fewer than the early days, so I’ve continued to keep the communication channel fluid.

2. Be responsive

When the lockdown started, we immediately got the team together to explain why we had to close the office. At the time, we did not have an appropriate ‘working-from-home’ SOP so we formulated one quickly. An SOP (or Standard Operating Procedure) is a ‘How To’ document that describes all the activities of your business. It is used to minimise errors, promote consistency and deliver quality output.

The coronavirus crisis occurred suddenly. In the beginning we were spending a lot of time clarifying processes to our team. We realised very quickly that this method of operation was unsustainable given the unique environment we found ourselves in. So, we arranged an emergency Zoom meeting and sat down to identify all our key processes and tasks. We then develop policies and procedures for each. The idea was to ensure every staff member was on the same page when it came to delivering business outcomes. It also meant that should a staff member became sick another member could step in immediately.

One of the biggest issues we faced was we did not know how prepared our staff were to work efficiently from home. When you are in an office environment you don’t think about internet connectivity and work safe spaces. We had no idea whether our staff had the capabilities to continue working from their homes. Fortunately, we had a great IT guy on our team, and he was able to work with the team to identify the technical requirements they needed. We also set up a management response team to investigate work safe spaces in the home, cybersecurity, customer engagement, supply chain stabilisation and financial stress-testing.

3. Communicate effectively

Consistent transparent communication is the key to successfully managing teams who work from home. Physical distance should not be a barrier for you to engage with your staff.

My advice to managers is to consider using multiple channels of communication with your staff from video conferences to emails to chat software. If your team is young, you may want to move out of your comfort zone and explore modern platforms that can reach a younger demographic group.

When sending instructions via email, it is a good idea to create a draft and read it before you send. Write to the point and stay focused on what you want the staff to do.

4. Be flexible

These are unusual times. All the plans we formulated to run our business were done before the virus became a global threat. The reality was we did not have contingencies to address work from home issues. We were making it up as we go.

We realised very quickly that working from home during coronavirus should not be dictated by strict processes, rules and procedures. While it is important to maintain structure and control, too many rigid rules can be demotivating for staff especially if you do not fully understand their home situation. The SOP is a guide to help staff organise their tasks. Managers can exercise some discretion when it comes to issues like hours worked and the actual time spent on work emails.

One of the most powerful ways to motivate your staff is to allow them to experiment and solve problems. These problems are not the same for every team or organisation. I asked the team questions like: ‘How can we fix what’s broken?’ ‘How do we assure our customers?’ ‘Can we find a way to drive growth even in time of fear?’

5. Be visible

Whether it’s Zoom, Google Hangouts, Team or Skype, working from home does not have to mean working out-of-sight. Get your team on video. The challenge is getting everyone to turn on their cameras so you can have a face-to-face meeting.

To avoid embarrassing pyjama moments, try scheduling your meetings ahead of time. That way everyone in the team can prepare. Keeping it professional is essential. Send out an agenda for the meeting. Keep it short and sweet and resist the temptation to digress into unimportant matters.

On the topic of video conferencing, I am a firm believer in multi-channel communication. We used video conferencing to connect with our staff during the lockdown, but I also transcribed many of the work into electronic formats that could be streamed live via tracking tools like Slack and Google Sheets.

6. Minimise distraction

Background noise is acceptable. It makes the situation real. Everyone is working from home so expect the unexpected. To avoid embarrassing situations, try informing the family ahead of time about your video conference. Get the kids to take the dog for a walk. And bring dad with them.

Remove any clutter that can distract others before you start your Zoom meeting. Try sitting behind an open window for natural light. If that is not possible, then consider placing a light next to your desk so staff can see you properly. One of the first things I bought when we started working from home was a pair of sophisticated noise-cancelling headphones. It helped me stay focused during meetings.

7. Lead by example

Model the behaviours you would like your staff to have. Be early for your Zoom meetings. Don’t show up with messy hair and no make-up. Forget about having the empty cereal bowl as a prop. Or the dog on your lap. The more professionalism you channel, the more your staff will start to imitate these healthy behaviours.

Coronavirus work from home is the best time to show leadership. Staff are depending on you to keep them motivated so don’t let them down with sloppy behaviour.

8. Create an immersive experience

Who says you can’t build teamwork from a distance? In the old days, I used in-person social cues to tell me if my team is tired and needs a break. With this new ‘work from a home’ model, nonverbals are harder to read. So, I make it a point to include virtual coffee or lunch breaks into my team meetings. What everyone’s eating for lunch is now legendary in the office. It’s a great way to keep the staff relaxed and motivated in these strange times.

My advice to managers is to get creative with your interaction with the staff. One of the strategies we used in Talentank was gamification. Don’t get me wrong, I am not asking you to tell your staff to play computer games instead of working. Games theory is about meeting challenges and solving problems. It adds a ‘fun’ element into serious work. It’s great for keeping staff engaged and motivated.

9. Supervise not micromanage

Show leadership through effective supervision, not unwelcomed micromanagement. Asking your staff to log in at a certain time of the day is acceptable. Checking on them all the time – for no reason – is not. Try measuring their performance in outcomes rather than hours worked and trust them to do a good job.

10. Encourage employee feedback

Emotions are high right now and your team will need time to adjust to the new normal of working from home. To keep motivation levels high, create opportunities for your staff to express their feelings. Talking about a crisis makes it easier for people to cope so don’t discount this tactic from your communication strategy.

At Talentank, we have a ‘Staff Suggestion Box’ for staff to make suggestions about work-from-home improvements. Our staff loves this feedback loop. We’ve received some impressive suggestions on how we can improve online workflows.

11. Track employee activities online

There is software that you can use to monitor employees’ onscreen activities but if you zealously install tracking software you run the risk of making your staff feel suspicious and insecure. I am a strong proponent of transparency and employee buy-in. In a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, your organisation will get more productivity if you are prepared to temporarily shift some responsibilities to your teams. Empowering them with the authority to make or implement some decisions without having to gain approval goes a long way in gaining their trust and respect.

If you want your team to be engaged while they work from home, you must make their work engaging. We know this approach works because we’ve used it. We’ve seen how our team froze under pressure and receded. But we’ve found a way to help them identify their problems, understand the circumstances and adapt to change. As a result, their motivation skyrocketed, and they outperformed beyond expectations.

To learn more about achieving greater levels of growth and productivity from your remote team book in a consultation with us now.