Is remote work good or bad for employee engagement?

Barnali Nandi Mazumder
6 min read
Remote working and employee engagement - working or not working?

Remote work is not a new or fancy term like many claim it to be. It has always been around, even before the advent of the internet.

Although remote work is not a new phenomenon, the pandemic has definitely pushed it to the forefront. There are different schools of thought around remote working. Some believe it works while others don’t.

And one of the biggest challenges that people bring up is that of employee engagement. The million-dollar question is whether remote working improves or worsens employee engagement.

Let’s delve a little deeper into this before we come to any conclusion.

To remote or not?

If we place remote working against in-office working then we will find that there has been a steady rise in the popularity of remote culture. Data suggests that remote work comes with a basket full of merits which definitely lead to higher employee morale and thus, higher employee engagement.

A report by Gallup’s State of the American Workplace says that technology has supported this shift in the workplace setting. The report points out that there has been a rise in remote workers; it has grown from 39% in 2012 to around 43% in 2016. And now with the pandemic, a large number of the global workforce has been forced to adopt remote work.

If you look back, you’ll see that remote work gained popularity because of the millennial workforce that has penetrated the job market in recent decades. Millennials tend to favor flexibility rather than money. And this has been proved again and again.

A recent report by Gallup, State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report, shows that the global employee engagement rate has dipped from 2019 to 2020. But this dip cannot be directly correlated to working remotely alone. In fact, this dip isn’t shocking given the negatives that the pandemic brought with it—stress, job loss, health scares, etc.

Employee engagement is tricky in itself, but more so when it comes to remote working.

However, there’s good news when it comes to remote worker engagement because another report by Gallup, State of the American Workplace, noted that remote workers are more engaged than their work-from-office counterparts, at least to a point.

The report goes on to say that, “The optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time—or three to four days in a five-day workweek—working off-site.”

This is the sweet spot that organizations and leaders must take advantage of. Of course, there will be pros and cons to both remote working as well as an in-office setup but leaders at every level must understand the psyche of their employees and support them towards the best roadways.

The idea of remote work and employee engagement has been explored in great detail by Amanda Baez in her paper Remote Workers and Employee Engagement. She weighs the pros and cons of both, remote working and in-office working, and explains that remote working is a necessity in today’s corporate and startup world so we must not hide from it but empower ourselves to know more and amplify it better.

Amanda recognizes the benefits of remote working saying companies save on resources, money, and office space if they choose to employ a remote workforce. At the same time, she addresses the challenges associated with a remote workforce while pointing out the importance of intentional communication and the need to identify the right channels of communication.

She also emphasizes that remote working, if not consciously practiced, may miss the spontaneity and deep bonds between colleagues that often organically develop in an in-office setup and boost employee engagement.

As a solution to ensuring work-from-home isn’t an isolating or difficult one for employees, managers and leaders can improve employee engagement and collaboration through:

  • Occasional face-to-face communication with the team
Hybrid work: A mix of remote and in-person working

The positive impact of an in-person rendezvous with teammates is an irrefutable fact. This helps combat the loneliness strain in remote workers and also aids in building a company culture of trust and support.

If you are fully remote as an organization and meeting in small gatherings is not a challenge where you are located, then organize small get-togethers once in a few days - for work or for a casual catch-up - at least for those who can join in.

  • Virtual employee engagement platforms or VEEPs

The necessity of a virtual ecosystem with the right resources is extremely important for any remote workforce to succeed. Working in silos isn't a great     idea so such virtual platforms are critical to collaborative projects. This   simplifies workload and motivates even the most aloof remote worker to reach out and communicate.

  • Gamification using technology  

Gamification here isn't limited to office games that the human resource department organizes but extends to the performance and reward philosophy. It's a subtle culture-building tool that forces employees to work together as teams and achieve goals.  

So, we can conclude here that although remote culture has grown a lot, thanks to the pandemic, the best course of action may not be a pure remote culture but a hybrid one. In order to truly keep employees engaged throughout their tenure in the company, it would require a blend of both.

Choose what's best for your employees

Now, the thing is that multiple hybrid models are in vogue right now. An organization must go wild and creative while choosing the right hybrid model that complements their company culture, values, ease of employees, industry, etc. Companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Citigroup, Infosys, Ford are all going hybrid but their structures and models vary from each other. Laura Briggs explains the different hybrid models in one of her articles, namely:

  • The Citigroup model
    As mentioned above, the hybrid model an organization chooses depends on their industry mainly. For example, the banking sector cannot really work from home except for a few selective roles. Client-facing personnel have to go down to the bank every day of the week for the bank to function whereas certain teams which don’t need to face clients can work from any or multiple locations. So, the upper management gets to decide which teams will work from their physical location every day of the week and which teams can work from home permanently or come down to the office on certain days of the week alone. Citigroup has been following this strategy strictly. They have dedicated resident teams as well as remote/hybrid teams.

  • The Amazon model
    Although Amazon has always rooted for an office-centric model throughout the years, the pandemic has changed that. Their new model is a mixed one where employees have to work from their physical offices at least three days a week. But then again, the ultimate decision lies with the team managers who can customize that as per their projects and requirements.

  • The Microsoft model
    Some companies like Microsoft allow employees of all teams to work from their homes fifty percent of the time and more based on their manager’s approval. This model is flexible enough as it helps managers make decisions based on their projects and team load. In fact, Microsoft was one of the first major companies to announce their hybrid model which in turn inspired many other corporations and even startups.

  • The Lockheed model
    Being a fully office-centric organization, Lockheed had to undergo a tremendous change. The abrupt shift to a work-from-home routine taught them the importance of being prepared. So, the leaders decided to establish a forty-five percent hybrid workforce after proper training sessions and workshops for leaders and managers.

  • The Target model
    Downsizing has been a critical part since the pandemic struck and not just forced downsizing but voluntary downsizing turned out beneficial too. Big companies like Target let go of their large corporate centers in metropolitan areas and distributed their employees throughout multiple regional offices.

In conclusion…

A hybrid model is a good way forward certainly but leaders need to equip themselves before declaring the best course of action. Employee engagement can only be achieved when leaders listen to their employees and customize solutions for them.

Learn more about listening to remote employees through anonymous employee pulse surveys here.

Barnali Nandi Mazumder

Barnali Nandi Mazumder