Remote work presents new challenges for employee engagement

Will managers or AI have the extra bandwidth it takes to keep home office workers on board? Considering the consistently negative findings of employee engagement surveys, it’s not an exaggeration to say that we have been facing a long-term crisis in this area. Most recently, for example, Gallup reported that 83 per cent of the UK workforce is either disengaged or ambivalent about their jobs or company.

Although the current state of affairs sounds bad enough, the potentially increasing appetite for remote working among employers in the wake of the pandemic is expected to further aggravate the problem.

There are some obvious benefits to remote working. It saves overhead costs for the company, makes employees more productive and allows them to have a better work-life balance. However, all these upsides are contingent on whether management style, company culture, technological tools, or a combination of these, can mitigate or cancel out potential negative effects: isolation, cumbersome internal communication and a sense of not being valued, as a result.

Digital approaches support remote working

Thankfully, remote managers are not left to their own devices: the concepts and frameworks they can leverage have already been around for years. The idea, for example, that appraisals – the annual harvest times of employee feedback – are no longer fit for purpose is not new. Their usefulness has been debated ever since Adobe adopted the method of constant assessment and feedback in 2011.

The kind of regular and informal check-ins that Adobe embraced – and which are now widely popular – seem to much better support the kind of conversational relationship that today’s employees, especially millennials, are looking for. What’s more, in a remote working environment, these check-ins can become an essential tool for managers to avoid getting out of touch with their employees and establish the kind of coaching-centred relationship that is highly valued by the latter.

To gain actionable insights from these short, regular exchanges between bosses and employees, there is a wide range of feedback management apps enabling their collection and processing to make sure concerns and suggestions brought up during these conversations are dealt with in a meaningful manner. And the concept of digital emotional intelligence (DEQ) isn’t new either.

Building on the original EQ framework, the DQ Institute, an international think-thank, has defined the approaches, skills and abilities it entails in a digital context. Empathy lying at the heart of DEQ means that participants in online communication are fully aware – or at least strive to be – of how their utterances and tone of voice may impact the feelings of others and how to adjust them to various online platforms.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Although emoticons can add another dimension to the flatness of hastily written communications by supplying some interpersonal visual clues that face-to-face interactions rely on, they are still very limited and tend to get overused. Smileys tagged to critical comments to take some of the sting out of them are often read as snarling rather than smiling faces. Research also shows that colleagues working remotely show less willingness to give co-workers the benefit of the doubt in problematic situations than those who share a physical office, which is another aspect that managers need to address in remote working situations.

But there is much more to DEQ than empathy. It’s also about self-awareness and self-control. Admitting to your weaknesses and trying to make up for them, controlling your impulses and exercising self-discipline, as well as the willingness to listen to others’ opinions before making decisions are as – if not more – essential in remote working relationships as in office environments.

Automation and AI humanise employee engagement

Although scrapping annual appraisals have freed managers, the time spent doing regular check-ins, and keeping both your physical and virtual office door open also add up. One of the time-efficient ways of tracking employee engagement that lends itself readily to remote work too is a pulse survey – a short automated assessment consisting of one or a couple of questions sent to a group of employees on a weekly or monthly basis. They are done anonymously and often invite suggestions and ideas for improvement too, so colleagues can feel their voice is heard.

Another more advanced and furtive method, that brings arguably more authentic results, relies on natural language and sentiment analysis. Algorithms sift through emails and messages on collaboration apps analysing the kind of language and emojis used, and flag exchanges suggestive of dissatisfaction, ebbing emotional commitment to the company or an intention to quit. They can even leverage biometrical data to assess engagement.

If the counterintuitive success of virtual assistants in customer service is anything to go by, conversational engagement surveys carried out by AI may soon gain ground too. It’s better to be asked customised questions by a robot about how you like working with your colleagues, being managed by your boss or whether you are unhappy with the work processes than not being asked at all. Especially if your feedback is acted upon. However, many of us would still agree that a corporate culture of continuous, high-quality feedback and a boss with an advanced analogue and digital EQ will remain hard to beat for quite some time.

© Business Reporter 2020