Remember the days when you had the flexibilities to either work from home or in the office? Now, with the new-norm, many of us are in situations where working remotely is our only option. With the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, unless a vaccine or cure is found, for many of us, the likelihood of working from home is the foreseeable future. If you are a people manager or a leader in an organization, there is the additional challenge of managing your remote team so that they stay engaged, motivated and productive.
Sixteen Senior Executives in the High Technology and Professional Services industry, we polled and interviewed, discuss four innovative ways to help keep their employees engaged, motivated and productive for however long the lock down continues and even when returning to work.
We asked the Senior Executives to share the ways they combat the difficulties faced from having to manage staff remotely because of the COVID 19 situation and the lockdown. The months of having lived with managing remote teams working from home had led these leaders to discover innovative solutions to keep their staff engaged, motivated and productive.
At Beacon, our mission is to empower leaders to learn from their peers, level up and navigate through this challenging business environment and continue to be successful, regardless of the size and culture of the company.
Beacon surveyed sixteen Senior Executives from fifteen companies in the High Technology and Professional Services industry over the past 2 to 3 months (April to June 2020). All of them are based in Singapore except for one participant who is based in KL, Malaysia.
Figure 1 : Demographics of the participants interviewed
Figure 2 : Demographics of the participants interviewed
Figure 3 : Interview Questions
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only a handful of companies allowed their staff to have flexible working arrangements. Flexible working arrangements such as flexi-time and working from home have yet to gain acceptance in Singapore especially with the SME and local enterprise. Based on the 2018 survey in Ranstand WorkMonitor, 76% of Singaporeans agreed with the statement: “At my employer, we still work in a ‘traditional manner‘; everyone works at the office during opening hours.”
After lockdown, several MNCs and social media platforms like Twitter have urged their employees to work from home, as part of their efforts to limit the further spread of the coronavirus. Another social media MNC had even urged most of their staff in Singapore to work from home till the end of this year. However, for many businesses which had little to no work-from-home arrangements previously, it is a huge adjustment for them.
While talking to senior executives in the High Technology and Professional Services industries during these last few months, here are some key areas that senior executives find most challenging when work from home was reinforced by our government.
Productivity has dropped
Gabriel Tho, CEO, S.E. Asia of Crystal Link Technology (a Supply Chain Information Technology company) mentioned that productivity depends a lot on an individual’s personal motivation and discipline level: “Staff who are self-disciplined and self-motivated haven’t displayed a slow-down in productivity, in fact they are working longer hours – passed 5pm and working on weekends”. However, for most respondents in our interviews, they are observing that productivity among staff has somewhat been affected.
Productivity has dropped because of one or more of the following reasons:
In most companies, senior management and sales staff will already have their own laptops and they can work anywhere. But for some companies, it is the support, operations and administrative staff who don’t usually have access to these mobility solutions. The Head of Business Development from an ICT company said that when the lockdown happened, many companies struggled to find mobility and connectivity solutions for support, operations and administrative staffs.
The MD of a Professional Services company in the construction and infrastructure industry mentioned that some staff need access to computer simulation tools in the office to carry out their work. They can only come into the office to use this special software when the government’s regulation permits. The Head of Rewards, Performance Management & HRIS of a local ICT vendor said that the biggest challenge is mainly technology-related, such as connectivity solutions.
For many local SME and some MNC who did not have flexible work arrangements or a work from home policy before the COVID-19 lockdown, many are working on a temporary solution at home. The MD of a Professional Services company in construction and infrastructure mentioned that there is a big difference between having a choice and the flexibility to work from home or office, as compared to having no choice and its being compulsory to work from home 100% of the time, even for a while. Most of these employees’ home environments are not conducive to working from home. Most of them, especially the “heartlanders”, don’t have a dedicated space to work – they are often working in less than ideal areas like in their living room, dining area or bedroom.
There were also distractions for employees with young children, as they have to juggle and balance between the role of being a stay-home parent (home schooling, house work chores, etc.) and a worker. Although we have entered Phase 2 of Circuit Breaker, there is no telling when we need to tighten the social distancing further in the future.
Working from home and the restriction over freedom of movement have taken a toll on some staff’s well-being. This has resulted for some in not being able to focus on achieving work goals. The MD from a Professional Services firm in the construction industry said: “I can feel that the mood is generally solemn and staff are concerned whether the firm will maintain status quo in terms of manpower and salary or will there be retrenchments or salary adjustments?”
Another troubling scenario is when remote workers start to overcompensate for not being in the physical office by overworking, which can lead to burnout.
Figure 4 : Meeting Frequency after lockdown
As shown in Figure 4, 62% of the respondents of the participants whom we interviewed, found that the number of Zoom or online meetings had increased by quite a bit after they worked from home. Partners and Alliance Director of a US-based MNC ICT vendor commented: “Group meeting has increased tremendously, I am having back to back meetings every day and with only a half hour for lunch each day. There is a lot less down time or space in between meetings to think and prepare for the next one.”
To many of the staff, these added to the stress of having to juggle the change in environment, and playing different roles back at home.
Team collaboration and social bonding are different now
Remote workers have fewer opportunities to develop a sense of camaraderie, compared to those who work in the office, and they have less visibility into their company’s mission and values. As a result, some employees experience isolation, loneliness, and dissatisfaction with their roles.
Social isolation can be damaging to social capital and team bonding. For many people, social capital is critical to the performance of their job, for keeping up to date and getting important information, and for getting by in everyday life. It is vital for social support and has important implications for health and wellbeing. Most people, if not all, are social-beings. We want the ability to connect socially, even at work.
For 32% of those who participated in this research, it feels as if the number of meetings is the same after the lockdown. Nonetheless, while the number of formal meetings remains the same, informal, casual meetings with colleagues and teams over the pantry area, along the office corridors and in cubicles were significantly reduced.
The Head of Technology Strategy and Management of a foreign MNC in the insurance industry spoke of the difficulty of communicating without the benefit of body language, facial expression, and other communication gestures which are so crucial for understanding. Even if the staff turn on the video during online communication, you only see their shoulders and above, you are still unable to read some body language (like folding of arms or legs) compared to when you meet someone face to face. “Can you imagine having a difficult conversation and not being able to see the person’s reactions? It makes it harder to deliver not-so-positive information or give negative feedback on performance online,” he said.
Here are some other comments from the other respondents of the survey:
Tracking of employee performance is a challenge
It can be hard to monitor employee performance when your team is not physically in the office. On top of it, it is hard to find the right balance of checking in without becoming a resented micromanager.
Clearly, we won’t revert back to our old ways of living, working or doing business once the worst of the crisis has passed. As the future of work takes the form of remote working (partial workforce, certain functions work from home fully, group A/B arrangements, etc), companies need to start embracing technology to enable greater communication and collaboration.
Undoubtedly, having processes and systems in place will help employers manage employees more efficiently, but more importantly, it is important to take care of your people and build a culture of trust in the workplace.
Companies who had embraced a digital transformation journey before COVID-19 are tending to adapt to the crisis better than their peers. Their business models and working processes have enabled them to adjust rapidly or accelerate changes towards working remotely from home. The businesses that lack a robust digital backbone or an online presence are the ones that are struggling during this time.
Consider adoption of tools such as Slack, Google Hangouts, etc. to facilitate constant and open two-way communication, and try focusing on these more collaborative channels rather than on email. There is also Cloud-based project management software such as Trello, Asana, Assembla, Basecamp, Github, Jira, Podio, Taskworld, Wunderlist, or Monday.com that can help scattered teams stay on the same page and work together effectively.
Cloud technology allows employees to access the information, tools, and content they need to get their jobs done, regardless of their location. Teams can work in real time on the same documents and give and receive feedback instantaneously.
One of the challenges that arise from remote working is the lack of visibility of your workforce. Depending on the culture of the company and if needed, time-tracking software (e.g., Time Doctor, Harvest, iDoneThis, etc.) can help you better understand what remote workers are doing throughout the day. It can also help motivate employees to stay on task and be accountable for how they spend their time.
There is also Cloud-based project management software to help everyone see where employees are on specific projects and identify where help is needed.
With the right tools, managers will be able to trust that employees are able to be accountable for their work without worrying that there will be an abuse of the system. The utilisation of time tracking and collaboration tools helps employees be more productive.
A Senior Finance Manager from a Lifescience company mentioned that his company is looking quickly to use AI bots to help business address the unprecedented uptick in call center inquiries and allow the support staffs to focus on troubleshooting critical requests. Many businesses are scrambling to learn all they can about AI call center solutions that can help them meet customer demand for information.
The use of smart, AI-powered solutions helps automate and provide customers with answers they are desperate to access and will provide support staff a chance to focus on mission-critical work and troubleshoot crisis-related issues.
A Chief Human Resource Officer, feels that peak productivity is dependable on the individual and this needed to work out with the direct manager in some contexts. A person who is a morning person tends to be more focused and productive in the morning while another person may work better in the night and wakes up later in the morning. She suggests that Zoom calls can be held in the afternoon or late morning while you keep the morning focused on other important matters at work. She advised keeping communication regarding work preferably within office hours so that the employee can have their personal space after 6pm.
When working from home, your employees might also have to engage themselves in their own household chores, support aged parents or help to home-school young children. Allowing your employees some flexibility to focus on their personal and family matters isn’t a bad idea as it will help them get back to work with a free mind. Take appropriate measures to ensure flexibility to motivate your employees and strengthen their commitment towards the organization.
It can be hard for employees to work together when they all start and end work at different times. It can be helpful to schedule specific blocks of time during which all employees need to be online. When scheduling meetings, find a time that falls within everyone’s workday, and if such a time is impossible, record meetings for those who can’t attend.
Flexible work arrangements are only possible if you trust your employees. Take your time in the hiring process to find team members you feel confident will succeed in a self-directed role (i.e., look for qualities such as independence, self-drive, and self-discipline).
Communications to employees need to be regular and frequent so people know when to expect to hear from you. In a study by social scientists Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, nearly half of respondents said the most successful managers check in frequently and regularly with remote employees.
It’s best to err on the side of over-communicating than to be under-communicating. Nothing is more unnerving than silence. As an employer or a manager, maintaining regular and frequent communication will surely boost employees’ motivation and help them better concentrate on their work.
Whether it’s daily, weekly, bi-weekly, 1-on-1s, in a team or across departments, leaders can set a consistent cadence for contact with employees. Here are some other tips that leaders are implementing to keep their staff connected to company leaders and each other.
All-employee video conferences or conference calls allow employees to hear from their top and senior executives directly and get answers to their questions. Capture questions and concerns and use them to inform the content of other communications.
The Head of HR, ASEAN of a chemical engineering MNC commented that they have increased the frequency of town halls from quarterly to monthly for the regional MD to connect with every staff.
The Head of HR, ASEAN of a chemical engineering MNC stated that the line managers are advised to have regular check in 1-1 / team meetings. Weekly or quarterly team conference calls will help employees maintain a working mindset, get connected with their colleagues, discuss work in progress, and keep abreast of what’s going on with the company and the team.
Here’s a best practice from a Business Development Director of ICT vendor (with over 110 employees) who starts his day with a quick meeting with all of his teams. These are short meetings to check-in with the team so that every employee has a pulse on the business and is able to think through their to-do list and prioritize for the day productively. This frequent check-ins allows him and his teams to stay on track for driving better results even if they are all apart.
With some adjustments to the number of online communications per day, companies can learn to moderate their communications effort to employees so that it serves its purpose to inform and at the same time allows the staff sufficient space to focus on important work.
Group presentations, team research projects, and colleague-to-colleague mentoring can all help promote a collaborative environment. The Head of Talent Acquisition Director, APJ suggests giving her team special projects to collaborate and work together that will help the company cope with the current situation.
Connect online to share stories of inspiration, create moments of appreciation and showcase the talent of your employees virtually – all with the objective of building a culture of appreciation and comradery at work.
Create a work-from-home culture that helps the team of remote workers feel that they are a part of the larger company culture as much as possible. You can provide opportunities for colleagues to connect face to face sometimes with proper social distancing by having remote workers come into the office once in a while so they can start building relationships.
MRG, a global leader in designing assessments that foster a deep self-awareness and impact people in profound and meaningful ways, found that the number one behaviour that drives employment engagement is Empathy. Their research shows that Leaders who are effective at engaging employees demonstrate an active concern for others and form supportive relationships using Empathy.
“Before we start out virtual meeting each time and discuss work matters, I will ask the participants how are they doing and give some space to share a little bit of their experience in their local country in coping and fighting the COVID-19, etc…, ”said a Director with the Enterprise Technology & Services of an Insurance MNC. She added: “… it is a way to show that you are just like them – a human – and your care about them.”
Making the effort to connect with others and show compassion and solidarity will make you feel better and help everyone feel better. You may not know how, you may need to develop new ideas, you may need to learn new skills, and it may be difficult at the start. As with all change, it will get easier with time and as you take small steps to reach out and connect.
A Group CIO of a Build Environment firm is looking at conducting pulse surveys to see how the staff are doing and deciding what kind of remote working arrangements would be appropriate and what are the considerations that the employees may have. Another company is extending $1000 to $1500 to each employees of the company to help them make purchases to set up a conducive work environment at home. Staff in this company can use the money to buy a proper working desk, larger monitor screen, headset, chairs, etc. to help them start working from home.
There are lots of creative ways to stay socially connected with your team and colleagues and your community remotely. Unfortunately, many people are unfamiliar with these methods and may feel uncertainty about participating.
Here are some interesting and creative ways that organizations are using communication technologies to replace in-person interaction to minimise the effects of social isolation:
The other important discovery from the same MRG research on behaviours of effective leaders that drive staff engagement is the ability to communicate and express ideas and expectations clearly, and keep others informed.
Transparency is important in these time as staff would prefer the facts and honest conversation than to second guess what is on management’s mind and how the company is going to handle the crisis. Gabriel Tho, CEO, S.E.Asia of Crystal Link Technology mentioned the importance of clear goals, objectives and straight talk: “I make sure everyone is aware that under the current challenging circumstances, everyone’s contribution is vital to the company’s survival. At the same time, they are also made aware of the company’s strategy to turn the situation into opportunities for us to gain new clientele. Only by working together, we have a chance to emerge stronger.”
As it is difficult to closely monitor staff performance when everyone is working remotely, it is crucial to outline clear expectations when managing remote teams. Employees need to know exactly what is expected of them at all times and should have goals and metrics established.
As the saying goes “what gets measured gets done”. According to a 2015 study by Asmus, Karl, Mohnen and Reinhart, clear goal-setting improves worker performance by 12-15%. When an employee has clarity on the target and timeline aligned with the company’s critical goals for success, staff is able to plan accordingly and clearly set out milestones and the required resources needed.
An important suggestion is for leaders to tie goal-setting into a rewarding experience by linking goal achievement to rewards and performance score when setting compensation for employees.
The other critical component of ensuring the tasks and projects are completed successfully is to assign accountability effectively. The job of being accountable for something should be assigned to a single individual whose duty it is to monitor a specific task or process. If more than one person is accountable, then each person will assume that the other is monitoring and in most cases this will lead to nobody monitoring.
This pandemic has provided companies with an opportunity in the midst of adversity to empower their workforce in new ways. As companies embrace remote working situations, they need to start embracing technology to enable greater communication and collaboration, redefine their work processes and systems, take care of their people and build a culture of trust in the workplace.
Tomorrow is a “new norm” – that is what everyone is saying – and certain to be very different. We sincerely hope that the write up will help some of our clients and other businesses as they navigate through the crisis by prioritizing the wellbeing of staff, reviewing their engagement strategies, and learning and adapting from this crisis.
We are confident that most companies will adjust and explore how they can set themselves up on the right trajectory for growth as they come out the other side.
Figure 5 : Level of Confidence