Even in the relatively simple pre-pandemic times, building and sustaining employee engagement was a complex undertaking. Now, with a large proportion of the employee population working remotely, leaders are having to learn new ways to keep their people engaged.

Throughout the pandemic, there have been reports of increased employee engagement. Naturally, there was an increased commitment of employees - many had a desire to stay in their current jobs due to the unstable job market. Leaders generally became more visible in communication, providing clarity and direction, and taking care of the health and safety of their people first. Employees generally felt like ‘being in it together’.

But this isn’t the complete picture. Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index found that nearly a third of workers in Asia Pacific are facing increased burnout. These people are not only concerned about contracting COVID-19, they’re in many cases, working beyond expected hours, and struggling to adjust to a new normal - a reality that isn’t here for just a few months but for the long-term.

It’s clear that many organisations and individuals alike are struggling in this environment. Leaders need to not only think about how to adapt their ways of working to ensure employees continue to feel motivated and supported but also, position their people to perform at their best.

Here are four areas where leaders need to focus their attention to keep employees engaged in a socially-distanced world.

1. Employee well-being

When the pandemic began, most of us thought that after a few months, the problem was going to be over and we would all go back to normal. The sense of community and the immediate focus on ‘health and safety first’ helped us keep going. But for many people it has been difficult to remain positive when remote working and heightened levels of uncertainty have become a (semi) permanent reality. We’re seeing the emotional toll of the pandemic, with employees experiencing high levels of stress and struggling to negotiate the boundaries between personal and professional lives.

Especially with these blurred lines between work and private life, a continuous and more holistic focus on employee well-being is much needed. It is important for leaders to acknowledge their team members are now working from a context that’s bigger than just the office, and, with limited visibility of how someone’s doing, a regular individual check-in to monitor challenges that the employee might be facing can make a difference. In our recent remote work webinar, our guests from Fonterra and Amazon Web Services noted mental health as one of the issues that surfaced in their workforces during the pandemic. In this environment, having leaders who can listen and support employees, and having a well-designed employee well-being program is more important than ever.

Watch on demand: Re-imagine remote work

2.  Inclusive Leadership

We are now connected in entirely different ways, and some of us have more visibility of our leaders and colleagues than we had prior to the pandemic. But this does not mean that we are feeling included or even part of the team. In addition, many of us are facing all kinds of challenges while trying to do our jobs remotely – be it a lack of technical savviness, the stress of having to share our working space with family members, or simply struggling to cope with uncertainty. Being an inclusive leader in this environment requires building trust by showing understanding, compassion and vulnerability.

Leaders should embrace this opportunity to expand their leadership styles to demonstrate they understand the individual needs of their people and use their emotional intelligence to influence the desired behavioural outcome.

Informal moments also matter and they don’t happen as naturally as they did compared to the at-the-office days. Leaders need to build and nurture virtual communities where their people have the opportunity to share stories and socialise with one another. Leading by example, leaders should be prepared to share their own challenges as this will open the door for others to do the same.

At an organisational level it is worth recognising that managers, too, are often struggling with change and remote work. It is likely that they will need additional support to develop into strong remote leaders: setting clear expectations, providing tools, training and coaching to expand their leadership capabilities and help them become successful in leading virtually.

Download: The five disciplines of inclusive leaders

3. Enabling performance

Performance is only possible when employees have the right devices, tools and software, and the knowledge and skills to deploy these resources to get the work done. Organisations can help improve the remote work environment by investing in software and systems that support virtual communication and collaboration while also providing the necessary training on how best to use these.

The accelerated digital transformation due to the pandemic has changed the scope of jobs and ways of working for many. Employees are now looking at leadership to navigate them through the changed expectations about their performance: be transparent on how the value of work will be measured, how responsibilities have shifted, and what impact this has on development opportunities. Setting expectations, giving continuous feedback and using virtual means to publicly recognise achievements will help enable and engage people to perform at their best.

Download: Performance management programs in a changing world

4. Communication

Communication has undoubtedly played a crucial role for many organisations over the past year. We’ve seen leaders stepping up to actively and regularly communicate the organisation’s direction and strategy to employees to help them navigate through the disruption and crisis. Moving past the initial disruption, communicating a clear vision for the long-term strategy can support employees to remain hopeful and focused. Structured ‘listening’ initiatives help ensure communication flows both ways and for leaders to have the right inputs for insightful decision making on priorities and actions.

Yet, there is also the risk of too much communication. When Microsoft mined the global data from their Teams platform, they found that people were involved in significantly more meetings and received more calls and incoming chats than pre-pandemic. After hours communications had also increased. Leaders have the responsibility to actively work with their teams to establish ground rules and boundaries to help bring the blurred personal/professional line into greater focus.

To learn how you can structure your remote workforce to make remote work more effectively for your organisations and your people, download Korn Ferry’s new paper: Evolution or revolution? Re-imagining remote work.

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About the contributor

Judith is an Associate Director & Team Leader and is responsible for the delivery of Korn Ferry’s Listen portfolio across the ASEAN markets. She partners with clients to accelerate and maximize the impact of their Employee Experience programmes.

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