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Keeping a Remote Workforce Engaged: Part 2

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bob Lavigna
June 21, 2020 

This is the second of a two-part article on this topic. The first installment appeared on June 10, 2020.

In the first segment, I identified the factors (drivers) that public-sector organizations should focus on to maintain the engagement of employees who are now working remotely as a result of COVID-19. I also discussed the first factor—leadership. Today’s installment addresses the other drivers—communication, training and development, the mission and the work, employee recognition and employee feedback.

Communication

According to the, “State of Remote Work,” report, communication and collaboration are the biggest challenges in managing a remote workforce. Now, more than ever, this is true.  

Leaders should reach out through multiple means (i.e., not just email or messaging), using telephone, web sites, blogs, intranet, Twitter, Facebook; and face-to-face communication platforms like Zoom, Teams, Webex and Skype. Emailing and messaging may be convenient but can’t always substitute for face-to-face interactions, particularly for sensitive or nuanced topics.

One local government leader records a weekly video and shares it with all employees, to create a visible and regular presence.

Communication should be planned and specific. This means a communication strategy and plan that specifies the targeted audience, the objective of the message, the method/media, who will deliver the message and when. The plan should include communicating remote work policies (e.g., through FAQS).

Training and Development

It might be tempting to overlook employee development since many of us are scrambling just to adapt to the COVID-19 workplace. But this would be a mistake. Managers, supervisors and employees should continue to focus on development, using options that don’t require in-person interaction, including taking advantage of the explosion in online training.

While in-person conferences are being postponed or even canceled, some are substituting online events and webinars. Organizations also should deliver their internal training virtually.

Another proven strategy is mentoring, which doesn’t require in-person contact but can still be effective and cost-efficient.

The Mission and the Work

Public servants often have a higher level of connection and commitment to their organization’s mission than their private-sector counterparts. Many government employees were initially attracted to their departments or agencies by the mission and the work itself.

To nurture this commitment, it’s more important than ever now to communicate and emphasize mission. Employees, whether they are working remotely or at their regular work sites, need to understand the mission, see clearly how their work supports it and feel they are making a difference.

For professionals in human services and child protective services, as just one example, mission is more important than ever. Government is the lifeline for many of the people these professionals serve, who are often among the neediest in our communities. These people may not all be able to interact by computer but, as someone who works in human services noted, “They all have cell phones.”

Appreciation and Recognition

Our Institute’s national survey has consistently found that the number one key cultural driver of engagement in government is ensuring that employees feel valued. This can be tough without physical proximity—it’s no longer possible to just walk down the hall to thank or praise an employee.

But it’s important to recognize the contributions and accomplishments of employees working remotely, as well as the employees who continue to report to their work sites. In both cases, we need to show gratitude for their commitment during difficult circumstances.

For example, I was recently on a teleconference where a manager praised the work of one of the folks on the call. I could “hear” the smile in her voice when she said thanks.

Agencies should create, publicize and use online tools including allowing employees to nominate each other for recognition. Also use offline approaches such as telephone calls, thank-you cards, handwritten notes and even birthday and anniversary cards. Sometimes small gestures like this can mean a lot.

Employee Feedback

Communication is a two-way street, and organizations need to stay connected to employees, including by surveying employees. A recent poll found that 86% of employees believe it is, “Appropriate,” or, “Completely appropriate,” for employers to survey them now. Moreover, employees whose organizations ask for feedback during uncertain times are more engaged than employees in organizations that do not ask.

Feedback can be collected through an employee engagement survey that assesses the level of engagement and the specific factors that influence engagement. Organizations that are unsure whether to conduct these surveys now should consider moving forward despite the impact of COVID-19. This can send the message that the organization is doing everything it can to understand how the new work environment is affecting employees, and the organization wants to continue business as usual.

An alternative is a survey focusing specifically on how employees feel about the current working arrangement. This can include asking both remote and essential employees about their leaders and supervisors, communication, tools and resources and their own safety and well-being.

Employees want to be heard—and it’s the employer’s job to give them that opportunity.

*          *         *

It’s a cliché that the flip side of challenge is opportunity. But if we view the new working environment as a unique opportunity to show our employees we care about them, we can boost engagement—and adapt to this new workplace. This will be a win for government organizations, public servants and, most importantly, the people government serves.


Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR consulting, an independent government agency. The institute was created to help government organizations measure and improve engagement. His previous positions include assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, vice president of research at the Partnership for Public Service and administrator of the state of Wisconsin civil service system. He can be reached at [email protected]

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