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Keeping a Remote Workforce Engaged

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

By Bob Lavigna
June 10, 2020

Note: This is the first installment of a two-part article on this topic. The second segment will appear in a future issue of PA Times online.

Transitioning to a remote workforce is, “… a process, not a binary switch to be flipped.” So says the “Head of Remote” for Gitlab, the company with the world’s largest all-remote workforce.

However, COVID-19 has forced most organizations, including in government, to flip the switch to a remote workforce. This sudden transition has created technology challenges, as well as concerns about employees’ psychological well-being, performance and productivity.

While many may view the dramatic upsurge in working remotely as a short-term response to a national crisis, I think it’s more than that. When the coronavirus subsides, some employees will gladly return to their work sites. On the other hand, many will want to continue working from home, at least part-time.

Especially when their kids finally go back to school or daycare.

According to Gallup, 60% of American workers want to work at home as much as possible after COVID-19. In government, our institute’s survey of public-sector employees reveals that up to 80% of respondents agree.

One large-city HR director has cautioned that we need to prepare for working remotely as a permanent evolution in how and where we perform work.

One key to managing a remote workforce is keeping employees engaged when they’re not physically at their work sites. This is critical not just because more employees are now working from home, but also because engagement is already low.

Why engagement matters

Our institute’s national poll revealed that only 33% of federal, state and local employees are fully engaged. This is alarming because engagement matters. In government, research has shown that engagement is linked to outcomes that include:

  • Achieving strategic goals;
  • Providing responsive customer service;
  • Attracting and retaining talent;
  • Developing innovative solutions;
  • Fostering teamwork;
  • Boosting attendance; and
  • Keeping workplaces safe.

Our research has also revealed that highly engaged government employees are three times more likely to believe that 1) their organizations are achieving their missions, and 2) they can influence outcomes like quality, cost and customer service.

The bottom line is that employee engagement matters—and government needs to improve it, even when employees are not physically working together.

Engaging employees who are working remotely

Organizations need to focus on the factors that influence (drive) their employees’ engagement, and adapt strategies for employees working remotely.

The drivers of engagement vary across organizations, and even within organizations. That is why it is important to survey employees to understand what influences their engagement.

However, results from our institute’s national research on what drives public-sector engagement can also help identify how to maintain or improve engagement. These factors include:

  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Training and development
  • The mission and the work
  • Employee appreciation and recognition


National research has shown that leadership is a key driver of employee engagement. Moreover, in our work with individual government organizations across the nation, leadership is almost always a key driver.

Other research has revealed that a manager’s or supervisor’s actions, and their own level of engagement, can account for up to 70% of the engagement of the employees who report to them.

Leaders at all levels in the organization influence engagement by being visible, communicating effectively, exemplifying the values of the organization, and managing change well—especially the enormous workplace changes COVID-19 has forced.

With large numbers of employees working from home, it’s important for leaders to be visible, even if not in person. Employees need to see that their leaders are continuing to actively manage the organization, and that they care about their employees.

Leaders also need to set expectations. It’s not possible to know if remote employees are working merely by seeing them at their desks or work sites. The answer is to manage goals, results and outcomes, not just attendance and activities; a good idea even when things get back to “normal.”

According to one government leader, “We’ve had to drastically change. People who have kids need to take an hour off to put someone down for a nap or to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

Leadership also means giving remote employees the tools they need. In one city, employees lugged their desktop computers home. A heavy lift, literally. A state government is spending millions to buy laptops for employees working remotely. A local government employee told me that her Wi-Fi was too spotty to allow her to work effectively at home. How about getting her a mobile hot spot or a better data plan?

Leaders should project confidence that the organization will get through this crisis, but also show empathy and acknowledge that employees are experiencing stress and anxiety.

Leadership during a pandemic can also mean providing support such as childcare for essential workers, including first responders. It also means sharing wellness information to help employees take care of themselves. One city is offering virtual counseling to help employees adjust to this new environment.

If leaders view the current working situation environment as an opportunity to show employees we care about them, we can boost engagement—and prepare for the future. This will be a win for government organizations, public servants and, most important, the people government serves.

The second installment of this article will address the other key drivers; communication, training and development, the mission and the work, employee recognition and employee feedback.

Author: ASPA member Bob Lavigna is assistant vice chancellor-HR at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was formerly vice president of research for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. Email: [email protected].

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