Even as some companies demand that workers return to the office, remote work is here to stay — in one form or another. But keeping far-flung, work-from-anywhere staffers connected to company goals and culture remains an ongoing challenge.
“Before the pandemic, the workplace cultural experience was grounded in the physical environment employees worked in,” said Caitlin Duffy, research director at Gartner’s Human Resources practice. “Today, it’s much more difficult to build a strong, cohesive culture when employees are more distributed.
A recent Gallup survey of 15,000 US workers pointed to a growing disconnect between remote and hybrid remote workers and their company purpose during the past two years. That’s undercut company loyalty and led to “gig-like” relationships between employees and their employers, Gallup chief scientist Jim Harter said in a blog post. This has implications for “customer and employee retention, productivity, and quality of work,” he said.
“We’ve been steadily seeing a decline in connectedness over the past few years,” Duffy said. While 40 per cent of HR leaders boosted budgets to better promote company culture during the COVID-19 pandemic, only a quarter of remote and hybrid workers felt connected to their organization’s mission and values, according to a Gartner poll in December 2021.
More recent surveys paint a similar picture.
“The situation is getting worse, not better,” said Beth Schultz, vice president of research and principal analyst at Metrigy. The company surveyed 440 businesses for its “Workplace Collaboration: 2023-24” report and found that 41 per cent saw a loss of community and culture as the main challenge associated with remote work. That’s up from 29 per cent the previous year.
With that backdrop, there are steps businesses can take to ensure that remote workers are better aligned with company goals, culture and their colleagues.
Collaboration and communication tools can help bridge the gap
At IT service provider Avanade, the joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture, the disruption of remote work during the pandemic was minimised by the adoption of Teams, Microsoft’s chat-based collaboration app, for its 50,000 staffers.
While Teams helped maintain day-to-day operations, another tool, Microsoft’s enterprise social network Viva Engage (previously Yammer), has been particularly well-suited to ongoing employee engagement, said Avanade CIO Ron White.
The enterprise social network platform has helped foster communities across the company, he said, providing a forum for discussion around corporate announcements, such as after a town hall meeting ends, for instance.
“We are starting to get communities built that allow what used to happen in the aftermath of town halls, in terms of the follow-up [discussion],” he said. “The ‘watercooler gap’ is what we’re trying to go after.
“We worked very hard setting up those communities, helping people understand where they interconnect with the organisational structure and how they're supposed to use them,” White said.
The social network also gives workers an informal way to discuss company-wide communications – such as an email from the CEO. While employees can technically reply directly to the CEO, they’re often reticent to do so.
“So, how do you create a different dynamic that allows…employees to respond in an environment they feel safe and comfortable with?” White said. “They do that all the time in their social world, but in the larger enterprise, they don't have that ability. We believe that these communities that we're setting up – the larger ones, and the smaller ones – provide that.
Metrigy’s enterprise collaboration study found that 48 per cent of companies use enterprise social apps, another 26 per cent access team-building apps, and a quarter (25 per cent) have “information conversation” apps in place, said Schultz. “Enterprise social apps, which allow companies to build communities around shared interests, across roles, departments, and geographies, are a great way to allow remote workers to feel part of the whole,” she said.
Avanade is also taking a forward-looking approach; it’s launched internal experiments using Microsoft’s Mesh to create immersive 3D worlds where employees can interact. Around half of Avanade’s staff has now created avatars for the platform – a prerequisite for accessing virtual environments. Down the road, this could enable a greater sense of connection among employees and a more immersive experience at town hall meetings.
“We are playing around with the viability of it,” said White. “We've had mixed results, but the technology is evolving very, very quickly. The ability to go off in a corner and talk to [a colleague] is starting to take hold. The worlds that you build…are becoming much more realistic in terms of having this type of interaction.”
A strategy to engage with remote workers
As important as workplace collaboration and communication tools are, technology alone can’t keep remote workers engaged with business objectives.
Before the pandemic, auto finance firm Credit Acceptance centred its operations around in-person interactions in its offices, for which it got accolades; after COVID-19 arrived, the company’s 2,200 employees had to work remotely.
“You didn't work from home at all – [only in] rare circumstances,” said Wendy Rummler, chief people officer at Credit Acceptance. “We considered our culture too important, [we believed that] we couldn't maintain it if we had a fully remote workforce, or even partially for that matter.”
Fast forward a couple of years and the picture is markedly different now, with almost all staffers now fully remote. Internal pulse surveys have found that employee engagement has remained as high as before the pandemic, said Rummler. This is no accident, she said; Credit Acceptance deliberately set out to maintain its work culture without regular person-to-person interactions.
“A lot of our culture pre-pandemic was built on that in-person activity,” said Rummler. “We had a lot of fun, engaging events, a lot of collaborative meetings. So, we've been very intentional and put new things in place as we've moved to this remote way of working. We engaged our team members to ask them, ‘What's the best way for us to stay connected, and ensure that you stay aligned with our mission, vision, and purpose?’”
The company strives to engage its remote workforce in a variety of ways. Part of this is via top-down communication, with company values regularly expressed at virtual town halls, for example.
“At least once a month, every team member will have the opportunity to be presented with our 'purpose and strategy roadmap,’ as we call it,” said Rummler. “That's presented in every quarterly town hall by our CEO, every monthly management team meeting, every regional roundtable, every department town hall. So, our team members see that same roadmap over and over and over. All of us are very clear on what our purpose is, what our aligned mission and vision is.”
Team leaders get support to help them adapt to managing colleagues who work in different locations. This includes training courses and the creation of a “leader playbook” to provide guidance on remote management such as how often to connect with staffers.
The use of Microsoft Teams helps employees stay in touch, too, said Rummler. And it provides a way to create new connections outside of immediate teams with the help of a third-party app called Coffee Pals. “It'll randomly pick two people and send them a message, saying 'You two should get together and talk about this [subject].' It's 30 minutes just chatting about whatever that topic was and getting to know one another,” said Rummler.
In-person connections still matter
Where possible, Credit Acceptance encourages its employees to meet at one of its five regional hubs across the US for quarterly roundtables. “Anyone within a two-hour driving distance, their time is comped and they're paid to attend that event,” said Rummler. “There are business updates, and then we always do something fun whether it's at Dave and Busters, or bowling, or a charitable event.”
These meetups have proved popular: “Last quarter in Q3, we had over 600 team members attend one of those roundtables throughout the country. We’re very intentional about still making sure we have the in-person events.”
In its employee surveys, Avanade has noted lower levels of engagement with fully remote staffers so it encourages employees to travel into its offices when possible. “Once they're in the office environment, they appreciate the difference in how they interact with people. I think they genuinely leave with a level of engagement that they didn't have before they were in the office,” said White.
This has helped maintain high levels of engagement, he said. “Our engagement indexes have not statistically moved much in the negative direction over the last three to four years. We've had little spikes down, little spikes up, but across that broad horizon, we don't see that much of a difference between pre-and post-pandemic engagement,” said White.
Both White and Rummler argue that regular employee surveys are vital to maintaining employee engagement. “We do a twice-yearly survey, and we've expanded what we're calling our listening strategy with 'spot' surveys happening with certain parts of the organisation,” said White. “Instead of just always focusing on your enterprise-wide survey every six months, nine months, or a year, whatever you do, having the blip, blip, blip, feedback is really important.”
Ultimately, White said, keeping remote workers engaged requires a combination of approaches.
“It's the golden rule: people, process, and technology. And if you don't deal with all three, it doesn't work,” he said. “I can put the greatest platform in the world out there. If we don't have a change program to support it, it, to help people understand how to use it, to set the expectations from a policy perspective, [it won't be successful]. If you are able to connect those three dots of people, process, and technology, then you're going to have a much, much higher likelihood of success and impact.”
For Rummler, it’s about having a clear strategy to ensure that employee engagement is a priority. “If it’s a priority, it’s intentional, and an expectation of your managers, I think you can make it work,” she said.