We’re already living the future of work – here’s how it’ll affect employee engagement

People are more productive working from home than people would have expected. Some thought that everything was just going to fall apart, and it hasn’t.

Mark Zuckerberg

The future of work is here. With 85% of homeworking adults wanting a ‘hybrid approach’ to all future employment, the pandemic’s influence is set to reach well beyond 2022. But what does this new age of work from home–where the commute is walking to the next room, and no one is ever really offline–mean for employee engagement?

Not forgetting the frontline workers

Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that homeworkers are still a minority in the UK. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 37% of UK workers worked from home at any point in 2020. That’s up ten percentage points since 2019, but it still highlights the vast numbers of frontline workers–carers, shop workers, tradespeople, restaurant staff and more–who rely on face-to-face customer interaction to earn a living. Their engagement is another story.

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits, and drawbacks, of hybrid working from the perspective of your employees, and what effect this has on their engagement with the company.

Goodbye commute. You won’t be missed.

If we look at some pre-pandemic figures, we can see that the average commute time in London was 46 minutes. That’s one and a half hours every single day. Over the course of a week, that’s one full working day spent running through ticket barriers, searching for a seat, and being squashed into a Central Line carriage. It’s no surprise people are glad to see the back of the commute, and that’s before we even consider the environmental impact of far fewer journeys.

Before the pandemic, a survey by Robert Half found that a quarter of employees had quit a job because of a bad commute. The reduced commute time, it seems, is a fairly obvious win for employee engagement.

Switching off at 5pm

A survey by the Japanese Institute of Labour Policy and Training (JILPT, 2015) of [remote] workers in Japan shows that the issue of the ‘ambiguity of work and [time] off’ was the highest-ranked disadvantage of [remote working] among both women (36.4%) and men (39.3%)

JILPT, 2015

People, it seems, find it difficult to draw a line between work and home when most of their work happens at home. And with phones, laptops, tablets and more all connected to work accounts, it’s easy to see how homeworkers can end up working longer hours than their office-dwelling counterparts.

This subtle build-up of hours can be extremely dangerous. It’s great for short-term productivity, but the long-term pressure on employees can become at best unsustainable, at worst downright unhealthy. And so, if you’re looking to nurture employee engagement during this new future of remote working, setting boundaries is essential.

Place a ban on calls, emails and meetings after a certain time. (Some countries have already enshrined such practices in law, and it may only be a matter of time before the UK follows.) Give employees a budget to create a distinct, healthy office space within their own homes. Somewhere with an ergonomic chair, a suitable monitor, and a very clear boundary they can cross to end their workday. And for those whose houses or flats can’t accommodate such a space, arrange for an office to be available, either in your company’s building or closer to home.

Redefining ‘team spirit’

Pre-2020, team spirit conjured up images of office parties, collaborating in breakout spaces, and generally making the most of being in the same physical space as each other. These productive, in-person meets provided a boost to morale and, by extension, engagement.

Most office workers have swapped this way of working for relative isolation – so what can be done to keep the collaboration, and engagement, alive?

Meetings are still vitally important, not just for productivity but also for team spirit. Schedule a regular catch-up–one that has nothing to do with work–once or twice a week. It’ll give your employees a chance to connect with one another in a way that would be impossible if they were simply going over the latest contract or brief.

Forbes also talks about the need for a real, physical connection to work. Whether that’s a “well done you” letter handwritten by a manager, or paperwork sent in the post, you’ll be surprised how such a simple thing can connect employees in a way that emails and glowing screens never could.

In conclusion

We’re living through a time of great change at work. The pandemic, which brought with it such disruption and sadness, has affected our work lives in ways we could never have anticipated–many of them silver linings. And its effects look set to be felt long into the future, especially for those of us who are able to work from home.

As Prithwiraj Choudhury puts it:

There are two kinds of companies: one is going to embrace work from anywhere, and the second is in denial. I feel those companies will lose their workforce. You have to make a choice, as a leader, about what kind of company you want to lead.

Prithwiraj Choudhury

Harvard Business School

Want to improve your employee engagement?

Get in touch with The WOW! Awards today