“As we’ve moved to virtual work, we haven’t just coped, we’ve actually thrived. We are more focused on the things that have the greatest impact for our customers, associates and the business.” — Suresh Kumar, Walmart CTO
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were reports that 25%1 to 43%2 of the nation’s employees worked remotely, at least partially. In March 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees were notified their job functions would transition to telework environments to prevent and limit the spread of the novel, coronavirus. Some were told these new work arrangements would be temporary and they would return to work within a few weeks, while some employees were not given a specific return-to-work timeline.
In late 2020, more than 70% of the workforce was working from home3 and nearly all these employees had not worked remotely prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, approximately eight of 10 employees surveyed wanted to return to a traditional, pre-pandemic workplace;4 however, in 2022, 65% of employees wanted to retain a full-time remote status and 32% desired a hybrid work status.5 As workers now look for their next professional roles, half of employees are seeking a remote position.6
Although several employers created return-to-work plans to bring their workforces back to on-site workspaces, in 2022 almost 50% of employers had extended indefinite work-from-home arrangements to their employees, either as a hybrid model (more than one in four) or remote (two out of 10) model.7
The traditional employee life cycle is a model that organizations have adopted to identify the stages of the employee’s career journey, typically considered to start when the employee joins the organization until the point of separation. Milestones such as recruitment and onboarding throughout the employee life cycle can indicate whether the employee is more likely to remain with the organization. Moreover, it is based on the notion that the employee experience, including the virtual employee’s experience and satisfaction with leadership, is just as valuable as the experiences of the organization’s clients. However, the life cycle may require a different approach and planning for remote employees, as well as identifying where the differences may be most apparent. Organizations need to be intentional in determining the needs of remote employees, as lack of action may lead to feelings of isolation or disconnect.
The growth of virtual and remote
Organizations continue to embrace remote work as part of their strategy as recent studies reflect better-than-expected benefits for employee and organizations. It is estimated that working from home saved previous commuters about two hours per week per worker in 2021 and 2022.8 Organizations may benefit from the increase in productivity by remote workers, who save an average of 72 minutes of daily commuting time. The saved time could be reallocated to work productivity. Offering remote work can be a tool to meet recruitment and retention objectives. It also allows organizations to reallocate budget line items previously spent on overhead costs before implementing remote work.
Although there are success stories of organizations embracing remote work, the risk of isolation and lack of interaction with colleagues is a common concern. For others, maintaining access to a Wi-Fi connection to complete their work may be a barrier to a positive remote work experience. Lack of support, communication and resources could exacerbate social isolation in a remote-work environment.9 In addition to pressures of work-life balance are experiences of unclear boundaries between work and nonwork time. Organizations can address these barriers by having a clear line of communication between employees and leaders. Having frequent connections with their employees allows leaders to address concerns that, if not managed, may develop into performance issues.
Strategies to enhance the remote employee experience
Working remotely has consistently ranked as a top request for workers:
- 70% of employed Americans would prefer to work remotely on a full-time or part-time basis if given the option.
- 35% would accept a salary reduction in return for work flexibility.
- Nearly 20% would prefer to work from home in some capacity and would start looking for a remote position elsewhere.10
Similar to being strategic in acquiring new consumers, organizations must take a strategic and consumer-centric approach to recruiting remote workers focused on specific skillsets.11 Recruiters must be innovative in getting in front of these potential candidate pools by scanning the digital landscape on job boards, marketplace platforms, professional networks, social media and the like.12 It is also beneficial for organizations to clearly state in their job postings which positions are fully remote. This could attract candidates who might otherwise not consider the job due to the organization’s location.
Workers are seeing places of work through different lenses and are seeking more flexibility and collaboration in the workplace. Although many employers were already beginning a shift toward more flexible scheduling, this transition was exacerbated because of COVID-19. Critically, organizational leaders must reflect on whether they choose to manage by an outdated model from the last 50 years or manage toward the future workforce of the next 50 years, starting with recruiting the workforce of the future.13
In many ways, the hiring process for remote employees aligns with the hiring process for traditional, on-site workers. Critical variations in the remote recruitment process are:
- Full transparency of remote work in the job posting.
- Clarity and expectations in the virtual interview.
- Frequent communication throughout the job offer and acceptance phase.
- Navigation of available technology.
- Engagement of and support from team members via testimonials and social media channels.
A commitment to providing a seamless onboarding process that reflects the organization’s culture, starting with recruitment, makes new hires feel they are part of the team and sets them up for success.14
Effective onboarding is a critical part of the employee life cycle. It is the first step in engagement when the mission, vision and core values of the organization are introduced to employees to give them a sense of the work culture. Onboarding should also be considered a key component of any retention strategy. As noted by Hills in The Journal of Medical Practice Management, “[h]ealthcare organizations that craft an exceptional onboarding experience are much more likely to retain new hires than those that don’t.”15 And while many organizations had a well-crafted onboarding strategy in place prior to 2020, HR leaders were forced to scramble and quickly roll out a plan to onboard virtually after the pandemic began.
The main components of virtual onboarding most at risk are connection and culture. “New hires onboarded remotely still need to feel valued, engaged and connected. They need to know what is expected of them and what they can expect from the organization. New employees must be equipped with the right resources, introduced to the right people and ushered into the company culture as seamlessly as possible.”16 Creating the right virtual environment so that new hires can make connections and build strong networks is challenging, but incorporating the following key components will help to ensure success:
- Increase manager engagement: Manager engagement matters even more for remote hires, who see their supervisors as their lifelines to the company. New employees’ experiences with their managers can make or break virtual onboarding. Bad interactions have an outsized negative impact on new employees’ willingness to remain in the job.17 Managers should make themselves available on day one to provide a warm welcome and establish expectations. They should also set up regular touchpoints throughout the first few weeks or months of onboarding so that the new hire feels connected to the work, team and organization.
- Provide networking opportunities: Build networking opportunities into the onboarding agenda. Traditionally, the first day on the job is a time when a new employee would have an opportunity to meet and interact with new teammates and colleagues. Today, a new hire can spend his or her entire first day without interacting with anyone except their manager. This can lead to feelings of isolation and low engagement. Leaders should consider scheduling a virtual welcome meeting to introduce the new hire to the team, incorporating icebreakers and team activities that encourage building connections. Experts also recommend that leaders should schedule formal meetings with key business partners and colleagues so that new hires can have face time with those with whom they will be working.18 Informal networking is also key to creating connections, but virtual work does not cultivate an environment for that. Allowing and encouraging time for virtual coffee chats or watercooler conversations is vital to helping new hires establish meaningful relationships in the workplace.
- Establish mentoring cohorts: Bring recently hired employees together by creating a virtual onboarding cohort. Once established, identify leaders in the organization willing to mentor the group by meeting regularly to give an overview of a specific department or area of the organization. This provides additional networking within the group and exposure to leaders in other departments, and it facilitates additional learning about the organization.
In 2022, just 25% of remote or hybrid knowledge workers felt connected to their company’s culture.19 Leaders worry about the dissolution of organizational values and culture due to remote work, but what they fail to realize is that with some intentionality, work culture can live on and thrive in a remote work environment.
It is important to communicate the mission, values and goals clearly and early in the onboarding process, and they must be reinforced constantly — not only with words, but through the work that is done20 to increase employee engagement. It is important for company culture to be sustainable, and managers must lead by example each day.21
A manager’s role is significant in ensuring a positive and productive onboarding experience for new hires. As Cochran writes for the Association for Talent Development:
Extra time and more thoughtful attention are required for remote hires to be assimilated into the workplace culture and to begin to understand how the organization operates. The company’s mission, vision, values and history, as well as its communication preferences and working styles, should be made explicit. Remote workers will not have the luxury of picking up on physical cues in face-to-face meetings or running into colleagues in the breakroom.22
Change can bring significant stress with emotional, physical and work-related outcomes. COVID-19 exacerbated changes without allowing time for organizations to prepare, and instead requiring urgent pivoting to respond. Because many leaders — just like many of their employees — were new to working remotely, new, shared challenges emerged. These included:
- Lack of in-person supervision.
- Loss of access to some work-related, essential information.
- Interruptions within the home environment.
- Intensified work silos.
- Anxiety, frustration and fatigue.
- Establishing work-home boundaries and a work-life balance.23,24,25,26
In the early days of this pandemic, many employees and their leaders were in crisis mode. However, more employees and their leaders became more comfortable with this new normal, and a growing number of employees were notified that working from home was going to continue — for some, indefinitely. Even after concerns from the pandemic decreased, leadership best practices started to emerge and were maintained to sustain employee performance and engagement, while retaining talent and balancing their expectations and the reality of remote work.27
Leaders who excel at overseeing remote teams incorporate the following into their teams’ norms and cultures:28,29,30,31,32,33,34,35,36,37,38,39
- Schedule planned, regular check-ins — maybe even daily — while being available and accessible outside of scheduled meeting times beyond onboarding.
- Practice empathetic, respectful listening.
- Offer timely feedback.
- Build rapport, affinity and human connections.
- Build social capital40,41 and create lasting friendships at work by promoting relationship-building and “spontaneous socialization”42 through transparent virtual venues that encourage shared accountability and desired team success.43
- Provide access to needed technological platforms, applications and other resources that increase efficiency and aid collaboration while preventing or removing barriers.
- Establish rules and expectations of engagement and priorities, and clearly define objectives, outcomes and justification.
- Demonstrate caring, empathy, flexibility and vulnerability.
- Cultivate and promote a psychologically safe environment that is filled with mutual respect and kindness.
- Offer clarity, autonomy, connection to mission and sense of belonging.
- Demonstrate a coaching, transformational leadership style rather than an authoritative, directive management style.
A transformational leader “actively considers the needs and aspirations of followers” while encouraging, motivating and empowering employees,44 focusing on the organization’s mission and vision, placing a high value on group interests and a concern for individual employees’ needs and development, and encouraging employees to go beyond their personal interests.45
To understand the impact of working from home on an individual’s work productivity and life meaning and their perceived stress and health challenge experiences, both organizational leaders and employees are encouraged to do the following to support each other in remote work experiences:46
- Let go of control and focus on the completion of the work, not on when it is being done.
- Emphasize the importance of setting boundaries between work and home activities.
- Assist staff in developing their core self-evaluation, which consists of their emotional stability, self-esteem, locus of control and self-efficacy.
- Provide regular and timely leader feedback to employees.
- Continue to align employee values to the organization’s higher purpose and key values, as was done during onboarding.
- Communicate to employees how their jobs are significant in achieving organizational goals.
- Share resources available to support health and well-being.
- Engage in purpose-driven activities.
“Success in a hybrid work environment requires employers to move beyond viewing remote or hybrid workers as a temporary or short-term strategy and to treat it as an opportunity.” — George Penn, Gartner47
One organization that has adapted well to this new work environment is Mayo Clinic. They have strategically implemented programs to enhance the work experience for all employees at all phases of the employee life cycle by:
- Offering a wide variety of remote job opportunities.
- Enhancing new hire orientation to include a hybrid approach to meet the needs of all new hires.
- Creating a dedicated Working Remotely website for new employees to ensure they are set up for success with the correct equipment and knowledge of remote work policies.
- Setting aside drop-in, hoteling workstations for those who live close to campus and need or want to be onsite for the day.
- Providing tips and training on how to effectively lead and participate in virtual meetings.
- Creating an enterprise-wide social network via Yammer and the #WeAreMayoClinic online community so that employees with common interests can establish connections.
- Implementing a Remote Worker Speaker series to present unique topics to enhance the remote worker experience.
If organizations want to remain competitive and excel at creating a positive work environment for their remote employees, they might want to follow Mayo Clinic’s lead. Remote and hybrid work are here to stay so leaders must be intentional in developing and implementing remote-work strategies that will attract and retain the workforce of the future.
- Gleeson B. “13 Tips for Leading and Managing Remote Teams.” Forbes, Aug. 26, 2020. Available from: https://bit.ly/42jtRHe.
- Hickman A, and Robison J. “Is Working Remotely Effective? Gallup Research Says Yes.” Gallup Workplace, January 24, 2020. Available from: https://bit.ly/3pNnnCJ.
- Bannan KJ. “Employees Prefer to Work from Home-Until They Don’t: Enthusiasm for returning to the workplace picks up once enough workers come back.” Society for Human Resource Management, March 3, 2022. Available from: https://bit.ly/3AWQUMc.
- Newman SA, Ford RC. “Five Steps to Leading Your Team in the Virtual COVID-19 Workplace.” Organizational Dynamics. 50(1) (2021). Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orgdyn.2020.100802.
- Maurer R. “Remote Work Is Here for Good.” Society for Human Resource Management, Dec. 27, 2022. Available from: https://bit.ly/40WIQWw.
- Gonzales M. “Nearly Half of Workers Are ‘Definitely Looking’ to Work Remotely.” Society for Human Resource Management, June 13, 2022. Available from: https://bit.ly/422QKiy.
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- Barrero J, Bloom N, Davis S. “Why working from home will stick.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper. 28731 (2021). Available from: www.wfhresearch.com.
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- Agovino T. “The New World of Work: The pandemic is threatening the five-day, 9-to-5, in-office workweek. So where do businesses go from here?” HR Magazine, SHRM. (July 2021).
- Gehring S. “At long last, revamp recruiting.” Korn Ferry Insights: This Week in Leadership, 2023. Available from: https://bit.ly/425pIXU.
- Wickersham P. “How to Hire Remote Employees.” Remote.com, 2023. Available from: https://bit.ly/411Q5wq.
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- Maurer R.
- Hills L. “Creating an Exceptional Onboarding Experience for Your New Employees.” The Journal of Medical Practice Management. 37(6) (2022), 287-283.
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- “Revitalizing culture in the world of hybrid work.” Harvard Business Review, Nov. 1, 2022. Available from: https://bit.ly/3LSZRwo.
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- Vetter A. “Making A Remote Workplace Culture Work.” CPA Practice Advisor. 32(3), 2022, 22.
- Cochran C. “How Remote Organizations Can Instill Thriving Workplace Cultures.” Association for Talent Development. 76(3) (2022), 54-59.
- Larson BZ, Vroman SR, and Markarius EE. “A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers.” Harvard Business Review. March 18, 2020. Available from: https://bit.ly/3HBXzPR.
- Gleeson B.
- Meiryani, Nelviana, Koh Y, Soepriyanto G, Aljuaid M, Hasan F. “The Effect of Transformational Leadership and Remote Working on Employee Performance During COVID-19 Pandemic.” Frontiers in Psychology. 13, 919631 (2022). Available from: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.919631.
- Oakman J, Kinsman N, Graham M, Stuckey R, and Weale V. “Strategies to manage working from home during the pandemic: the employee experience.” Industrial Health. 60(4) (2022), 319–333. Available from: https://doi.org/10.2486/indhealth.2022-0042.
- Shirmohammadi M, Au WC. Beigi M. “Remote work and work-life balance: Lessons learned from the covid-19 pandemic and suggestions for HRD practitioners.” Human Resource Development International. 25(2) (2022), 163-181. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/13678868.2022.2047380.
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- Hickman A, Maese E. “Measure Performance: Strategies for Remote and Hybrid Teams.” Gallup Workplace, March 26, 2021. Available from: https://bit.ly/3ntnx16.
- Durning SJ, Cervero RM, Roberts LW. “The Need for Listening Leaders.” Academic Medicine. 97(2) (February 2022), p .165-166. Available from: doi.org/10.1097/ACM.0000000000004520.
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