Driving Connection & Engagement in a Remote Workforce

By: Mitchell Gold, Managing Director and Senior Advisor, HR Consulting IHS-Surveys, and Caryn Siebert, VP Carrier Engagement – Gallagher Bassett

Telework or remote working is not a novel concept. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of U.S. employees who work remotely increased dramatically. In 2019, more than 26 million Americans—about 16% of the total workforce—worked remotely at least part of the time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But as COVID-19 surged, so too did the number of companies asking their employees to work from home.

Successfully managing a remote workforce does not happen by accident. Recent data-gathering efforts have documented many of the challenges that remote workers face. Barriers include factors such as lack of face-to-face supervision, lack of access to work information shared interpersonally, and social isolation. Researchers have learned that contributors to isolation include absence from traditional office environments, lack of such critical growth factors as interpersonal networking and limited access to informal learning and mentoring.There is even risk of remote employees feeling disengaged and leaving the organization.

Gallagher Bassett’s teleworking program has been thriving for years because we have focused on a blend of several C words which are all part and parcel of our successful, diverse and sustainable workforce. Culture, Communication, Connectivity, Colleagues and Constituents. 

We then include / mix-in management and quality assurance tools, like our operational quality dashboard and dynamic reporting, to ensure exceptional service to our Clients and their Claimants.

Finding the best fit for remote work

The “fit” of the individual to the role represents a significant complexity in attempting to ensure engagement and effectiveness of remote workers. A decade ago, organizations considering remote work may have had the luxury of more time when making such evaluations. Many of these evaluations had more to do with decreasing brick and mortar real estate costs. Now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly over night, organizations find that the remote workforce decision has been made for them. Jobs that require a knowledge-worker component may naturally work better as a telecommuting role, such as we have in the world of insurance.

At Gallagher Bassett (as well as our parent and sister companies) we have been at the forefront of teleworking and hiring resolution managers to work remotely around the globe. This has afforded us the opportunity to hire the best candidates for roles regardless of location.  It has also enabled us to retain employees who relocate due to personal preference and the needs of other family members yielding higher employee retention and satisfaction scores for years.

Key to our success is driving engagement, assuring customer satisfaction, and delivering demonstrably superior outcomes.

Time and time again, communication arises as a theme in a variety of ways.  At Gallagher Bassett, having regularly standing meetings on the calendar is paramount.  One-on-one coaching; unit or team level meetings; and even large loss reviews can make things easier, account for different time zones, and assure alignment. If the meeting becomes unnecessary, it’s always easier to take it off the calendar than scramble to coordinate one.

Aspects of Remote Work Experience that Drive Engagement

What motivates individuals to perform in these remote work environments? Mitch Gold and his team at Gallagher sought to understand what, if any differences may exist in the motivators or aspects of the work experience that drive engagement in traditional work environments versus those in a remote work environment. 

Characteristics of Successful Remote Workers

It’s helpful to review the characteristics of engaged employees. They are:

  • A strong sense of job satisfaction and proud to work at their organization
  • Willing to put in extra effort and can see how that tie into the organization’s success
  • Compelled by the organization’s mission
  • Willing to promote the organization as a great place to work
  • Not seriously considering other opportunities outside of the organization

Gallagher’s employee engagement survey team has worked with hundreds of organizations across numerous industries including healthcare, energy, technology, financial services, and manufacturing, among others, to better understand the specific employee experience factors that positively impact and improve engagement. 

Recognizing Impactful Drivers of Remote Workers

Every organization is unique, and factors of employment experience can affect engagement differently. Examples Mitch Gold and his team found include how the organization rewards its employees, how teamwork and collaboration are supported, the degree to which career pathing is clear, the emphasis on quality and safety, and a variety of others. In a large healthcare organization of over 18,000 employees, Gallagher’s survey team found that for more traditional, in-person roles, the most impactful drivers of engagement included:

  1. Loving the opportunity to work for the organization
  2. Growth and development opportunities
  3. Feeling challenged to do one’s best, not being able to imagine working anywhere else, and
  4. Strongly recommending the organization as a place for those needing care

When Gallagher’s survey team examined roles in which employees performed in a remote environment, they found some interesting shifts. Specifically, the most significant work experience factors to remote workers’ engagement included the supervisor’s manager displaying principles that guide behavior in the organization; employees working well together to provide high quality service; and receiving context and reasons for major changes in the employee’s work group.

These findings have important implications for leaders:

  • Remote workers need a sense of structure, boundaries and expectations from their managers and “what these leaders stand for and expect.”
  • When changes occur in the organization, employees must feel connected and in the loop when shifts occur in the work environment that affect the team and potentially the employee’s role in that team.
  • Working remotely actually drives the need for employees to feel like their work makes a difference in providing a high quality experience to customers.

Next Steps / Conclusion

Given the Gallagher survey team findings, managers can play a key role in driving connection and engagement with remote workers. Several practices can set your organization up for success with a remote workforce:

  1. Equip managers for success. The organization must recognize that managers need a different set of skills to manage a remote workforce than those needed to manage a workforce down the hallway. Providing training and resources to managers specific to remote workers can support managers in leading from a distance. Consider establishing a manager to manager networking group so that the managers can learn from and support each other.
  2. Establish a check-in routine for all remote employees. With a remote workforce we are unable to connect in a break room or walk into someone’s office for a quick hello. Managers need to establish frequent check-ins intentionally, both one-on-one as well as in a team setting, to drive connection. Check-ins should cover a variety of conversation topics not just about workload and performance. For example, start remote meetings asking everyone to share both a personal and professional high point. Create a habit of dedicating the first five minutes of a meeting to this type of chatter to strengthen team engagement.
  3. Use a variety of communication options for check-ins, team meetings and organization-wide announcements to keep employees connected to the organization’s goals and current on changes. Communicating frequently with transparency, honesty and empathy can make remote workers feel connected. Leverage technology such as conference calls, video conferencing, chat functions, emails and intranet sites. Frequent training on how to use technology tools is critical.
  4. Set clear expectations for employee and manager performance. Establish start and end times for the workday, response time to emails, and availability--all are potentially different when teams are not face-to-face at the worksite. Each employee and manager situation may vary, so be flexible where possible and appropriate. For some workers, their workday may start earlier or end later due to time zones or other personal circumstances. Establish and communicate a schedule between the manager and the employees so that everyone functions under the same expectations.
  5. Acknowledge and intentionally foster the culture you desire. Success may require extra effort with a remote workforce. Communicate openly about the vision of the company, carefully articulate changes, offer support tools for employee well-being, encourage team work and social interaction, as well as create opportunities for fun. These steps may need additional creativity and focus to engage a remote workforce.

At Gallagher Bassett we recently held a guitar concert before Memorial Day Weekend with employees tweeting their WFH photos to #lifeatgallagher. 

Remote conference calls can turn into walking, treadmill meetings. We also share photos of home office set-ups and “co-workers” (like kids, roommates, and four-legged friends) on GB Engage (our intranet). Think about employee birthday celebrations and other personal milestones to celebrate with a team virtual happy hour.

Taking the steps to carefully consider how to engage and connect with your remote workforce is an important component of driving employee well-being and overall organizational wellbeing. We invite you to contact Mitch about Gallagher Better Works where we have strategies and can help you take action steps to make your organization better every day.