With 2021 now in full swing, many business leaders, including myself, are anticipating and planning for a return to normalcy, even if that means a “new normal.” We eagerly await the day we can bring all employees back into the workplace safely. Today, there are medical treatments for the virus and vaccinations rolling out. However, we’re still a long way from getting a majority of people vaccinated. According to medical experts, we will probably need to continue wearing masks and social distancing at least throughout 2021.
In the initial chaos of the pandemic, business leaders sent employees home and addressed the immediate priority of getting them the right technology to stay productive and take care of customers remotely. As businesses pivoted to support a remote workforce, the pace of digital transformation accelerated. Now, it is time to examine the complete remote employee experience and better align business processes to deliver the full range of talent management.
Employee Experience in a Socially Distanced Workplace
The pandemic redefined our world and totally changed the workplace. Prior to the pandemic, 19.4 million Americans worked remotely. In the early months of the pandemic, nearly seven in ten employees worked remotely. After nine months, 42% of the U.S. workforce remained fully remote.
Even before the pandemic, Cloud5 had a distributed workforce and management team, and we facilitated regular collaborative sessions at our Chicago headquarters and New Brunswick call center. This made it easier for our organization to transition to a more fully remote model during the pandemic. Over the long term, we will adopt a hybrid work model that combines collaborative time in the office with remote work for individual tasks.
Telework has delivered benefits and challenges for both employers and employees. Surprisingly, Gallup found remote employees were significantly more engaged than onsite workers in 2020. Multiple studies have shown employee productivity increases for remote workers. And now that employees are used to it, 50% say they won’t return to jobs that don’t offer remote work after COVID-19.
It can be a challenge to build and maintain team unity across physical distances. Employees who do not work in the same location as their manager are less likely to say someone cares about them at work. Businesses must find new ways to strengthen culture when employees can’t gather in person.
Onboarding and Training
I’m concerned about younger professionals—especially those coming in for their first or second job after college. How surreal must this on-the-job experience seem to employees that never experienced the pre-COVID-19 business world? At Cloud5, we’ve examined our onboarding and mentoring processes with particular attention to how to best serve young professionals.
While we are onboarding non-essential employees remotely, we decided it’s critical to onboard our contact center reservations and customer service agents with in-person, on-the-job training. Our training for this group of employees is tailored for the accounts they will work with and support. We bring them into our contact center in New Brunswick and train in small, safe cohorts. Everyone remains masked and practices social distancing during this training.
Mentoring Programs
Today, corporations have begun recruiting and onboarding the first graduates from Generation-Z into the workplace. Like Millennials before them, these digital-natives are technologically savvy and comfortable working remotely. However, I believe it has never been more important to have an effective mentoring program that can teach younger employees soft skills and guide them through workplace challenges.
I’ve personally seen the benefits of mentorship within our team at Cloud5. We team senior leaders with new hires coming into their first or second job out of college. We want these employees to benefit from a highly experienced mentor as they learn to navigate our organization.
Obviously, it takes additional effort to develop an authentic and genuine mentoring relationship while working remotely. We encourage our mentors to make first contact before their mentee’s start date and to use video during meetings to establish better rapport. The most important thing is to be available, open and empathetic.
Strengthening Culture and Supporting Wellbeing
There are a number of ways Cloud5 has been working to strengthen and reinforce our culture while our team remains physically apart. We have regular all-hands Zoom meetings to update employees about how we are responding to the pandemic and also focus together on our company objectives.
We also routinely conduct Skip Level Meetings to generate facetime between less seasoned employees and senior leaders. This builds an important bridge to help newer employees share in our company’s vision and allow the executive team to hear directly from employees.
For employee recognition, I host a monthly virtual “lunch with the CEO” to celebrate with employees who have a birthday during that month. We have food delivered to them from local restaurants and eat together on a Zoom call. We’ve also facilitated virtual happy hours to unwind and relieve stress together in a casual format.
Employees need more support during this challenging time. Remote work can lead to feelings of isolation, compounded by the pandemic. While we continue to work in remote teams, we are encouraging our managers to bump up their level of communication. Millennials and Gen Z express a strong preference for regular manager feedback, so our managers host daily team meetings and also schedule frequent one-on-one meetings.
Although We’re Apart, We Are in This Together
Going forward, businesses will assess whether a remote-first or hybrid-remote strategy fits best for the long term. Our organization will execute a long-term hybrid work environment for most divisions. The new normal will generally involve a few days each week in the office and a couple working from home. Time in the office will be focused on collaboration, so it will be important to have the ability to schedule the right people and groups to be in the office together for meetings. One of our leadership objectives during the first half of 2021 is to develop processes and ideas to ensure the times we gather together in person are more meaningful in terms of production and team building / bonding. When we return to more office time during the second half of 2021, we’ll execute on that strategy.
Whether a business pursues a fully remote or hybrid work environment, employee experience will be a key driver of both productivity and retention. Executive leadership should work with HR to ensure alignment between the remote, hybrid, and in-person employee experiences and company culture. When our entire workforce (remote and in-person) is able to connect through shared culture and values, we know we’re all in this together. As a united team, we look forward with hope for a brighter 2021.