With more people working remotely than ever before, it’s no secret that the pandemic has changed the look and feel of work. Consequently, it has also impacted employee engagement.

In a May 2020 Gallup study, 38% of employees reported feeling engaged at work—the highest reported engagement level since 2000. But the number dropped to 31% in June 2020 due to COVID-19 case surges, George Floyd-related protests, unemployment spikes, and more. Employee engagement figures averaged 36% by the end of 2020, but an estimated 29% of remote employees reported struggling with loneliness.

As a business leader, you can connect your workforce with virtual office parties, team meetings, and other social opportunities. Which technology is a valuable ally, many companies still struggle to encourage employee engagement during uncertain times. Here are four pitfalls to avoid when trying to stoke engagement among remote employees:

1. Requiring attendance at office events (even virtual ones).

According to an October 2020 Gallup study, remote employees face a high risk of burnout. Given the significant number of people suddenly working remotely this year, concerns about burnout have been ever-present. When workers are exhausted, they’re more likely to take sick days, lack confidence in their performance, and struggle with health complications.

Socialization—even virtually—can boost employee morale and improve mental health. While it might be tempting to use these virtual hangs to strengthen those areas, try not to make these events mandatory. Ryan Chartrand, CEO at X-Team, which provides companies with scalable remote development teams, warns of the downfalls of mandatory remote employee engagement.

“In a remote setting, employees should not feel like they are being forced to participate in mandatory activities that distract them from things they would rather be doing,” Chartrand said. “Instead, they should be free to engage on their schedules—and they should always be willful participants.”

Mandatory events often do more harm than good to those who would rather opt out. Instead of requiring participation, make these events optional to give employees time to pursue hobbies and activities that they enjoy. Employees will be better equipped to avoid burnout if they can spend their free time on meaningful activities that truly engage them.

2. Forgetting the company purpose in day-to-day work.

Before the shift to remote work, most employees had daily in-person reminders of their company’s purpose. A change in surroundings has profoundly altered the morale of the workforce. According to a CareerBuilder survey, employees are split on how they feel about their current job in a typical year: 50% feel like they have a career, and the remaining 50% feel like it’s just a job.

Team success hinges on employees feeling a shared sense of purpose—the “why” behind the workday. Remind team members of your company’s importance and how they’re contributing to its success. You can also inspire employees by encouraging them to do activities they enjoy outside of work. This will increase their overall satisfaction, leading to better engagement and dedication on the job. You might also provide educational opportunities to team members who want to develop their skills further.

3. Micromanaging employees away from the office.

You might wonder how many of your team members stay on task or whether they can meet deadlines throughout the day. Even though you can’t see your employees, it doesn’t mean you have to control everything they do. Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” If you’re micromanaging your employees, try trusting them to do the jobs you hired them to do. They might discover new challenges, better solutions, and become more engaged along the way.

Micromanagement (i.e., the “my way or the highway” mentality) often stifles employee productivity and morale. Research shows that excessive micromanagement stems from a lack of manager trust and signals to workers that they do not have the capabilities to solve problems. Micromanagement damages employee self-worth, hampers innovation, limits upward mobility, wastes time, and increases turnover. Instead of continually correcting your team’s work, empower employees to take ownership of their day-to-day duties and feel connected to their work—especially while working remotely.

4. Not recognizing employees or showing that you care.

Despite the many benefits of remote work, it can get pretty lonely. Plus, many employers miss the mark when it comes to employee recognition.

According to a survey commissioned by OGO (O Great One!), 82% of employed Americans don’t feel supervisors recognize them or their contributions enough. This lack of gratitude takes a terrible toll on morale, productivity, and, ultimately, profitability. Notably, 40% of employed Americans say they’d put more energy into their work if they received more recognition for their efforts.

For example, OGO CEO David Novak recalled a conversation he had with a leading oncologist during cancer treatment at a world-renowned medical center. When asked what she received to recognize 40 years of work at the center, she told Novak that her employer gave her a keychain.

“Most workplaces suffer from what I call a ‘recognition deficit,’” Novak said. “This deficit is especially bad for those whose jobs are viewed as more mundane than a highly trained cancer specialist—for people who never gain direct appreciation from customers, clients, or others who can recognize a job well done even if an employer doesn’t.”

To boost employee engagement while your team works remotely, explore ways to provide proper recognition. From acknowledging individual achievements to offering tangible rewards and incentives, find opportunities to demonstrate how much you care.

Remote work challenges employees and employers in significant ways, and employee engagement should be one of the most pressing concerns. Sticking with the status quo and hoping for better business outcomes saves time, but it doesn’t solve underlying problems. It’s time to implement new ways to inspire your workforce and boost engagement, productivity, and overall satisfaction.

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Roland Millaner