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Route 66: can remote working put two-thirds of us back on the road to engaged employment?

Pre-pandemic, 66% of the world’s workforce weren’t engaged in their jobs – Chris Ross examines how the rush to remote working has impacted employee engagement

Someone once told me that ‘company culture is what happens when the boss isn’t in the office’. It’s a great definition.

But what happens when the office is suddenly the spare room, the kitchen table or the lounge you’re sharing with a screaming toddler? The boss will never be there, but despite the comfort of familiar surrounds, your whole working experience (and probably your domestic life too) will be shaped by your company’s culture. How very weird. But how very now.

In the new virtual reality, remote working has gone from being a much-cherished perk to a potential horror show. The quality of your experience will largely depend on the calibre of the engagement  provided by your employer. Good or bad, employee engagement determines how happy, motivated and productive we are – and how likely we are to deliver great work that drives commercial success. It has always mattered, but now it matters more than ever.

The pandemic is shining a bright light on companies’ employee engagement strategies and highlighting the fault lines in culture that were there long before the pandemic struck – and have always silently simmered ‘when the boss isn’t in the office’. The question is: has COVID rewritten the rulebook, or do the same old principles simply need to be reapplied to suit employee engagement in the virtual age?

First, let’s examine the before and after. The most recent State of the Global Workplace Report from Gallup, published in May 2019, paints a bleak picture of employee engagement. Pre-pandemic, just 15% of employees worldwide were ‘engaged
in their jobs’, with 66% ‘not engaged’ and 18% ‘actively disengaged’. The numbers read like an old school report: employers could do better.

The price of failure is high. Gallup claims that disengaged workers have 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity and 15% lower profitability. All told, the most disengaged workers cost their employers 34% of their annual salary. That’s a lot of wasted resources.

Conversely, engaged employees are invested in their company’s vision, commit wholeheartedly to achieving their objectives and seek responsibility beyond their job description. Moreover, they add value to the bottom line and are more likely to emerge as future leaders. Employee engagement pays.

But engagement is a two-way street; sure, the best workers will have the right attitude, but in return we expect respect, opportunity, trust and reward. And when we don’t get it – or when we don’t feel supported (or heard) in times of challenge or change – our working relationships can quickly go sour. We’ve all been there. And if Gallup’s figures are anywhere near accurate, it sounds like many of us still are.

Remote control

So has the COVID-inspired rush to remote working moved the dial? Maybe. But it’s opened a whole can of worms too. A recent survey from McKinsey reveals that most companies did ‘a solid job’ in addressing employees’ basic needs during lockdown, but suggests that as we move beyond lockdown, those needs will change.

A more sophisticated approach will be required. According to the survey, employees reported positive experiences of remote working, with many claiming that it made them feel ‘more engaged’. These are encouraging findings – but nuances in the data reveal that, if remote working is to become the default option, companies will need to develop more personalised engagement tactics to reflect the complexity and diversity of the modern workforce.

For example, while parents working from home fared better than those who were isolated, fathers were much more positive about their remote experience than mothers. Moreover, 80% of respondents said that the crisis had materially affected their daily work lives, driving a wide variety of experiences, challenges and outcomes. Understanding those challenges is critical to nurturing effective performance – heaping the pressure on good employee engagement.

COVID has undoubtedly brought added complexity to the employee engagement challenge – but is the need for more personalised approaches actually anything new? After all, workers can’t just leave their personal lives at the door before they enter the office, so businesses have always had a responsibility to look after the ‘whole person’ not just the employee.

Perhaps the shift to long-term remote working practices will force companies to increase their focus on employee engagement to find new ways of strengthening the employee experience that respects and responds to individual needs? With a recent PwC poll showing that more than 20 of Britain’s biggest firms have no plans for employees to come back to the office, the need to evolve employee engagement is real.

Healthy engagement

So how does this all play out in pharma? With health at the centre of the global spotlight, the industry’s response to lockdown has been measured. Where other sectors have rushed into job cuts and efficiency measures, the pharma world has been far less volatile. However, global economic uncertainty has inevitably slowed down the recruitment market, with many reluctant to move in fear of what might happen next.

It’s better the devil you know. In a ‘candidate-short’ market, employee engagement has become an important source of competitive advantage. The lockdown experience highlighted flaws in current approaches, as well as best practices among industry leaders.

“The companies that managed lockdown best were those that had got their culture sorted out long before the pandemic struck,” said Julia Walton, Director, Media Contacts. “Many had flexible working practices that were already well established, and structures in place that everyone understood. These businesses were better placed to manage the transition across the entire workforce. However, the wholesale shift does present challenges when it comes to employee engagement – even in businesses that historically engage well.

"Some people are feeling isolated and are worried about their mental health. Others are increasingly worried about ‘Zoom fatigue’. The most consistent complaint is that staff are missing face-to-face interaction. While many acknowledge being more productive without the interruption of everyday office events, creative teams miss being able to pull ten people into a room for a random brainstorm, or the opportunity to learn by osmosis across diverse teams. Fundamentally, it’s that sense of ‘team’ that’s taking the biggest hit, with many people generally feeling cut off from their colleagues and missing out on social interaction.

“These are huge engagement challenges. Companies need to make sure that staff have regular updates and conversations with management, not simply to ensure they’re managing processes and achieving objectives, but also to understand the ‘human’ factors that are shaping their experience, and provide an outlet for dialogue and interaction that can help solve problems. Engagement is about giving everyone a voice.”

McKinsey agrees, with its survey showing that the most successful employers are striving to build trust by listening to their workforce. “An engaged workforce is the difference between an average business and an exceptional one,” said Julia Walton.

“But workforce demographics vary considerably, and what employees want will always differ from individual to individual. The trick is to engage continuously to identify commonality. Don’t guess or assume: ask the audience. The best approach is to run anonymous employee engagement surveys with your teams to find out what they want and then look at how you can provide it. It’s an old approach, but it’s still the most effective.”

Four core challenges

Staff retention levels in pharma are generally pretty good, with comparatively moderate movement across the industry each year. This suggests that companies are on the right track when it comes to employee engagement. But there’s still much to be done.

“The core challenges of employee engagement are the same today as they were 12 months ago, but the pandemic has brought them into really sharp focus,” said Petra Battersby, Chief People Officer, Envision Pharma Group. “First, a lack of alignment can sometimes constrain employee engagement. When companies are aligned on their culture, values and vision, employee engagement is often much stronger.

"Individuals understand how they contribute to the bigger picture and enjoy autonomy and opportunity to make their mark. As a result, people feel more engaged and more emotionally invested in their company. The second challenge is communication. Sometimes, communications channels get saturated, which can become a barrier to healthy engagement. This is particularly relevant at the moment because remote working has amplified virtual communication but diminished face-to-face. Clear lines of communication are vital.

“Third, leadership is crucial. ‘Engaging’ leadership behaviours don’t come naturally for everyone, and remote working has only exacerbated the challenge. It can be hard to feel that you’re engaging ‘authentically’ when you’re doing it over video. Finally, perhaps the biggest challenge as an employer is understanding your workforce sufficiently to bring the organisation along with you. This has always been complex but COVID has taken it to another level.

"Every employee has their own personal challenges and circumstances that shape their everyday experience. A good employer engages employees in ways that are mindful of those human challenges – but must strike the right balance between supporting the individual and maintaining their responsibilities to the wider organisation. The pandemic has created a different dynamic that’s made this more challenging.”

"A good employee engagement strategy, said Petra Battersby, is business critical: if companies look after their people, their people will look after their business. “Strategies will inevitably be nuanced, but the best depend on getting close to employees, understanding what makes them tick and establishing clear parameters that allow people to work autonomously, collaboratively and effectively.”

Is remote a red herring?

Despite the current focus, the principles of employee engagement are well established and haven’t really changed. So is the idea that COVID should be a catalyst for change actually a red herring? Not quite. A virtual workforce certainly dictates a different approach, but the old rules of engagement will still apply.

“The logistical considerations of whether we work at home or from the office are a distraction from the real issues,” said Alex Davies, Senior Director, Hanover Communications. “Where you work should not matter. But what you do – and why you do it – is all important. Keeping employees engaged fundamentally depends on understanding what you are as a business – and being crystal clear on where you’re heading and why.

"As individuals, we all want to feel that we’re part of a team that’s heading towards a clear destination. It doesn’t matter whether that team is all housed under one roof or spread across multiple places, we want to feel that we’re part of something bigger, something important – and that our contribution makes a difference to reaching that goal.

“‘Purpose’ has become an overused word, but it’s the key to employee engagement. Businesses start to lose people when no-one’s quite sure where a company’s going. It’s a popular misconception that constant change often leads to employees feeling disengaged. I don’t think that’s true. If a change is done with a clear destination in mind you can bring people with you. But when employees aren’t clear on what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and where they fit in, they slowly disengage.”

Pharma, said Alex Davies, is lucky. “It’s hard to think of an industry with a better purpose. And I’m yet to meet anyone in it who isn’t motivated by the prospect of improving patient care. In fact, this is the most exciting time to work in medicines. We are at that tipping point where AI and digital tech is helping pharma bring through groundbreaking treatments that can transform health.

"Looking ahead, it’s perfectly reasonable for pharma companies to aspire to be like Google or Apple, but with products that have a greater impact on people’s lives than the latest smart device. However, getting there means taking risks and mobilising teams for fast-paced change. It requires an engaged workforce that understands where you’re heading – and has the motivation that comes from knowing how they can play their part. Fundamentally, the pandemic may be shaping the tactics of employee engagement, but purpose is the strategic glue that binds everything together.”

Chris Ross is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

16th September 2020

Chris Ross is a freelance writer specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

16th September 2020

From: Marketing

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