For many organizations, remote work isn’t just a passing fancy. What the past year has made clear is that not only is it feasible to work from home, but it can also be just as productive as being in the office. And the benefits of remote work extend to employers: they’re able to readily access new talent pools and grow the depth and diversity of their workforce.
But remote work also has its drawbacks. Employee engagement is more difficult in a virtual workplace, and it’s especially hard for working parents to balance the demands of remote work while helping homebound children manage their schoolwork. The lack of social interactions has impeded information sharing and created feelings of isolation. And, for workers who are onsite while others remain at home, feelings of inequity have surfaced.
In a recent knowledge sharing session, our experts talked with experts from two leading companies about key talent-related challenges and how they are making remote work more effective for their organization. Melissa Swift, Global Leader, Workforce Transformation at Korn Ferry, led the session. She was joined by Maria Amato, Associate Client Partner at Korn Ferry, who interviewed Juliann Brown, Assistant Vice President Development and Learning at Geisinger, and by Ron Porter, Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry, who interviewed Cecilia McKenney, the Chief Human Resources Officer of Quest Diagnostics.
What does remote work look like?
Swift kicked off the discussion by describing the types of emergency remote work models that companies have adopted during the pandemic.
- Fluid hub and spoke: Talent is clustered in key locations, with some flexibility to go on and off site. Key challenge: Setting “rules of engagement” for who is onsite and offsite at any given time.
- Periodic culture infusions: People generally work remotely but come together to socialize and share purpose. Key challenge: Making onsite time feel worthwhile.
- Onsite at minimum: Only those workers who must be onsite are onsite. Key challenge: managing disparities between onsite and offsite populations.
- Team-driven: Teams decide on their best onsite or remote collaboration model. Key challenge: giving teams guardrails to make sensible, inclusive decisions.
- Remote-only: No real onsite presence; all collaboration is virtual. Key challenge: maintaining engagement, especially in the long run.
As Swift observed, each of these models is associated with a key challenge. But these aren’t the only quandaries that organizations are facing. She added that remote work has upended the who, what, when, where, why and how of work, forcing organizations to ponder questions like these:
- Who: Who can work remotely? Who wants to work remotely?
- What: What jobs can truly be performed remotely?
- When: How many hours is reasonable? How do you manage work-life balance? How do you avoid burnout?
- Where: What should a workplace look like? Is the office built for collaboration? What are the requirements if you’re working from home?
- Why? How do you maintain purpose and engagement in virtual spaces?
- How? How do organizations define how they do work? How do we collaborate? How do we look at performance?
The conversation then turned to how two leading organizations, Geisinger and Quest Diagnostics, are handling quandaries like these.
Before the pandemic, remote work was not part of the culture at Geisinger, a Pennsylvania healthcare system with 24,000 employees. But, because of concerns about safety and the supply of personal protective equipment, the company pivoted to a remote work environment. Problematically, the company didn’t have a plan for long-term remote work. So, leaders had to work through the processes reactively, Brown said, but they “quickly mobilized.”
After a few months of working remotely, the company surveyed its employees to see how they felt. The survey unearthed feelings of inequity. Brown reflected, “Some employees embraced working from home and wanted to do it for the long-term; others felt it was awful. Those who were not able to work remotely were upset. Others felt guilty that they were working from home while their colleagues on the frontline were putting themselves at risk.”
The transition to online work was made easier by technology and a fantastic IT team. The company realized it needed a new mechanism to communicate and handle video calls, so it switched to Microsoft Teams. The IT team cut the rollout time in half, and the platform has continued to evolve since then.
Leaders also worked to find new ways to create connections between employees and the organization. First, they had to quickly innovate as they figured out how to onboard and train employees. And, to reach employees throughout the company, leaders started holding virtual town halls.
In addition to communication, another early concern was performance management. Leaders were very concerned about productivity. The assumption was that employees weren’t going to be able to keep up with their workload, because they might have too many distractions at home. Moreover, managers worried that they wouldn’t be able to keep tabs on who was actually working. Brown said, “What we’re hearing, though, from both our leaders and our employees, is that employees are actually more productive when working from home.”
Working with Korn Ferry, the company developed talking points for leaders so they could talk through the expectations, including productivity, hours of work and dress code with their teams. “Those talking points really helped leaders have a place to start with employees, ensuring they were on the same page.’”
Brown commented that Geisinger has enjoyed a number of unanticipated positives from remote work. The first was sourcing talent. She explained, “We’re now able to and open to sourcing talent and not requiring relocation, depending on the role. We’ve just hired some employees working out of state, and that’s not something we would have thought about previously.” Geisinger is also working on developing a two-hour virtual new employee orientation designed to engage employees regardless of their on-site or remote work location.
Another benefit has been greater transparency. The company’s most recent employee engagement survey showed highly positive feedback about supervisors. So, the company plans to keep its town hall meetings, regardless of whether they’re working remotely or onsite, because they enable employees to “hear from leaders about what’s happening at ground level.” The company also plans to keep implementing virtual learning, because there’s no need to make employees sit in a classroom, face-to-face, to learn, Brown remarked.
For Brown, the biggest lesson she’s learned relates to the power of the human connection. “I’ve learned that there are times when you have to step back and make sure employees are OK at the human level. We had to step back and ask whether employees had what they needed. You can’t pass them in a cube and wave and feel connected. You need to really be intentional. That might mean scheduling five minutes to check in with your employees to see how they’re doing and whether they have what they need, because we’re finding that working from home doesn’t eliminate burnout.” She added, “In some cases, employees are feeling like they’re working longer hours. My commute now is down the stairs. That’s not long enough to wind down. They’re struggling with having the offline feeling and leaving work at the end of the day. To me, one of the biggest takeaways is thinking about the employee. We need to make them feel like they matter.”
In March 2019, this 50,000-employee testing company sent 10,000 team members to work from home. McKenney described it as “an out-of-body experience,” because the company’s culture, while somewhat flexible, hadn’t previously supported 100% remote work for its office-based employees.
Making the decision created two groups, McKenney observed: mostly management employees worked remotely, while frontline employees, including laboratory employees, phlebotomists and couriers, continued work as usual. Initially, some employees in administrative roles felt grateful for the opportunity to work from home, while some of the frontline employees experienced some friction. But, over time, people adapted, McKenney said, and understood why some had to come in and others remained remote.
Last fall, the company conducted a survey and asked whether its remote workers would want to return to the office if they could do so safely. A small contingent, about 20%, responded that they missed the connections at the office or found their homes less conducive to work; another 20% weren’t sure, and 60% replied that they didn’t want to come back at that time. So, in the fourth quarter, the company began a purely voluntary return to the office in locations where community positivity rates were low.
For McKenney, one of the interesting things about COVID is how it’s turned the work-life paradigm on its head. She explained, “Especially for women, there was this work-life balance that we were striving for, and the new reality of working from home posed the question of how to separate the two. COVID has taught us that perhaps a more integrated approach is the way to be more flexible for employees, depending on where they are in their life journey.”
Like Brown, McKenney reflected at length on how organizations need to center their thinking around employees. “It seems COVID has taught us that we get a more satisfied and productive employee when we care for the whole person—the person who shows up to work and the person who is striving and struggling to get through this pandemic. We must start with asking them how they’re doing and how their family is before talking about the results or the business at hand.”
Quest has made a number of pivots to ensure it keeps a positive, employee-centric culture throughout the pandemic. Before, the company had a use-it-or-lose it paid time off policy. But, with COVID closures and the pace of work, leaders recognized that it was difficult for employees to take a vacation, or even a day off. So, the company adjusted its policy, offering to pay out unused vacation time at the end of the year for its non-exempt population—the lion’s share of its employee base. Last fall, the company instituted a tax-free bonus for its frontline heroes, giving $500 to 25,000 employees. Plus, it made an additional Giving Thanks payment to every employee at Thanksgiving, and sent a blanket and two Quest-branded masks to everyone’s homes for the holidays. When McKenney visited one of Quest’s labs at the end of the year, the employees she spoke with were appreciative of the holiday gift, which arrived with a note of thanks from Quest’s CEO, Steve Rusckowski. “It taught me that the small things matter and that it’s important to try different things. You never know what will engage an employee. I’ll remember this as we go forward.”
Quest was set to relaunch its employee recognition program on April 1, 2020. With the pandemic setting in, Quest delayed it and relaunched on October 1st. The program is based on research showing that recognizing employees for their performance raised productivity by 23%, while appreciating employees for the value they bring to work lifted productivity by 43%. McKenney explained, “We’re trying to build a culture of appreciation through our RecognitionQuest program and recognize what people bring—their insight and care, and just the whole person. It’s been a fabulous way to engage remote workers in addition to our in-person employees.”
The company also plans to continue engaging employees in new ways post-pandemic. McKenney said the company recently used Kahoot to engage its leadership team and crowdsource ideas for how to encourage employees to use the mobile version of an app. Using an app typically used for schoolkids in a professional setting and engaging employees through gamification was groundbreaking. McKenney added, “Trying new technology and new ways of engaging has been amped up through COVID and will clearly be part of our approach going forward.”
Next steps for optimizing your remote work environment
Remote work isn’t going away anytime soon. Now’s the time for you to assess what’s working and what isn’t and plan proactively for the future. By taking the time now to plot a more conscious path forward for remote work, you can optimize your organization’s model and strengthen your employee engagement.
To learn more about how to address the challenges of optimizing your workforce in a remote work environment, talk to our experts.