Now that employers have learned how to hire and manage work-from-home employees, the bigger challenge will be to retain them. With location no longer a limiting factor, many workers can pursue dozens and perhaps hundreds of new employment opportunities, including jobs with employers operating virtually anywhere in the world.
“For employees, it is definitely easier to look for a new job while they are working from home,” says Mike Dergis, founder of management recruiter and leadership advisory firm Sigred Solutions in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Early-stage interviews are now done virtually, so employees can fit them in during the day, without missing work.”
“On the other hand, we’ve seen employees become more risk averse at least in the early stages of the COVID response,” Dergis continues. “Where before there might be no hesitation to jump to a new job, now there are additional concerns about the new company’s stability and questions about whether ‘the grass really is greener.’”
Concerns about remote worker longevity date to before COVID. In 2018, a survey of more than 2,000 workers and managers by Virgin Pulse and Future Workplace found "more than half say they feel lonely 'always' or 'very often,'" and also that "remote workers are more likely to quit because of loneliness and low engagement."
How COVID might affect this is only now coming to light. An ongoing survey by consulting firm Mercer of 177 organizations found 10.7 percent said the current level of voluntary workforce turnover in their company exceeded pre-COVID levels. Slightly fewer than half reported no change, and 38 percent reported fewer people leaving voluntarily. (The survey began October 19, 2020; these results are as of October 29, 2020.)
Part of the reason for moderate work-from-home turnover may be that at this stage of the pandemic, remote employees are mostly white-collar information workers, who have a different turnover profile.
“Typically, there is more turnover with low-paid, well-defined 'commodity' jobs, because more jobs are available to the remote worker,” says Adam Pressman, a partner at Mercer. “High-paid, complex ‘non-commodity’ jobs tend to have less turnover, because finding the ‘right fit’ is harder and there is more risk to failure in starting a job remotely.”
One overriding lesson of COVID is the need to prepare for uncertainty. Retaining work-from-home workers post-pandemic may not be exactly like it was before. Dergis anticipates that leaders will be forced to develop long-term work-from-home strategies, including balancing remote work, increasing communication, managing productivity and maintaining engagement.
Engagement, in particular, is a key component of remote worker retention.
Work-From-Home Retention Solutions
No one talks about retention for long without mentioning communication. Communicating in both directions—goal setting by managers and goal progress by line workers—has always been seen as vital for remote work success. but it takes on new importance in a world reshaped by the pandemic, notes Robin Paggi, a training and development specialist with VensureHR, a professional employer organization based in Chandler, Arizona.
What supported retention before COVID-19 may not work now. Employers should take the time to ask their top employees what motivates them and keeps them at the company.
—Mike Dergis, founder, Sigred Solutions
“There a lot of distractions at home for a lot of people,” Paggi notes. “So, it’s important to do a progress report at least weekly.”
While empty-nesters may find a home office an easy place to concentrate, it could be very different for a worker with small children being homeschooled.
Along with communicating regularly about work matters, business owners may also want to include personal matters in the mix. Organizing informal meetings such as virtual happy hours to put colleagues’ faces on each other’s screens can help employees feel personally—and well as professionally—connected.
“It’s checking in and doing things that are fun, not just going over what you accomplished this week,” Paggi says.
Providing home workers with equal access to training is also considered an important focus. People who aren’t in the office don’t get as many opportunities to develop their skills as on-site employees. And younger workers are especially interested in increasing their knowledge and abilities through employer-sponsored training.
Businesses can address this by inviting work-from-home employees to socially distanced in-person training, virtual sessions or by sending trainers to their homes.
“A business can retain people working from home today by providing ample connection points for coaching and mentoring,” says Susan Power, an executive coach and organizational consultant in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “Many leading organizations are providing coaching to increase employees’ resilience and leadership skills as remote employees.”
Employees aren’t the only ones who can benefit from training. Managers also need to be taught how to engage home-based teams to be productive, Pressman says.
In addition to learning how to effectively communicate with home workers, managers may, for instance, need to overcome the common suspicion that people are only productive when they’re actually in the office.
Training and communication are important for all employees, but so is tech. Making sure workers have access to the technology they need is a special problem when they are working from home. Home offices can be as efficient as on-site offices when everything, from laptops to webcams for videoconferencing, is present and working.
“Collaboration tools and technology can help keep employees connected, which is critical,” Pressman adds.
In addition to training and technology, another resource home-based worker risk missing out on is recognition. Paggi observes that while recognition by managers helps employees feel valued, peer to peer recognition is even more effective at making employees sense that they are part of something.
“Peer-to-peer recognition is very popular,” she says. “Your peers see what you’re doing, especially when you help them out.”
Online recognition systems that allow anyone to recognize anyone else for a contribution are particularly well-suited for remote work and accommodating social distancing, she adds.
The Future of Work-From Home Retention
The consensus among staffing and management experts is that COVID has reshaped work as we know it in permanent and profound ways.
“My view is that remote work is here to stay as employees do not want to return to their long commutes, and we have the technology to support distributed workforces,” Power says. “Companies will maintain a smaller regional headquarters with fewer pre-assigned offices, and ... there will be a variety in work arrangements including blended remote and onsite work.”
Business owners who think that they can continue to do things the way they’ve always been done are probably becoming fewer every day since the pandemic began. However, for the holdouts, experts encourage them to be ready to start fresh when it comes to retaining remote workers.
“What supported retention before COVID-19 may not work now,” Dergis says. “Employers should take the time to ask their top employees what motivates them and keeps them at the company. They should also consider talking to great employees whose performance has dropped in recent months. It can be a better approach to turn performance around than to lose an employee and have to start fresh with someone new.”
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