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Is Engagement Enough? Managing Remote Work and the “New Normal”

Published: 06/29/2021 7:56 PM Author: PromoLeaf

A new study reveals that engagement does not equal appreciation. What do remote employees need and want from their employers? How do companies keep them feeling both engaged and appreciated?

Key Findings

  • 79% of workers feel somewhat or very engaged with their current employer, but a slightly greater number (80%) feel their employer could be doing more to show appreciation to remote workers.
  • Nearly half (46%) of employees felt there was a lack of support from their employers, and 45% felt overworked.
  • 36% of workers who felt unappreciated saw a decline in their mental health, and 33% applied for jobs elsewhere.
  • Paid internet service, a company laptop, and having their cell phone bill covered are high on the wish list for remote workers.
  • The top two answers show respondents would also feel appreciated if they received lunch vouchers and small gift items like household goods, apparel and drinkware.

There’s a dichotomy happening in the workforce at the moment. Hybrid and remote work is here to stay, and in December of last year, a PromoLeaf survey revealed that 40% of workers felt more productive working from home, and 19% felt more productive when they were offered a choice of where to work. However, after over a year of remote work required by a global pandemic, new data and new trends are emerging.

An astonishing number of people are looking to change jobs, 41% according to a recent research done by Microsoft, with 46% of those considering a major career shift. What’s happening? Why are employees unhappy with their current employers? Is there something companies can do to slow what some are calling “Resignationgate”?

To find out, we partnered with Censuswide and surveyed 1,012 US employees who indefinitely work remotely full-time since the pandemic to find out how engaged they feel, how appreciated they feel, and what, if anything, they feel they need from their employers.

The answers align with other research, but offer some unique insights as well. Many employees feel engaged, but not appreciated. If they feel unappreciated for too long, they will seek employment elsewhere, and some will even encourage their peers to do the same.

What can we do about it? What do employees really want? Let’s dive into the data.

Engagement Does Not Equal Appreciation

First of all, when we asked employees, “How engaged, if at all, or unengaged do you feel by your current employer?” 79% felt that they were somewhat or very engaged with their current employer. Only 15% didn’t feel very engaged, and a mere 6% felt they were not engaged at all.

This appears to be good news for employers, but before you go virtually high five your managers on a Zoom call, we also asked, “Do you think companies should be doing more to show appreciation to their employees who are working remotely?” 54% of respondents said “Yes, definitely.” Another 26% said “Yes, probably.”

How engaged do you feel by your current employer?

[CHART1]

Should companies be doing more?

We asked "Should companies be doing more to show appreciation to their remote employees?" and separated the responses based on each employee's engagement level.

Very engaged w/ employer
[CHART2]
Somewhat engaged w/ employer
[CHART3]
Not very engaged w/ employer
[CHART4]
Not engaged at all w/ employer
[CHART5]

What does this illustrate? Just because an employee feels engaged does not mean they feel appreciated. “What’s the difference?”

When we asked employees directly if there were any instances during the pandemic where they felt unappreciated, only 41% said never. The remaining 59% felt unappreciated, at least occasionally. But what made them feel that way?

Why Employees Feel Unappreciated

To find out, we asked the 594 respondents who at least felt unappreciated occasionally, “What caused you to feel unappreciated by your employer over the course of working remotely since the pandemic?” and allowed them to choose more than one of the following options:

Top 5 Responses For Feeling Unappreciated

For the 59% of respondents that said they felt unappreciated by their employer while working remotely, here were their top reasons for feeling that way.

46%

Lack of support

46%

Being overworked

46%

Lack of recognition

46%

Infrequent contact

46%

Being micromanaged

46%

Other

Over 46% cited lack of support. While team chats are up 45% according to Microsoft and Slack has seen similar growth, “often while my peers are easy to reach, my supervisors disappear or show ‘away’ on Slack with no alternative way to reach them,” one remote employee who wished to remain anonymous complained. “We can’t see if they are in meetings or elsewhere, and often we are wasting time just ‘waiting’ rather than working.” 

Over 45% of respondents felt overworked in our survey, and 44% felt a lack of recognition contributed to their feeling unappreciated. The data from Microsoft’s survey validates this: 37% of workers in that survey felt their company was asking too much of them at this time. That is also related to what many call “expected connectivity.”

In-person, you can “see” a person is away from their office or desk for lunch, a quick walk, or even just a restroom break. However, remote workers often feel “chained” to their desks lest employers think they are slacking off. In fact, statistics show that 62% of meetings and calls are now impromptu and not scheduled, and half of employees respond to Slack or Team messages within five minutes of receiving them.

The truth is, one of our “other” responses summed it up nicely: “There are little to no barriers between work and home life when working remotely.” One in five of the respondents to the Microsoft survey feel that “their employer does not care about their work/life balance.”

Feeling a lack of recognition is not always related to the amount of contact an employee has with their supervisor  or work/life balance. An equal number (30%) of our survey respondents feel they are “micromanaged” and the other 30% feel they have insufficient contact with their management team. This stresses the importance of not only being engaged, but knowing your employee, the level of engagement and supervision they need and want, and treating them accordingly, just like you would in an in-person work environment.

What happens when your remote employees don’t feel appreciated?

The Consequences of Unappreciated Employees

When remote employees do not feel appreciated, what happens? Nothing good, our survey shows. We asked the same group (those who felt underappreciated by their employers) what that resulted in, and allowed them to choose more than one outcome.

36%

Said their mental health declined

33%

Applied for new jobs

29%

Felt their productivity dropped

12%

Left the company they were working for

8%

Encouraged their colleagues to leave

7%

Wrote a bad review online

Only just over 11% felt that being unappreciated motivated them to work harder to earn that appreciation. When we take each of these factors individually, we see that underappreciated employees have a huge impact on business.

First, when we look at declines in mental health, it is important to note the impact on productivity. Studies by the American Psychiatric Association show that workers with unresolved depression see a drop of 35% in productivity. Those workers may not even be among the 29% who realized their productivity suffered. Declining mental health costs employers big time, and often it is difficult to see in remote workers without intentional check-ins that replace the in-the-hall conversations that happen in person.

85%
of very engaged employees felt that their mental assessment was somewhat or very good

When we asked overall respondents to self-assess their current wellbeing, 68% answered that it was somewhat or very good. Only around 11% felt it was somewhat or very bad. However, in those who felt very engaged, that 68% number rose to 85%. Those numbers were slightly lower in the healthcare field, likely due to the stress on front-line workers during the pandemic. In short, those who felt more engaged with their current employer had a better overall feeling about their own wellbeing.

There are companies who are actively working to improve. “We have made our remote employees' mental health and satisfaction a top priority through the pandemic, and it has shown,” Janelle Owens, HR Director at Test Prep Insight, told us. “All of the new perks we have adopted, combined with our executive team's increased transparency has left everyone feeling good about our new hybrid model.”

The fact that 12% of workers actually took action and left their jobs with the previously mentioned statistic that 41% of people are thinking of looking for work should have employers concerned. 

And despite the fact that many employees crave a return to the office, studies also show that nearly 30% would quit their jobs if they were forced to return to in person work after the pandemic. “If made to return to an office, I would look for another position,” says Nikki who works for a 100% remote company, QuoteBeam. “I am not interested in commuting long hours or living in a housing market that isn't a fit for me and my family. I also value my ability to travel and be flexible with my schedule, and I value an employer that understands that.”

In fact, like many during the pandemic, Nikki undertook a big move, from Seattle to Austin, for family reasons. She took the job with QuoteBeam specifically because location doesn’t matter. “This was a great fit for me, because I can work where my family needs me to be.”

Many employees made job changes or plan to do so, in large part due to feeling unappreciated, and they choose to work where they know they will be appreciated and they will have choices when it comes to how and where they work.

How long will employees tolerate being underappreciated? We asked employees that very question. The mean number of months was 8.64, but 44% of employees would last six months or less. When it comes to making employees feel appreciated, employees have a limited time offer with a clear expiration date.

When Enough is Enough!

We asked "How long could you feel unappreciated by your employer whilst working remotely before you'd change jobs?"

Less than a Month - 2%
1 to 2 Months - 12%
3 to 4 Months - 12%
5 to 6 Months - 18%
7 to 8 Months - 5%
9 to 10 Months - 2%
More Than a Year - 2%
I Wouldn't Change Jobs - 30%

While this may seem like bad news, there is some hope. Because employees have shared what they want and need to feel appreciated. So there are things employers can do to turn things around.

What Do Employees Want?

You would think that a year into remote work as a reality for many workers and companies, we would have the kinks ironed out. But for the most part, we don’t, and it is no wonder workers are unhappy. According to the data from Microsoft, 42 percent of employees say they lack essential office supplies at home, and one in 10 don’t have an adequate internet connection to do their job. Yet, over 46% say their employer does not help them with remote work expenses.

So when we asked our survey respondents “What work from home `office items` would you appreciate the most, if any?” and allowed them to choose up to five, the answers were not really surprising.

What Remote Employees Want

We asked "What work from home 'office items' would you appreciate the most?"

59%

Internet service to be paid for

41%

Laptop

40%

Phone bill to be paid for

37%

Comfortable Chair

23%

Printer

While there are some employers who provide these things for work at home or hybrid employees, a large number do not. Other common answers were requests for common items as well: a printer, a desk, noise cancelling headphones, routers, monitors, office supplies, coffee, and even a stipend for plants and other office accessories.

While some of the “other” answers were more specific, like a stand up desk, webcams, and duplicate charge cords, they pretty much aligned with the most popular answer. Essentially, employees said, “give us what we need to work productively at home.”

While having their needs met helps employees feel appreciated, we asked them, “What do you think are the most successful ways to show appreciation for remote workers, if any?” and let them make up to three choices.

Remote Workers & Appreciation

What are the most successful ways to show appreciation for remote workers?

[CHART]

The top answer was gift vouchers for lunches at 50%, and although we often don’t think about it, the extra expense (and sometimes pounds) associated with working and eating at home all the time is something employees clearly think about.

“One employee benefit we offer to our remote employees that has provided real bang for our buck has been a DoorDash budget,” Owens told us. “As we often have lunch catered for our in-office employees (usually 2-3 times per week), to show our remote employees that we appreciate their hard work and long hours as well, we give them a $30 weekly DoorDash credit.” There are restrictions. You can’t carry over your credit from week to week, for instance, then use your credit to cater your family reunion. Other than that, it’s fair game. “Our team members constantly talk about it... Given that it only costs us $120 per month for each remote employee, it offers tremendous return on investment in terms of employee appreciation.”

A close second at 41% was small gift items such as apparel and household items (like mugs, drinkware, and similar items). Online learning, virtual happy hours, and one-on-one recognition meetings with a manager all made the list as well.

What’s the real takeaway? Much like we found in our remote onboarding survey, employees want something that shows the company they work for cares about them. Doing something, even something small, is better than doing nothing at all.

And appreciation has an additional effect. Of those who felt unappreciated by their employer while working remotely, 30% were much more likely to ask for a raise, and over 41% were at least slightly more likely to ask for a raise. In short, money won’t buy you appreciation in all cases, but employees may seek additional compensation to make up for the feeling of not being appreciated.

“All this data is great,” you say. “What do we do about it?” Fortunately, there are answers.

The Balancing Act

The reality is that hybrid work is here to stay, and remote work has become, at least for some, a new normal. However, there is a balance, a delicate one, that companies must achieve. We asked our survey respondents if in a hybrid workplace setting, in-office workers have an inherent advantage over their remote colleagues.

In-Office Advantage?

We asked "In a hybrid workplace setting, do you feel in-office workers have an inherent advantage over their remote colleagues?"

38%

Yes

30%

Unsure

32%

No

The results were nearly equally divided, with 38% saying yes, 32% answering no, and the remaining 30% saying they were not sure. According to Microsoft, 66% of employers are making accommodations for a hybrid workspace, 73% of employees want remote options to still be offered, and 67% of employees want more in person collaboration going forward.

And when we asked HR professionals, we got mixed answers as well. “One of the difficulties when it comes to professional development and career advancement for hybrid workforces is that some opportunities just aren't possible via distance, says Trevor Larson, CEO of Nectar, an HR software company. “You need to make it clear when you hire people that if they want to pursue certain career paths, especially one's that involve increasing leadership responsibilities, they need to be in the office. Be clear about this from the get-go and you will avoid people feeling deceived or disillusioned with the job.”

“This is actually pretty simple - don’t judge someone for simply showing up at work,” Adam Hempenstall, founder and CEO at Better Proposals told us. “Career opportunities should be given according to performance so make sure that wherever your employees are, they are valued based on their output, not how much you (don’t) see them in person.”

“Ideally the remote/office distinction shouldn’t affect career advancement,” Magda Klimkiewicz, HR Business Partner at Zety told us. “It is perfectly possible to measure the progress of an employee working remotely as long as regular online meetings are held and development opportunities are discussed with the same openness as one does with an employee at the office.”

And remember that other earlier divided answer to the question of what caused employees to feel unappreciated? 30% felt micromanaged, 30% felt contact with management was too infrequent. “I hated the assumption that if I wasn’t reaching out and contacting management, I was fine,” one respondent said.

Employers must manage this same balance when workers are in-person, but it can be even trickier for a remote or hybrid workforce. So how do you take action?

Conclusion: Taking Action

Is the answer a company structure like Buffer, where you have no central offices but annual meetings in exotic locations? Are company meetups a thing anymore? When asked how they felt about the possibility of attending a company-wide meetup in person, our respondents were enthusiastic--to a point. However, nearly 45% were very interested, another 28% would only be interested under the conditions of mandatory vaccinations.

And while many employees who were a part of the Microsoft survey say they would love more in-person interactions going forward, still a large percentage of those who work remotely want to continue doing so. It’s a balance, and companies need to not only take action, but take the right action.

Here are some key takeaways from our survey.

Empower flexibility in the digital and physical space.

Employees want their employer to be flexible. They want work from home options with appropriate support and career advancement opportunities. Many are much more willing to switch jobs or even careers to get what they are after.

“I think for me, if I choose to work remote or in an office will all depend on what stage of life I am currently in,” Chloe Sisson, a soon to be college graduate and the Outreach Coordinator at Zen Media told us. “Right now, I am about to graduate college, and think I would want to be out and about in an office. But when I’m older and have kids, working remotely like I work now at Zen would be wonderful!”

Not everyone wants the same kind of work environment, and not everyone is at the same stage in their lives. Flexibility will give you access to the best and most skilled workers in your industry.

Actively combat employees feeling underappreciated.

Employees expect you to have a plan, and you can feel free to get creative. “We’ve stepped up our retention rate by engaging with our remote employees and offering all kinds of helpful equipment from office chairs to keyboards and headphones, with the occasional bottle of wine thrown in,” Klimkiewicz said.

Owens says Test Prep Insight has taken things even further: “Another cool thing we do for remote employees is giving our team leads a budget to use the app Cameo to send top performers a thank you message from a celebrity. This is another perk that has gotten awesome feedback.”

Perhaps the most important takeaway is to understand that your employees just want to feel seen and heard and to be recognized. You can do this in a variety of ways, they don’t have to break the bank, and even if you make a mistake, doing something is better than nothing.

Focus on making sure your remote, hybrid, and in-person culture matches up.

If remote work and hybrid companies are going to be the norm going forward, you need to make sure your remote, hybrid, and in-person cultures match up, and that there are opportunities for career advancement in all of them.

“My employer told me I had to go back to the office at least part of the time to be eligible for positions in leadership,” an employee who wanted to remain anonymous told us. “I immediately polished up my resume and started to send it out. I’ve got three interviews already lined up with companies that have fully remote workforces.”

The time has come when equal opportunity now includes where and how someone works for you.

Check-in, and really listen.

The conversation you have in the hall at work, the one that starts with “How are you?” and ends up with more in-depth conversation when you see the look on that employee’s face doesn’t have to disappear because they are working remotely. Check-in. Listen. Spend the time to really connect with your employees, and bridge that gap between engagement on a work level, and true appreciation.

Rethink engagement and appreciation, and the future of work.

The future of work is now. It may have taken a global crisis to push companies to adopt new policies and rethink what the workspace actually looks like. But engagement no longer looks like a one-on-one meetup in your office, at least not exclusively. And appreciation goes beyond a gaming system in the breakroom and a beer in the company fridge for the end of the day.

Employees want more, and they want you to meet them where they are, at home, at the office, or some combination of the two. Either way, they want to feel both engaged and appreciated, supported, and still able to maintain a good work/life balance.

It’s the “new normal” for everyone. Managing remote work isn’t harder, it’s just different. And now is the time to adapt.

Methodology

The research was conducted for PromoLeaf by Censuswide, with 1,012 US employees who indefinitely work remotely full-time since the pandemic. The survey was conducted on June 2, 2021. Censuswide abides by and employs members of the Market Research Society which is based on the ESOMAR principles.

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