6 Steps to Help Re-onboard Your Dispersed Workforce

Dec 12, 2022

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a client regarding his desire to bring employees back into the office. Like many organizations forced to make changes last March, his had decided to send everyone that could work remotely home. Then over the following months, and as restrictions eased, he had tried to bring people back into the office with very mixed reactions. Some were eager to return to “normal”, while others were notably nervous and apprehensive to do so. Yet, he continued to pursue this “return to work” effort with urgency and made it a priority for his senior team.

When I asked why he felt so strongly about this, his initial response was that he didn’t want to have people “cutting their lawn or playing golf when they should be working”. Suspecting there was more to this, I asked how the organization’s productivity had been impacted by a large percentage of staff working remotely. His response was, “we had three of our most productive months!” So why was this experienced leader so concerned? Why was there such a lack of trust towards a highly productive workforce? This phenomenon was not new, as I explored in an article co-authored with my good friend, Dr Elia Gourgouris.

Two Common Obstacles for Remote Work

Working with clients over the years to determine whether virtual teams make sense for them, the two most common obstacles I find, are the online connectivity and tools needed so workers can do their job, and the trust from management that they will do their job. Now with higher internet speeds and virtual private networks (VPN) available, along with the advancement and adoption of popular online meeting and collaboration tools like Zoom and MS Teams, remote workers can be highly productive.

You must trust and believe in people, or life becomes impossible.

Anton Checkov

Trust, however, still seems hard to come by for most managers. But as companies were forced to choose between closing their operations or having their employees work remotely, they had to accept some risk. What many of them discovered was that those working from home were likely to be working more, rather than less, than they would in the office. This was further validated in a report by workplace software developer Atlassian that was published last month in the Economist.

Researchers analyzed the behavior of users in 65 countries and found that working hours started to lengthen in March, when most Western countries introduced lockdown measures. In April and May the average working day was 30 minutes longer than it had been in January and February. Most of the extra worktime tended to be in the evening.

This can be explained partially because of the practical efficiency of limited travel and virtual meetings starting and ending on time, and partially by the motivation of each employee wanting to prove they can still be productive under these unique circumstances and earn that elusive trust. The shift to more evening worktimes can also be a result of parents attending to their children or even acting as teachers for their school-age kids during the day.

Addressing New Priorities

My client’s comments and thinking, further confirm results from another recent survey that the top-two priorities of senior organizational and HR leaders are: (1) the physical and mental well-being of their people, and (2) maintaining productivity and effectiveness of staff. Each organization may decide to address these priorities in its own way. Much of it will depend on the company’s culture and norms, the type of work done at the company, and the size of the dispersed workforce, just to name a few. But do something they must because the world has changed and those returning to the office will find the (same) space is very different.

In this case, we set up a round table discussion with stakeholders from various departments to explore how to balance these two priorities. The discussion was real and eye-opening for both employees and management. Although questions regarding the longer-term decisions needed to make policy changes remain, here are the six simple actions the management team agreed to take to help “re-onboard” and “re-engage” team members:

  1. ASK: Meet with each member of the team individually to find out how he or she is really doing. Dig a little deeper to avoid superficial answers, like “I’m fine”, and identify any real concerns or issues that may be impacting his or her ability and willingness to return to the office.
  2. REVIEW: Revisit and review the individual and team productivity goals, timelines, and deliverables. Manage performance to those targets regardless of where the work is happening.
  3. COMMUNICATE: Increase “touch” points and set up more one-on-one time with each team member to fill the connection gaps with all dispersed team members.
  4. GET CREATIVE: Encourage people to make the most of all the available resources – teammates, technology, employee benefits / EAP, etc.
  5. ADJUST: Identify changes that may be needed to protect the well-being of team members while enhancing productivity. Propose and/or make the necessary changes to the environment, space, processes, etc.
  6. EDUCATE: Show team members how to access the available resources and educate them on any new procedures that result from the revised health and safety guidelines. Share any information and best practices that help reduce risk.

If you are a business owner, a senior organizational leader, or Head of HR, how do you plan to re-engage and re-onboard your staff? Which of the above ideas could you implement to help transition your team to the “next” normal? Add your answers and thoughts in the comments below.