What remote workers can teach us about employee engagement

Nov 23, 2022

6 mins

What remote workers can teach us about employee engagement
Joanna York


The swift switch to working remotely during the pandemic took some employees by surprise as they struggled to adjust. Yet others found that not having to commute or to be in a workplace freed them up to spend time on activities that were more meaningful for them. So is it enough to do a good job, but to find your purpose in life outside of your work? Or do workers need to believe in what they are doing if they are to be productive and happy? We tracked down two experts to find out.

In the past decade, employee engagement has become a popular topic with American companies. The idea is that workers who are actively engaged will embrace the company’s values and will be more productive. Yet remote work is changing this dynamic. Physical distance from the workplace is creating a mental disconnect, which isn’t all bad. After the great resignation, some have dubbed this the great reassessment. Nearly two-thirds of employees in the US say that the pandemic caused them to reflect on their purpose in life, with nearly half reconsidering the kind of work they do, according to a 2021 survey conducted by McKinsey.

In a 2022 report from Gartner that surveyed 3,500 employees around the world, 52% said the pandemic had made them question the purpose of their day-to-day jobs, and 65% said it had made them rethink the place that work should have in their lives.

At the same time, studies show that working from home makes workers more productive. In 2021, the National Bureau of Economic Research forecast a 5% productivity boost in the post-pandemic economy given “re-optimised working arrangements.” This begs the question, do staffers need to find a sense of purpose at work in order to be productive? Or could working remotely allow them to get the job done efficiently and to find meaning in their private lives?

When work delivers a sense of purpose

In the US, work is often seen as a source of self-worth, purpose, and personal fulfilment. Businesses often strive to help their staff to find deeper meaning through their work by having clear corporate values. Outdoor clothing company Patagonia, for example, states that as one of its core values that it will “use business to protect nature.” To that end, it has pledged 1% of sales towards the “preservation and restoration of the natural environment.”

It’s easy to see how weekend hikers and surfers could be excited at that idea.

Yet for individual employees, purpose is often found in the more tangible aspects of work, according to Chris Dyer, who is a co-author of Remote Work: Redesign Processes, Practices and Strategies to Engage a Remote Workforce and the author of The Power of Company Culture. “We often think about employee engagement on a very grand scale,” says Dyer. “Really, it’s how workers feel about the people who they talk to the most, how they feel about their boss, and whether they feel tied into whatever their team is working on.”

Switching to remote during the pandemic changed these day-to-day aspects of work life, sometimes in negative ways. “If a company did not handle remote work well or already had a bad culture, remote work could make that culture worse,” says Dyer. More than half of remote workers, for example, now report feeling less connected to their colleagues. For those who used to rely on their relationships at work to give meaning to their roles, a knock-on effect on their sense of purpose was inevitable.

What we learned about remote working

At the same time, many remote workers experienced a psychological uplift as the result of losing the more taxing elements of in-person work such as having to dress professionally, to commute, or to be emotionally “on” all day. For those with a calm home environment, working remotely can be less stressful too. “There’s something to do with how much you have to sacrifice when you’re going into the office,” says Ali Pruitt, a remote work consultant and coach, based in Florida. “You don’t have to put all that energy into being polished when you’re working from home.”

Combined with the comfort of working from home, workers rate flexibility as one of the aspects that they value the most. Many say they would be willing to switch jobs to have greater flexibility and more time to take care of their personal wellbeing, whether that meant getting more sleep or spending more time on travel or hobbies, or with friends and family. So while remote work has drained some employees of their sense of purpose, for others it has given them time to find fulfilment in other ways. In many cases, “workers aren’t finding all of their purpose in their work anymorebecause they now have time to find purpose in other areas of their life as well,” says Pruitt.

Take the pressure off

Regardless of the role being performed, motivation, enthusiasm, and a sense of fulfilment will tend to fluctuate. Finding meaning at work is not always a given. “Purpose can drop and that’s okay,” says Dyer.

Pruitt agrees. “You can’t force engagement,” she says, adding that she has worked in jobs that have given her an immense sense of purpose, and others where she felt less engaged, though she still performed well. Ultimately, she says, companies cannot demand that employees find their work meaningful, and workers should not feel pressured to do so either. “We should all do away with expectations,” she says. Some workers might want to find purpose in work and others might not. “What the employer needs to know is how satisfied that individual is and if the level of engagement is working for the person,” she says.

There can be health benefits for workers who take time to have a private life outside of work. Working remotely has been found to increase the likelihood of workers doing physical activity, such as walking or cycling, during the day. There are also potential psychological benefits. “It’s very beneficial for a company to encourage the individual to have purpose outside of work,” says Pruitt. “They can bring that back to the company [as they may be] happy, healthy, more productive, more creative, more curious, more innovative.”

Yet many companies do not seem to see things this way. They may not be able to demand employees feel a sense of meaning at work, but they can demand engagement and showing anything less than 100% commitment can still be a risk for employees. In the US, 92% of managers agreed that employees who stayed on mute or frequently didn’t turn on their camera in video meetings were less engaged and therefore less likely to have a long-term future at the company.

Many employees work under managers who have doubts about how engaged their staff are. Microsoft found that while 87% of hybrid workers reported that they were productive, just 12% of managers believed that to be the case.

Under pressure to demonstrate engagement, remote workers who can explore their purpose outside of work are still a minority as many more are struggling with burnout due to overwork. The health risks are so great that in February 2022 the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning about “crucial changes” needed to protect the health of remote workers, even as it acknowledged that remote work has the potential to improve work-life balance, opportunities for physical activity and social wellbeing among employees.

Changing the culture

One solution is for companies and managers to let go of the idea that employees should have a sense of purpose at work, and focus on results instead. This is something Dyer does at his company in California. “If the work gets done, the clients are happy, I don’t care if employees work for 45 minutes and then go do the laundry or take the dog for a walk,” he says.

This approach requires remote employees to be able to have honest conversations about what they want from their working life, and managers to accept that part of what workers want is more freedom to pursue projects and activities that give them a sense of purpose outside of work. In Dyer’s experience, giving workers this flexibility actually encourages engagement. “The more we treat employees as adults and the more support that we give as leaders, the more dedicated employees seem to be and the harder they seem to work,” he says.

Pruitt agrees. “Are people still going to be engaged and dedicated if they have a life outside of work?” she says. “Yes, they will. Work may not be their life or their identity, but they can still enjoy it and they will be happier people overall.

So does it really matter if workers don’t have a deep belief in the importance of the work they do? With 70% of employees saying that “their sense of purpose is defined by their work,” the question is still relevant for workers. For many, being able to do meaningful work provides an important source of fulfilment.

It’s worth remembering, however, that having a sense of purpose is not the only factor that contributes to the mental and emotional connection workers have with their jobs. “Engagement for employees means that they have meaning in their work, but also that they’re happy in the work that they’re doing,” says Dyer. This sense of happiness can come from strong connections with co-workers, clear goals and interesting tasks, or good working conditions.

It can also come from having the freedom to find their sense of purpose outside of their work. “Some people go to work, do some tasks, collect a paycheck and then go enjoy their life at the end of the day,” says Pruitt. “If people are happy with that, it’s very okay for them to do that.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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