Satisfied employees aren’t just a positive for HR—they make companies stronger. According to MIT, organizations ranking in the top 25% for employee experience have the best business value, highest customer satisfaction rates, are faster, typically more agile, and are also more profitable.
Companies that make employee experience a priority empower their workers by adapting the work environment and collective work habits around them, helping employees do today’s work while re-imagining the work of tomorrow. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies began to rethink the employee experience for a workforce suddenly scattered across remote sites and even international locations.
Two years on from embracing remote working practices, the initial roadblocks have faded. As some companies try to move employees back to the office or enable hybrid, flexible working, new challenges are emerging. Companies attempting to recreate work methods and systems from the traditional office across a remote or hybrid workforce are coming up against new difficulties.
In this article, we’ll look at what makes a great remote employee experience, what employers can do to mitigate the risks and challenges of a remote work environment, and how to build trust in a positive management culture that embraces flexible work through technology.
The five elements of work and the employee experience
Productivity and communications app Slack identified five key strands to how employees experience work—in particular, remote work in a post-pandemic world:
- Work-life balance: the ability to achieve things in both work and an employee’s personal life
- Sense of belonging: whether employees feel valued and accepted by those they work with
- Productivity: the ability to efficiently complete tasks to a good standard of work, enabled by the right systems, team members, and working practices
- Work-related stress: the ability to manage and deal with work-related pressure and worries in the virtual workplace
- Employee satisfaction with working practices: perceptions of the support and infrastructure underpinning the remote work experience
In 2020, Slack asked employees across the world to score how they feel about remote work. The research found that office-based workers were 9% more satisfied with working remotely; with a 26% increase in work-life balance, a 20% increase in working practices satisfaction, a 17% decrease in work-related stress, and an 11% self-reported boost to productivity. Even at that early stage of the pandemic, 72% said they wanted a permanent hybrid work model. The data also highlights a new challenge post-pandemic: employees reported a drop in their sense of belonging (-5%).
Busting remote work employee experience myths
The move to remote work en masse during the pandemic and employee expectations of flexibility, hybrid and remote work models are rewriting the rules of work. Any attempts to simply ‘lift and shift’ office working practices into a virtual world are proving to be a fool’s errand. Reinventing the organization around the remote employee experience requires wholesale change and a somewhat radical leadership vision. Here are five myths being dispelled by progression in remote employee experiences:
Myth: You need more meetings to align employees
Reality: the Slack employee experience index shows that employees who attend weekly status meetings felt 3% worse regarding their sense of belonging compared to employees who received status updates asynchronously through digital channels (who also felt 6% more positive about their sense of belonging). The Slack index also indicates that, to keep employees engaged, companies need to bake in less frequent but more explicit opportunities for social interaction. Biweekly team celebrations to recognize achievements (+10%), monthly unstructured social time or games (+8%) and monthly team-building activities (+10%) all had a positive impact on employees’ sense of belonging scores.
Myth: Employees want a 9-5 routine
Reality: companies have generally transcribed the age-old insistence that “work happens primarily between 9 and 5” to remote work. In fact, employees who are given the option to define their own work schedule score higher across every aspect of the employee experience, including being nearly twice as productive as 9-5 colleagues—and scoring significantly higher on their sense of belonging.
Myth: Underrepresented groups need more support with remote work
Reality: in the US, historically underrepresented groups tended to report higher overall scores across all areas of the remote employee experience compared to their white colleagues, including an 8% rise for Black, 8% for Asian, and 5% for Hispanic employees. It’s therefore possible that remote work is leveling employee experience, making this equalizing force something employers should sit up and listen to.
Myth: Parents and caregivers all have the same challenges
Reality: women with children are disproportionately affected by remote work, scoring lower across all aspects when compared to men with children. That points to the issue of a lack of publicly-funded childcare in major countries like the US, which forces women to balance childcare responsibilities with working from home.
Myth: Leaders adapt easily to remote work
Reality: managers—specifically middle management—report some of the greatest challenges in adapting to remote work. According to the Slack index, they feel 7% less belonging, 9% less productive, and 13% more stress and anxiety working from home compared to office working. That’s in contrast to the gains individual workers report across the board. That could be down to a change in the manager’s role in remote work, acting less as a gatekeeper and more as a social connector. They may feel the burden of creating a better employee experience in the remote work world, where social bonds are less easy to build.
How to improve remote employee engagement
Despite doing a good job in getting employees up and running as remote workers, research shows that 90% of respondents believe their company’s digital employee experience (DEX) has room for improvement. Companies went through three stages of employee experience and remote work practices development during the pandemic:
- Survival: making sure everyone is operational and connected by providing the right hardware, software, and capabilities. Communication was one-way from the company to employees.
- Re-imagining the employee experience: asking employees about what they need to thrive in the ‘new normal’. Multiple new demands emerged, as well as new tools and technologies needing to be deployed, often creating competing priorities for employers.
- Re-designing the remote employee experience: starting to implement ways to succeed in a digital-first work environment, with regular accountability through employee engagement surveys and insights from across the organization.
To successfully tackle the ‘re-designing’ phase, companies need to focus on systems and processes that deliver consistently and solve complex problems. That includes: implementing systems that integrate operations across departments and silos, enabling seamless access to data (putting power back in the hands of employees), digitizing manual work allowing for employees to focus on higher-value work, and investing in employee platforms to allow workers to share knowledge and ideas.
A well-rounded digital employee experience (DEX) program also ties together measurement and accountability across the organization to improve how employees experience a digital-first work environment. The good news, according to our recent research, is that 80% of all respondents say DEX is now a key consideration within their enterprise’s digital transformation strategy.
Communicating in the remote work environment
Clear communication and setting expectations is key to a great employee experience. Now that employers are well past the ‘survival’ mode, they need to spend time listening to the experiences of their teams. Communication should be two-way, if not balanced in favor of the employee.
According to research by McKinsey, organizations that communicate detailed, remote-relevant policies see greater employee well-being. Employees who feel included in communications are five times more likely to report higher productivity.
Despite being over two years into the ‘new normal’, the McKinsey study also found that 40% of employees have yet to hear what the vision is for long term work practices from their organization, with a further 28% saying what’s been communicated is vague. Clear and frequent communication is clearly important for remote workers. Failure to communicate about the future of post-pandemic work is creating uncertainty and anxiety among employees, with nearly half saying it’s causing concern. Work-related anxiety can ripple outwards to decreased work performance, lower job satisfaction, and negatively affect colleague relationships (as well as having profound effects on an individual’s personal life). It’s thought that the global impact on the economy from mental health, including anxiety, might be as much as $1 trillion per year.
Employees are demanding flexibility in the remote work experience
So, what about other ways to show flexibility and create autonomy for workers, aside from purely remote work? Employees are increasingly feeling the effects of work-related stress and burn-out. In fact, research highlights that employees feeling anxious about a lack of organizational communication are almost three times more likely to report feeling burned out.
Start by understanding what employees want from their employer. More than half of participants surveyed by McKinsey said they’d like their organization to adopt more flexible hybrid virtual-work models, with a mix of on-site and remote work. If well managed, it can lower costs for organizations as well as open up wider talent pools.
There’s also the risk of employees jumping ship for companies that offer better flexible working policies. More than a quarter surveyed by McKinsey said they’d consider leaving if their organization imposed a full return to the office. Regarding finding the right balance of flexibility, more than half of workers said they’d like to work remotely at least three days a week, with US employees most interested in remote work—nearly a third said they’d like to work remote full time.
Employees with young children are the most likely to prefer flexibility over when and where they work, with just 8% surveyed saying they’d like to return to the office full time. The survey results also conclude that the best combination of working arrangements and policies to give the best levels of well-being, social cohesion and productivity are:
- Clear hours and expectations
- Collaboration policies, and supporting technology that allows remote employees and on-site teams to dial in to meetings
- Collaboration tools (and training on how to use them)
- Reimbursement for remote work office equipment
- Microconnectivity policies – including digital social events and a listening and response program
To learn more about employee experience – and specifically, digital employee experience (DEX) – take a look at Forrester’s report. It’s packed full of insight, including the factors behind why organizations with mature DEX programs are headed for success.