Are remote workers more or less engaged than their in-office colleagues?

We know that, even before the Covid pandemic hit, the number of employees working flexibly and/or remotely was on the climb. And, we were led to believe, this was what people wanted.

By: James Blair on

According to this Harvard Business Review, about one-third of employees globally “work remotely always or very often”. That’s up by 115% on the previous decade. Worryingly, though, the report also claims that two-thirds of remote workers don’t feel engaged and that over one third never get any face-time with their team.

In contrast, research frequently shows that remote workers are more productive, and that flexible working is what people want.

So, which is it? The preferred option with increased productivity and improved retention, or a disastrous recipe for a disengaged workforce?

As the pandemic has skewed things intensely over the past 12 months, we have to go a little further back for a more typical picture of employees’ views on flexible working.

The International Workplace Group’s 2019 Workplace Survey showed that more than four out of five people would, if presented with two similar job offers, turn down the one that didn’t offer flexible working. It claims that over half of employees are already working outside of their main office headquarters for at least half of their working weeks, and that three-quarters of their respondents mentioned flexible working as “the new normal”.

It’s also interesting to note that UK businesses are second only to those in Australia for using flexible working to attract top talent.

Of course, flexibility can describe both location and worktime patterns.

When it comes to the importance of location, over half of those surveyed said that having a choice of work location was more important to them than the prestige of their employer. Half also claimed that it was more important to them than increased holiday allowance.

Similarly, Gallup found that over half of office workers said they’d leave their job for one that offers flexible work time.

So, it’s fair to say that flexible working is what our people want.

Gallup research has also shown us what we already suspected - that engagement and performance have a strong direct correlation. Want some stat’s as evidence? Highly engaged workplaces can claim 41% lower absenteeism, 40% fewer quality defects, and 21% higher profitability.

So, if workers want flexibility and that’s what they’re getting, why the low engagement rating from Harvard?

It’s a case of compromise, really. That compromise should consist of offering the best of both worlds where possible, and maintaining meaningful comms regardless of working locations and patterns.

That Gallup research discovered that engagement seems to peak when workers spend 60% - 80% of their time working remotely. It’s the perfect combination of some face-to-face contact time with their managers and colleagues, but with reduced commuting time and the flexibility they crave.

The biggest traps employers fall into when they have remote or flexible workers is not maintaining meaningful comms or recognition. It’s no surprise that two-thirds of remote workers aren’t feeling engaged if half of them are getting no face-time with their leaders.

Working remotely -autonomously, even- should not mean working alone, unsupervised, unsupported or unrecognised. Regular check-ins, clear targets and objectives, and transparency around company initiatives, decisions and changes are vital. Comms should be all-inclusive and two-way. Recognition and appreciation should be prioritised and made as straight-forward and accessible as possible.