• Employees working from home feel 200% less committed when their managers fail to engage with them, says a new study.
  • Even small gestures like sending out a staff survey can boost morale, it found.
  • In another survey, 80% of managers said they were supporting staff well-being, while only 46% of employees agreed.
  • Yet more than two-fifths of employees in the US say they love the switch to home working.

What do you miss most about not being in the office? Chances are that it’s not your colleagues – you’re probably digitally connected to them most days. But when was the last time you had a positive interaction with your boss?

A new study has found that it’s lack of engagement with our managers that creates most alienation when we are working from home. And, the research suggests, that lack of interaction can be fatal to the morale of everyone in the business.

Social capital – an essential component

Leadership training company VitalSmarts interviewed more than 2,000 employees and over 200 business leaders to discover the impact of remote working caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their findings contain some surprising insights.

More than half of executives said their firm’s culture had come under strain as a result of enforced home working, and the researchers found a clear link between morale and the behaviour of those same managers.

The crucial factor in maintaining an organization’s social capital – essentially, how willing employees are to work together successfully – turned out to be what the bosses were, or more importantly, were not doing about maintaining communication with their employees.

High social capital is demonstrated when colleagues help one another, avoid giving and taking offence, work together as a team, take the initiative to solve problems and put in more than the minimum needed to hold on to their jobs.

Simple actions go far

Something as simple as sending out a staff survey, was found to have a very positive impact, the researchers found. Asking people about their well-being, offering counselling and providing virtual training and digital tools to allow employees to connect were highly valued.

The researchers say it’s vital to recognize the additional pressures that working from home imposes; for example, by introducing flexible working to allow employees to cope with childcare, or encouraging employees to hold non-work-related virtual gatherings.

“All you have to do to destroy social capital is to do nothing,” VitalSmarts co-founder Joseph Grenny wrote in an article for Fast Company. “We were encouraged to find that almost every intervention leaders used had a positive effect on social capital.”

Morale was highest where communication was strongest, the research found. “If leaders invest in increasing social capital, they can largely offset the cultural downsides of working from home,” said Grenny.

One of the discoveries of “the forced work from home experiment of 2020”, as Grenny describes it, is that it’s leadership, not location, that is key to a good work environment.

“It is possible for leaders to create strong social capital without physical proximity,” he concludes “and doing so is absolutely vital.”

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

Engagement drives productivity

Other studies have shown similar results. One found that where communication was strongest between remote-working employees productivity improved by 47%. The flipside is that failing to communicate can reduce commitment by 200%, according to Grenny.

But managers need to be wary of believing their own hype. A study by IBM found a serious mismatch between what managers thought they were doing for their employees and what the workers perceived on the ground.

Although 74% of bosses said they were helping staff learn the skills they needed to work in new ways, only 38% of employees thought that was actually happening. Eight out of 10 managers said they were supporting staff well-being – only 46% of employees agreed.

Research by business data analysts Statista found that almost 80% of employees in China, Germany, the US and the UK were satisfied with working from home last year. Of these, the US was the most keen, with 42% of employees saying they loved remote working and could see themselves doing it indefinitely.

A graph which shows people's different views about working from home across a variety of countries
Remote working is a current trend - but it doesn't suit everyone.
Image: Statista

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 said the future of work had already arrived for millions of office workers, thanks to advancing digital technology – the adoption of which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.