‘Remote working.’ ‘Deskless employees.’ Darren Hepburn looks at the impact the Covid pandemic is having on how we work and suggests caution around the language used and its detrimental effect on engaging staff.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed how we work, how we interact and how we think. This includes our opinion on employee engagement.
For years we have been given hard facts about the business benefits of an engaged workforce: increased profitability, higher productivity, lower staff turnover, increased customer satisfaction and fewer accidents, to name just a few.
But it has taken the pandemic to get business leaders to wake up to its true value. The pandemic propelled employee communications and engagement to the forefront of business agendas and those who mastered it saw how beneficial it was.
As a result, we are on the brink of an employee engagement revolution. In the Deloitte 2021 Global Human Capital Trends survey, 93% of respondents said that a sense of belonging drives organisational growth. Meanwhile, a study by Microsoft found that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic 24% of organisations considered employee engagement a priority. In 2021 that jumped to 36%.
But while leaders are starting to harness employee engagement in their wider business strategies, we are only at the beginning of the journey. For many, they have now recognised the value of investing in employee engagement but haven’t yet converted this into tangible actions.
Working from home
We know this to be true because globally our employee engagement rate still remains low. The Gallup State of Global Workplace Report found that just 20% of global employees are engaged.
Meanwhile, a study by employee engagement platform VRAMP found that those responsible for employee engagement are hugely overstretched with 50% of these people spending less than a quarter of their working day on the function of employee engagement.
Today we are at a tipping point. We have a huge opportunity to harness the power of an engaged workforce but there are many ducks that need to be brought together and aligned to make it happen. From convincing business leaders of the benefits of employee engagement, to increasing resources to support engagement strategies.
Given the scale of what needs to be done, we need to ensure our employee engagement efforts are as effective as possible and there is one simple change that could make a huge difference: the language we use.
As any employee engagement expert knows, perception is powerful. The way we perceive things influences what we do and more importantly in this context, how engaged we are as an employee.
With this in mind, why do we insist on using terms such as “remote workers” and “deskless employees”? A definition of “remote” is “having very little connection with or relationship to”. The definition of the suffix “-less” is “not having, without, free from”.
This language does not suggest a workplace of unity and inclusiveness. Instead, it labels a large, and ever growing, proportion of our workforce as “outsiders” which will leave people feeling alienated and disengaged.
It’s such a simple change but without recognising the damage our language could be causing we are not going to achieve our goals of engaging more of our workforce. If we can’t engage more of our workforce, we cannot demonstrate the benefit of employee engagement to business leaders, which subsequently will not convert into greater business investment.
But this isn’t the first time we’ve fallen into this trap. In the last century the terms “blue collar” and “white collar” workers were commonly used. The terms took on different meanings with blue collar workers often perceived to be poor, uneducated people. In recent decades we acknowledged the divide this terminology creates, and these labels are no longer considered to be acceptable.
I appreciate that once upon a time it was necessary to define people who worked ‘on the tools’ and those that didn’t. Similarly, in past years we needed to identify which employees worked at a computer and which didn’t. Purely because of how we communicated. Those sitting at a computer could simply receive an email while those without direct access to a computer may have received the same information from a team briefing or a notice in the staff room. But that logistical divide is no longer present.
We have technology that can communicate with every employee equally no matter where or when they work. Yes, some organisations may not yet have this software, but even if that separation was still needed, I’d still argue that we could find a much better way of describing that group of people than “remote” or “deskless”. For example, “home workers”, “frontline teams” and “operational staff” all categorise people but none of the words hold negative connotations.
There is no excuse. It’s a simple change we can all make but an essential one if we truly want to use employee engagement to transform organisational performance. Let’s not repeat history. Divisive terminology has no place in the 21st century. Only when we treat everyone equally will we start to see the results that employee engagement is capable of.