Susan Sullivan: How to Keep Remote Workers Engaged

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PERSON OF THE WEEK: The COVID-19 crisis has put a serious damper on the mortgage market but recent reports show that a rebound could be on the horizon.

Regardless of whether the housing market bounces back quickly or slowly, mortgage companies will still need ample time to prepare for the return of employees to the workplace, in order to comply with CDC social distancing guidelines. That could take months longer, so until then, most companies will continue to have their employees work remotely from home.

But, as we all know, there are challenges to having employees work virtually – especially in the mortgage business where there is a “normal cadence” to the events of the day, the week, the month, the quarter and the year.

The question is, how do mortgage companies overcome these challenges and keep their workforces chugging along? To find out, MortgageOrb recently interviewed Susan Sullivan, senior vice president of human resources at Genworth Mortgage Insurance.

Q: What are some unexpected challenges mortgage companies might encounter with employees during this pandemic? 

Sullivan: We’re currently living through unprecedented times and having to work and interact differently than we did at the beginning of the year. COVID-19 has certainly impacted how organizations operate. While there are some obvious challenges that come with managing through a pandemic, professionally, financially and emotionally, there also are many unexpected challenges including the technical challenges of transitioning to working from home.

Even if a significant portion of your workforce works from home all the time, there’s a good chance that your home office team is not fully up to speed on all the capabilities of your collaboration technology. They have the option to catch people in the hallway or walk to their office, so the incentive to learn how to share screens and video chat is low.

Additionally, if you offer a range of collaboration solutions, moving to 100% virtual pushes everyone’s preference of platform into the forefront and may cause confusion, as meetings are planned on platforms on which certain employees may be less familiar.

In addition, there is the emotional component of having employees work from home. It’s fair to assume that employees would run into obstacles as it relates to completing their work from home, while having to manage other responsibilities. But one thing you may not expect is that those same employees may have trouble turning work off, instead using it as a coping mechanism and not taking the time to care for themselves because they’re too busy taking care of everyone else – their role in your company included.

Q: How can companies overcome these challenges?

Sullivan: When it comes to managing through working from home from a technical perspective, ensure that your employees are plainly told what technology to use versus allowing them to use the platforms they prefer. Too many options can be frustrating.

It’s also important to note that many employees may not necessarily know how to use collaboration tools when working remotely. Having a central location where they can find training or access a FAQ can be incredibly helpful.

On the emotional side of things, take a look at the benefits your company offers. Consider offering remote workers creative time-off solutions that give them, for example, an hour or two to go for a family walk, meditate, or do a few things around their house – without penalty or having to dip into their vacation or sick time. This will give them a mental break and hopefully make working through a pandemic a bit more manageable.

Don’t forget to encourage your employees to speak openly and honestly about how they’re feeling. While everyone’s home situation is different, it costs you nothing to show empathy, especially during such a stressful time.

Q: What are the best ways to keep employees engaged while working from home? 

Sullivan: You may feel like you need to keep tabs on your team every second of the day, simply because you don’t see them, but truthfully that’s not the most productive or effective use of time. What follows are four suggestions: 

1. Make sure your employees know you’re there for them – but give them space to find their balance. Many of your employees are likely juggling kids, navigating distance learning and in some cases are the teachers themselves, while attempting to maintain a similar in-office level of production. An abundance of communication and check-ins can have an adverse effect and overwhelm an already overwhelmed employee. Give them time and space to manage the new routines in their homes and the mental strain of this entire experience. 

2. Schedule fun virtual activities, within reason, like “tacky top day,” where everyone hops on video chat in their wackiest shirt for a quick laugh and respite from the day.

3. Transparency is paramount to not only building and maintaining trust, but also to ensuring employees feel connected while physically separated. Take a few minutes to share what you can with your employees about the current state of the company, working from home and insight on the light at the end of the tunnel, even if that response is “I don’t know.” We’re all in this together and it’s okay to not have all of the answers.

4. Don’t become so hyper-focused on your team that you forget to take care of yourself. Share your own personal successes and challenges with the new normal. Emotional transparency is a great equalizer and is one of the quickest ways to ease your team’s anxiety by letting them know they’re not alone.

Q: Are there any tools that can help both companies and employees thrive during this time

Sullivan: There are many technology tools at each company’s fingertips. Whether it’s chat boxes, sharing quarantine memes or wishing a colleague a virtual happy birthday, technology can help bridge distance and keep relationships growing.

Beyond technology, though, keep your regular communications rhythms so that employees know to expect regular updates, whatever that looks like to your organization. Whether it comes in the form of weekly video updates from the CEO, a bi-weekly employee newsletter or something of the like, you just want to avoid employees feeling like there’s a vacuum of information.

Additionally, now is a great time to see if there are any enhancements or extensions to your existing set of employee benefits. While it may not be the best time to stand up a new offering or service, there may be some opportunity to make a benefit richer or simply remind employees of the benefits at their fingertips to help them through this time. 

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