By now, many of us have settled into the realities of a being part of a remote workforce. The pandemic has forced us to find new ways to maintain our businesses.  Often we have had to learn to embrace new technologies, like Zoom, to meet with our staff and clients remotely . I would say that most CEOs believe they’ve worked hard with their executive staff to stabilize their businesses, and they’ve done a great job. They think they’ve done all they can in terms of managing a remote workforce and ensuring their employees are on board.

From the point of view of the executives, that may all be true. The crisis management systems have worked for many of us, and the business is surviving. My question is, have we considered the view from below? What are your employees thinking? I have heard stories initially that they “love it,” and indeed, there are some benefits to working at home.  These perks include:  no commute, more independence, flexible hours, and an opportunity to create the elusive work-life balance.  But what about the downsides of a remote workforce?  Are there ways that we can more effectively reach the needs of our staff?

What About the Drawbacks of Working Remotely?

Work is much more than just collecting a paycheck (at least let’s hope so). Humans need connection, and for most of us, much of that connection comes through the workplace. Back in 1995, Roy Baumeister from Case Western Reserve University, and Mark Leary from Wake Forest, published an article in Psychological Bulletin.  They described the need-to-belong theory. This theory states that, “people form social attachments readily under most conditions and resist the dissolution of existing bonds.” This means that when attachment bonds are broken or disrupted there are psychological changes that can take place.  Bonds are also disrupted if the frequency of interactions is altered, as is often the case in remote workplaces.

The phenomenon of psychological isolation was studied in an article published in The International Journal of Employee Relations in 2020, entitled, Employee Isolation and Telecommuter Organizational Commitment. The researchers looked at several factors surrounding remote employees’ retention and contribution to the organization. These factors include the employee’s affective commitment, normative commitment, and continuance commitment (see figure 1) to their organizations.  The results  of this study were somewhat surprising.

commitment type description chart

Figure 1. Commitment Descriptions

The study included the results of a survey of 446 remote workers. Almost two-thirds or the respondents were female, and and the participants were heavily weighted towards younger workers.  The ages of the respondents broke down into these groups:  6.1% under 25, 44.2% between 25-35, 28.5% between 36-45 years, 16% between 46-55 and 5.2% over 55 years old.

Study Results

The surprising results were that physical isolation was not a significant determining factor in any of the three commitment constructs. That is good news for our current situation. It means that it is possible to retain good employees within a remote workforce.

The bad news is that psychological isolation was an extremely significant factor negatively affecting Affective Commitment (-.84).  However, it had little affect on Normative Commitment (.07), and a significantly positive affect on the Continuance Commitment (.65). These results mean that the need to belong, which is directly related to the employee’s affective commitment, is vital. It also means that remote workers may stay with an organization simply because they need the money or the benefits. Perhaps even worse is the research that suggests workers stay with an organization because of a fear of reaching outside, and because they no longer feel they are marketable, the longer they are in these remote roles.

The question now is, which employee do we want?  Do we want the ones who feel an identity with the organization, its people, and its mission, or the ones who are there just to collect a paycheck?

What Can We Do, What Should We Do?

We should do more, that’s for sure. It is no longer enough to believe that employees should be happy simply because they still have jobs. Yes, it’s true that not everyone survived in their positions, and I’m sure that those fortunate enough to be allowed to work from home were grateful. But, we need to do more as the drudgery of the pandemic has set in and people are restless.  We need to provide:

  • More frequent, and better quality interaction with supervisors
  • Better quality, and more frequent, interaction with the executives of the company
  • More personal, and more frequent, interactions with co-workers

To define better quality, I suggest asking the employee what that means. Sure, we all know that being specific with the information we provide and setting clear expectations is required.  However, that does not necessarily meet all of the needs of our people. Take the time to find out what they need from you and the organization. Then, deliver what they need, in addition to your message.

More Personal Interactions in the Workplace

When creating more personal interactions, there are lots of ways to encourage and engage co-workers. Virtual coffee breaks and virtual happy hours are just a few simple ideas. It’s important for those of us in management to note a key point here. The employees need to know that you want them to talk to co-workers about their lives, their families, and other things besides work. You might be surprised to know that some of these interactions are not taking place today because your employees don’t know that it is okay.

Finding out what the employee needs and encouraging personal interactions still may not be enough. Let us go back to the issue of marketability. Their marketability is not something we should fear. We want our people to be marketable, which to us means highly valued, and even promotable. We also want them to have some sense of Normative Commitment, which is a sense of loyalty to the organization. Both can be obtained through a strong employee development program.

Creating a Strong Employee Development Program

Creating an employee development plan is a big job. But, don’t get discouraged, it does not have to be done all at one time. It does require thought, planning, and dedication to getting one started. To take on a project this large will require some forethought about the benefits that you can expect. A well-thought-through employee development plan will:

  • Increase employee skills and performance
  • Increase employee engagement
  • Improve employee job satisfaction
  • Improve employee sense of self-esteem/self-worth
  • Develop promotable employees
  • Assist in employee retention
  • Improve the organizational efficiency and profitability
  • Help develop long term succession plans
  • Attract more and more reliable applicants

Weighing the Costs

There is an old story about a conversation between a CEO and the CFO talking about the costs of creating an employee development plan. The CFO says, “This new plan will be expensive, and what will happen if we spend all of this money on these people and they leave?” The CEO replied, “What if we don’t spend the money and they stay?”

The CFO is right, this will cost some money. That is why we started this section with the nine benefits stated above. If the plan is effective it will more than pay for itself. There will be savings in the newfound efficiencies, effectiveness, and lower turnover rates. That is not to say that you should just throw money at the problem. It is crucial to start your new plan with some strategic thinking, and a few people involved in the planning process. I am not only talking about the executives and senior level people. I strongly suggest a strategy summit that includes bright willing people from every level, and every functional area within the organization. That’s right, get some youth in the room, give them a voice in the discussion, and you will develop a better overall plan.

Planning On the Plan

Consider an off-site retreat for this strategy session. There are tremendous benefits to getting people away from their desks and solely focused on the task at hand. I also suggest having your strategy sessions run by a professional facilitator. A facilitator will help minimize the power differences in the room.  This allows less senior people to add to the conversation and feel as if they have a voice. If you choose to run your own strategy session, we highly encourage you to read this article on retreat planning.

It is essential to have people prepared before coming into the strategy session.  You will want to utilize a strong agenda to ensure you get through the process and provide the foundation necessary to reach the goals you have set for the summit. If you are prepared and have the right people in the room, this off-site strategy session could be accomplished in a single day (view our single-day sample agenda). Attendees will be required to do some prep work before the summit. Regularly scheduled meetings that are already on the calendar, or normal business hours, can be used to accomplish most of this prep time. The prep work starts several weeks before your strategy summit.

Pre-Summit Preparation

First, you will need to decide who you would like to invite to the summit.  Then, kick-off the strategy summit process with a short meeting of the attendees. During this meeting senior management needs to be present, but the human resources director could moderate the meeting. The presence of senior management is important so the attendees recognize that this is a companywide initiative, and not just HR trying to get others to do their work.

During the meeting you will discuss the purpose of creating, or altering, your current employee development process. Stephen Covey said, “Begin with the end in mind.” That is great advice for planning sessions as well. Think about what you are trying to accomplish. Go back to the benefits above and add in some objectives, like improving corporate culture.  These are certainly worthy goals, and your company culture will get an uplift from this plan and the planning process.  Involving people from all functions and levels of the company will give your internal culture a boost as well.

Next, you should let the delegates know why they were chosen to attend, and what is expected of them during the summit. Explain that meeting these expectations will require them to prepare in advance.  They will need to come ready to brainstorm, discuss, debate, and recommend a course of action. Let them know that they will be given small assignments once a week in preparation for the summit.

You will send out an email to each of the proposed attendees once a week, for the next 4 weeks. Ask them to write out their responses to the questions laid out in the section below. They will answer 4 to 5 questions each week, starting with the Lineworker questions.  This amount should not be too much of a burden.

Understand the Needs of the Organization in the New Remote Workforce

Once the objectives are understood by all of the attendees to your strategy session, the next step is to get a feel for the needs of the organization. You must determine where the company is lacking today, and what you need in the future to operate effectively. Ask the following questions for various levels and departments:


  • Is our current training appropriate for every position in the company?
  • Are there knowledge gaps in our current operation?
  • Is there a need for, and are we capable of, interdepartmental cross-training?
  • Is there a process for promoting these people to supervisor levels?
  • What is missing from both the hard skills and soft skills approach to promote?

Front Line Managers

  • Do we have a management training program?
  • Does that program really prepare our managers to lead their teams?
  • Are there technical skills that are necessary for each management position?
  • Do we have a process to groom these people into mid-level managers?

Mid-Level Managers/Directors

  • Have we established a process for cross-functional team development?
  • Do we have a communication training program established?
  • Is a conflict management training program established?
  • Do we have a program established with senior executives acting as mentors?


  • Do we train our executives to think strategically?
  • Is there an established interdisciplinary training program?
  • Do we provide outside coaching for our executives?
  • What would it take to become CEO?

Understanding the Needs of the Employee in the New Remote Workforce

Again, we are talking about all levels of employees here. We all could benefit from professional development. Keep in mind, however, that it is typically the less senior employees who may not express their needs. Those needs may need to be drawn out. This is another good reason to have lower level up-and-coming employees attend the strategic planning event for employee development. They are closer to the other front-line workers than management will be, and should be a great resource as the plans are being made.

Gaining Understanding

There are several ways to gain an understanding of what the employees would like to see happen. I strongly suggest a combination of two pre-planning techniques. The first is to have the supervisors simply ask their direct reports during their regularly scheduled one-on-one meeting. If those one-on-ones have been properly executed, then these questions would come naturally and not seemed forced. Ask straightforward questions such as:

  • How are you coping with the stresses of working at home?
  • What aspects of the business interest you?
  • Where do you see your career in the next couple of years?
  • What resources could the company provide to get you ready for that move?

Finding Focus

With this information in hand, I would suggest a focus-group type meeting with the supervisors. The meeting should take place a few days before the actual summit, and should be led by a lower level delegate that will be attending the summit. The focus group would be an excellent opportunity for the supervisors to share their employees’ ideas, and to hear how other departments and their people think. This focus group discussion will allow participants to feel as though their input matters. While the actual sharing of ideas and input is important, the information gathered is equally important.  This information will arm the delegates with vital perspectives and facts when heading into the strategy session.

Summit Agenda

Now that everyone is prepared, it is time to hold the summit. Take a peek at this sample agenda to give you an idea of how you could run this meeting. There are multiple agenda versions, so you will have to determine for yourself what will be best for your team. Hopefully this is done with the help of a professional facilitator. I believe that some agenda items are non-negotiable.  For example, the first thing that needs to happen is an introduction to the summit and laying out the ground rules.  Then, the most senior leader goes through the purpose of the meeting and clearly states what will be accomplished with this meeting. The group needs to know that the organization is committed to employee development, and that this commitment comes from the top.

Taking Stock

An overview of the current state of the company is an excellent way to start. I would suggest that the head of HR provide a report and description of what is in place. Follow this up with each participant reading the answers from their prep work assignments about the company’s needs.  I would go category by category, starting with the front-line workers, giving each participant a few minutes to speak. This will potentially cause the first of what we hope to be many debates throughout the day.

When we hear from the floor we may find that there are programs already available that people didn’t even know existed. A word of caution here, the HR head could get defensive during this debate. Your facilitator is there to ensure the dialogue is productive and not destructive. While valuable information needs to be voiced, it’s important that the meeting does not get off track because of bruised egos or hurt feelings. If tensions are high, this might be a perfect time for a break. Use this time to make sure that the participants (especially the HR person) are doing okay.

Brainstorming Session

After the first break, start with any issues that have arisen from programs not being recognized. Acknowledge the lack of recognition, and put it on a list to work through later in the day. It’s now time to create a wish-list of company and employee needs through a brainstorming session. There are some rules to brainstorming, so make sure you follow these rules if you want to get the most out of the session. A good way to start this session is to have each attendee go through the lists created during the the Understanding Employees exercise.

There are several ways to create a brainstorming list. You could have someone capture all of the ideas on a whiteboard or flip chart, or each delegate could write their thoughts on giant post-it notes and stick them to the wall. The point is all of the ideas need to be visible so everybody can see them. Once everybody has had a chance to get their initial ideas out, it is a good idea to ask, “What else?” There will undoubtedly be more ideas generated from the floor as participants hear what others have been thinking. Remember, at this point there are no bad ideas, and we are not yet ready to debate ideas.  We are only writing down and making it visible everything that was discussed.

Group Ideas Into Themes

When the brainstorming is complete, it is a good idea to try to group the ideas around a theme. This is why I like the post-it concept. They are easy to move around, so all like items can be grouped together. If you don’t have post-its, you can re-categorize the items on the flip chart, with one page per theme. This will probably be a fun exercise, as some items may get moved a few times. Remember, we all can see things differently, and that is a good thing. After grouping the themes it will be time to break for lunch. Don’t worry, the conversations will continue, but don’t force them. There will be plenty of time in the afternoon to create a plan of attack and move the conversations forward.

Employee Needs and Company Needs

After lunch, it’s time to merge the two concepts of what the company needs and what the employees need. See if you can merge the two themes and see where synergies exist. You should be able to discuss and debate the merits of original ideas once you are at this point. This is where you can determine if some of the brainstorming ideas simply will not work.

In the long run, the plan that you ultimately implement will come from those ideas that stick and have been vetted during this process. Notice that we have not spoken about costs up to this point. The reason for that is we do not want to predispose limits on anything yet. There may be ideas that we can’t afford to implement. However, if people come into the summit with those limits, a lot of good ideas will be left off the table.  We do not want to do that.

Rank Ideas and Make Recommendations

At this point another break is in order.  You will want to provide some caffeinated beverages and snacks during the afternoon break to keep the post-lunch lull at bay.

You may want to start by breaking into two smaller groups for the last session of the day. Each group will then focus on a few of the themes that were developed during the previous session. Their goal will be to consider the needs of the organization and the needs of the employees.  Groups will then rank the ideas that have been generated in each of their categories from most effective to least effective. It should take no more than 45 minutes to complete this exercise. Once the exercise is completed the group will elect a spokesperson to make their recommendations to the entire team.

Creating an Action Plan

The last 45 minutes or so will be devoted to creating a specific action plan. The group will determine champions that will be responsible for the completion of the action plan. Some actionable items will be required to research recommended programs.  It will also be necessary to determine the best resource for the action items, and figure out the costs associated with each item. You will then close the summit by recognizing all that has been accomplished, and what is left to do.

Plan to Follow Up

It is important to schedule a follow-up meeting where each champion will present their findings. The follow-up meeting should be no more than 90 minutes. At that time management will hear all of the recommendations and their costs. Decisions will be made on what to implement, and when to implemented the plan.

Once decisions have been made and the funding is secured, it’s time to communicate the implementation plan to the team. I strongly recommend that you make this announcement face-to-face, or at least in a video all-hands-on-deck meeting. Follow up that meeting with an email from the CEO reestablishing the purpose of, and commitment to, the program. Lastly, the head of Human Resources should give specifics on how people can participate in the program.

Options to Consider in Your Employee Development Program

The process described above can seem tedious and expensive. If you want to move straight into making some decisions and moving forward there are ways to bypass this transformational leadership process. The ideas below are but a few that you could implement without much trouble. Several of these programs could be implemented in-house, without the need for outside resources.

In-House Options

Coaching: Typically, these sessions can be done during regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings. The direct manager works with an individual employee to improve performance.

Mentoring: This is where a senior executive is assigned to mentor a junior person. You might consider having the mentee shadow the executive for a day to see what is involved in their work. Mentoring is a longer-term prospect than coaching. Though mentoring will often not occur as frequently as weekly coaching sessions, it can still have a dramatic impact on the junior employee.

Stretch Assignments: A good example of a stretch assignment is to invite junior members to a strategy session as described above. Stretch assignments are designed to push the employees past their comfort zones.  These assignments  should always be coupled with coaching so that the employee receives support and feedback.

Cross-Training: This is where employees learn the jobs of their peers within a given department. Cross-training comes in quite handy when others may be out sick, need vacation coverage, or have extended leaves.

Job Rotation: This requires cross-training outside of the employees’ regular department. Employees learn the job functions of other departments through job rotation. This is especially valuable to help bridge the gaps created by internal silos. Better solutions and processes for the entire company can come from getting a feel for what others are facing in their roles.

Plans That Require Outside Resources

The following options will require outside resources. These resources can be even more pivotal to your employee development programs than in-house options.  New programs bring fresh perspectives to the way things have always been done within the organization.  They can also improve leadership, communication, and teach new skills. If you are lucky, those who are attending these programs will challenge the status quo and attempt to bring these processes and ideas inside the company. Now, new ideas are not necessarily inherently better, and some may not even work with your company. But, it is the ideas and the debate that adds value to your firm.

Succession Planning

Succession planning may be akin to senior-level mentoring. This planning potentially involves input from the Board of Directors, and is done at a high level, with the C-Suite executives. Succession planning usually provides outside resources in addition to mentoring. These outside resources could be courses, if necessary, and most likely include Executive Coaching. There will be topics the prospects will want to address, but they will not necessarily want to discuss these issues with the person who will be determining their future at the company.

Technical Training

There are great outside resources that can provide a host of skill enhancement trainings, from office-related computer skills, to more technical training and certification programs. One such resource is the New Horizons Learning Group, but there are community college programs available as well.

College Assistance

Some organizations will help offset the costs of tuition for employees who may want to further their education.  This may be something for your company to consider.

Communications Training

It is expected that today’s employees will have excellent communication skills. Though they were once considered soft skills, the ability to communicate effectively with all levels within the organization is required for almost every level of employee today.

Management Training

As junior people progress upwards in responsibility, managing people becomes more important than technical skills. This becomes doubly important in terms of managing a remote workforce. Most companies promote the top producers to management positions because they have earned the opportunity. Yet, these top producers are never provide with the training necessary to excel at the new job.

Leadership Development

At this level you are most likely paying people for their minds and their ability to lead others. Emotional Intelligence is the keyword for leaders today.  Develop the business leadership skills that your company needs to thrive in today’s marketplace.

What Your Company Needs in the Time of COVID

There you have it. Based on the science, it is evident that if we want to get the most out of our employees, we need to provide them with a sense of care from the organization.  They need to feel a sense of loyalty, and we need to give them the skills to improve their marketability and promotability. Beyond that, a well thought-out employee development program is necessary. While it may seem expensive, a strong program will add value to the organization’s bottom line.  Employee development programs and online leadership courses both increase efficiency and enhance effectiveness. Even if you can’t afford every program right now, decide what you can afford and get started. You will be glad you did!