Helping Employees Adapt to Remote Work, Our New Reality

– Written by expert consultant, Shelina Pabani

COVID-19 has created what Time magazine called “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment.”

Let’s think about that for a moment… If anyone had asked us to imagine this reality a few short months ago, we would have scoffed at the suggestion. And yet, here we are. Seemingly overnight, a global pandemic has forced the majority of us to figure out how to work remotely with little to none in the way of preparation. Employers are rethinking future plans. Companies such as Google have announced that, for most of their employees, the work from home reality will continue until at least the summer of 2021. As we all adapt to this “new normal,” the question on many employers’ minds is: what should we do to help employees adapt to remote work and best support them? What does this new way of working mean for productivity? Team dynamics? Employee engagement?

In this new paradigm shift, Emotional Intelligence becomes even more important for leaders if they are to successfully steer employees through the turmoil. In fact, Emotional Intelligence is more important than ever! Research tells us that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations.

If we are truly going to be successful navigating these uncharted waters, we must fundamentally answer two questions: how are employees doing? And, what do they need? This might sound simplistic; but, the answers span complex physical and emotional territory.

So, let’s explore the first question: how are employees doing?

Thrive Global recently surveyed a nationally representative sample of over 5,000 American adults. One of the most striking findings was that 80% of respondents feel helpless and like things are out of their control — underscoring the need for tools that empower people. Over 85% of these respondents said they wanted more help from their employers as they adapt to WFH.


  • More than 85% of employees are worried that current public health circumstances and the current Coronavirus pandemic will impact their jobs and ability to work.
  • 52.9% answered yes to increased loneliness during work from home.
  • 56.4% reported experiencing increased feelings of anxiety during work from home.
  • 53% said that their productivity levels have been impacted due to changes in mental health while working from home.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and working remotely

As I reflect on these sobering statistics, I am increasingly drawn back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a starting point. As humans, we have a series of basic needs that must be met before we can deal with the higher-level needs of self-actualization. The original hierarchy states that a lower level must be completely satisfied and fulfilled before moving onto a higher pursuit. Today’s scholars, however, prefer to think of these levels as continuously overlapping each other. This means that the lower levels may take precedence back over the other levels at any point in time. If there was ever a case for the lower levels taking precedence, it’s now.

The current situation has thrown many of us into a state of “fear” (as the Thrive Global data can attest). We have had to recalibrate what security and safety mean to us individually and collectively. What are our physiological needs in this new reality? What does safety look like in this new reality? How can we meet our need to belong and for human connection when we no longer have the same contact we once did with colleagues, friends, or family?

Use Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to help employees adapt to remote work

Now for the second question: what do employees need?

Gallup research finds that frequent conversations yield the biggest improvements in engagement. And that remote workers are three times more likely to be engaged if they receive feedback from their manager at least a few times per month.

Gallup’s first chairman Don Clifton advised leaders that, “Nothing happens until someone expects something of you in ways you can achieve.” Remote or not, employees can only be accountable for what’s expected of them. But first, we need to take care of their basic needs:

  • Do they have the physical tools they need to work effectively?
  • Do they need a monitor or a laptop?
  • What about a proper office chair; or are they perched on their kitchen stool for 8 hours a day?
  • Are they able to structure their day to take care of themselves and exercise?
  • Are they taking breaks for meals?

These are just some of the questions that leaders need to be asking.

The next step in helping employees adapt to remote work:

Once we can take care of the basic needs, we can begin to address their psychological needs. Employees have lost personal connection with their colleagues, no longer bumping into each other in the café, or at the printer. With this in mind, leaders can implement five-minute daily “connections” or “coffee chats” virtually every day to help provide employees opportunities to connect. This is a great opportunity to be creative and solicit input and ideas from the team in meaningful ways to stay connected to each other.

Then comes the need to feel productive and connected to the work. With employees feeling increasingly isolated, managers need to communicate expectations and progress frequently so employees can see the impact of their work.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Establish regular 1:1s with employees.
  • Be clear on your expectations, and trust employees to meet them!
  • Communicate shifting priorities and be as transparent as possible with changes within the company.
  • Share regular, in the moment feedback.
  • Conduct meetings via video when possible so employees can “see” one another.
  • Discuss performance regularly.
  • Plan for frequent formal, and informal, connections with individuals and the team.

With just a little “heart,” some thoughtful planning, and clear communication, leaders can help employees not just adapt to remote work but THRIVE.