Remote Work

Going Remote? Here’s How to Engage Remote Employees.

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Going Remote? Here’s How to Engage Remote Employees.
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Going Remote? Here’s How to Engage Remote Employees.

Remote work – once saved for freelancers and entrepreneurs – has officially gone mainstream. And even as we move back towards the large gatherings and social connections we enjoyed before the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems like remote work is here to stay. So much so that according to one survey conducted by Buffer – “2021 State of Remote Work” – 94% of remote workers who began during the pandemic hoped to continue working remotely, at least part-time. For the rest of their careers.

It may come as no surprise that employees enjoy remote work. Short commutes (or none at all). The freedom to live and work where they choose rather than in a location dictated by their office. More autonomy. Cost savings. Some studies even show increased productivity and quality of life among employees working from home. But what about remote work from a management perspective? What are some of the challenges of hiring a remote team? What about managing a remote team? And even once you’ve worked that out, the biggest challenge is how to keep remote employees engaged.

But the focus of this article isn’t virtual team building and tools every remote team needs (although we have good recommendations for those, too!). Instead, we’re talking about how you can build a culture that keeps remote employees engaged. A culture that is remote-first rather than remote by necessity. One that accounts for a remote workforce’s distinct structure and needs at every stage of the process.

Let’s talk about how to engage remote employees! What is remote work, how to meaure success, and steps you can take within your company – from onboarding to retention – that keep remote employees engaged and thriving.

Image indicates employees working remotely

But first. What is remote work, and what is a remote-first workplace?

What is remote work? It’s a topic we talk about a lot at Teamly. By remote work, we’re referring to an employment agreement where employees work outside of a traditional central office environment. This might mean working from home, satellite offices, or anywhere at all.

Powered by laptops and WiFi, remote work has become possible over the past two decades. But no one could have prepared for the dramatic and necessary shift to remote work following the COVID-19 pandemic. What resulted is teams of all sizes trying to shift to a remote workplace. Things that used to happen in communal kitchens or boardrooms suddenly required virtual meeting links and collaboration tools.

And while the benefits of remote work for employers are many – flexibility, an expanded talent pool, and potential cost savings, to name a few – the model is not without its challenges. Companies had to adapt to a remote workforce and handle all the unique challenges that presented. Communication issues, tracking productivity, scheduling meetings, and sustaining a team culture, amongst other challenges of remote work.

By “remote-first workplace,” we mean a primarily remote workplace. A workplace that considers how teams, systems, and structures can be best set up in a decentralized way to accommodate a workforce that isn’t working in a single location.

Image represents success for remote employees

Redefining success for remote employees

Before getting into how to engage remote employees, we should start by taking a closer look at our definition of success. Traditional measures of productivity and engagement might not look the same when managing a remote team – and that’s ok.

While you may correlate employee contribution or effort with showing up on time, long hours, or how they speak up in meetings, you may not have those same metrics available when assessing the performance of your remote team.

Start by setting some goals and objectives for your team. Then work backward from there. Break your larger goals into smaller projects you delegate to your team. Then, rather than just project success or completion, consider other performance measures you can track in the absence of an office. Some examples of this might be peer feedback, time-tracking tools, or reporting dashboard where employees can track their own progress. Get creative, and keep an open mind on recognizing and celebrating your remote team.

Image represents steps for keeping remote employees engaged

Steps for getting (and keeping) remote employees engaged

1. Remote-first onboarding

COVID-19 accelerated many employers toward remote work. But this will only get easier as employers recruit, hire and train employees with remote work in mind.

Recruiting & Hiring.

Employee engagement for remote workers starts with the hiring process. An essential first step is understanding your preferences surrounding remote work and setting clear expectations. For example, are there any geographical or timezone limitations for new hires? Do you prefer that employees are available to come to a central office from time to time?

You also might consider evaluating new hires with a different set of criteria than you would for in-person work. For example, a track record of flexibility, initiative, or self-motivation might rank more highly than someone who’d be a good candidate but might need a lot of training or structure.

All this goes to say – when remote employees understand expectations from the onset and have some agency, they’re more likely to be satisfied with the agreement.

Training.

Training new employees can be uniquely challenging with a remote team. Rather than popping into your office with questions or reaching out to a college, new hires might feel isolated, overwhelmed, and unsure where to seek guidance. Providing them with the necessary support (as well as integrating them into the team) can be the difference between an engaged remote employee and one that struggles.

Consider creating processes where previously there were none. For example, you might build a library of resources, a communication protocol, regular check-ins, or assign new hires with a buddy to ensure they have the guidance they need.

Setting up a comfortable work environment.

Also not to be overlooked is the importance of a comfortable work environment, be it a coworking space, home office, or satellite office. Employees working from home face unique problems or distractions – WiFi issues, shared spaces, and uncomfortable equipment.

As a remote employer, you can better keep remote employees engaged by giving them the necessary resources to create a productive work environment. This might look like a budget for a home office setup, chairs from the office or laptops in the mail, or a membership at a nearby coworking space.

2. Creating a remote-first culture

The pandemic pushed many organizations to go remote that wouldn’t have done it otherwise. More flexible or remote-first employers are at a significant advantage here! By building a remote-first culture, you can train managers and build systems that lend themselves to a more successful remote team. Here are a few traits and behaviors that many remote-first company cultures have in common.

Less micromanaging.

While no one really loves being micromanaged, the traditional office has more space for managers and micromanagers alike. When going remote, micromanaging tends to exhaust managers and employees.

There’s a common concern in remote work that employees might not actually be working since it’s hard to see them putting in their hours. But the data suggests that remote employees are actually more productive than their in-office counterparts.

Rather than micromanaging, encourage managers to change their performance measures, set clear expectations, promote autonomy, and guide employees when necessary.

Encourage initiative and accountability.

Encouraging employees to take initiative and hold themselves accountability goes hand-in-hand with a more relaxed management style and are some of the best ways to keep remote employees engaged. This means welcoming ideas and giving positive feedback for initiatives taken by the team. Managing and making corrections when necessary, but empowering employees to make decisions and take action rather than waiting for approval or direction.

If you’re feeling stuck, here are some ideas on how to encourage accountability in remote employees.

Be flexible.

Flexibility is another core trait of successful remote teams. Many employees are drawn to this style of working because they value freedom. Remote work gives them some flexibility to balance their work schedule with other parts of their lives.

When building your remote team, make concrete decisions on just how flexible your company can be. If it’s not essential that your team work fixed hours or at a set location, don’t force it. Encourage employees to do what they need to do and measure their performance based on output rather than hours.

Set clear expectations.

They say with great freedom comes great responsibility. When managing a remote team, you’ll want to give your employees a clear idea of what’s expected of them. With an office, it can be easier for new team members to pick up on office norms. Without an office, you’ll need to have direct conversations about work hours, break times, and the expected daily contribution. Create structures around how employee performance will be tracked and measured. Make check-ins and feedback a regular part of your process.

Two women employees doing remote communication

3. Remote-first communication

Communication is essential for any healthy team. Unfortunately, it’s also where so many teams get it wrong. Remote work adds a layer of complexity, but it also yields some opportunities. Of course, plenty of tech and tools can help close communication gaps, but the first steps to improving communication for your remote teams are much more human. Here are a few considerations to consider when managing a remote team.

Consider culture and language.

Workplaces have long brought together people from distinct cultures and languages. But bridging the gaps where possible is especially important when employees don’t have a city or physical workplace in common. Train your team in cross-cultural communication and prepare them for differences that might arise in communication style, punctuality, or power distance. Encourage them to get to know each other through projects and in a more informal setting to encourage better collaboration.

Consider time zone.

Every remote team looks a bit different. You might still rely on having times when everyone’s available to meet or collaborate. This might require an early or late start for some team members or alternate work days for the best collaboration. You can use these tips for improving your daily standup meeting to ensure employees working an unconventional schedule get as much value out of these as possible. Alternatively, you can work completely asynchronously but have some guidelines around how and when remote employees should respond to outstanding tasks.

The more time zone independent your team, the more critical it is to ensure a centralized communication channel where your team can stay up-to-date, no matter what time of day.

4. Remote-first tech

In the absence of a central office, having communication channels established – and a clear protocol of when to use each channel – is essential.

Project management tools can replace long meetings and sticky note ideas, while chat tools can take over for water cooler chat. By mindfully integrating tech into your remote workplace, you’ll be better able to ensure your team stays cohesive, connected, and working towards a shared goal.

Consider introducing one of the following tools to aid your remote team.

  • Communication and collaboration tools.
  • Project and task management tools.
  • Brainstorming tools.
  • Productivity tools.

If you want a place to start with choosing tools for remote teams, we’ve explored some of our favorite tools on the Teamly blog.

Keeping your remote team engaged

5. Keeping your remote team engaged

Alright. You’ve hired and trained your team with remote work in mind. You’ve built a culture centered around remote work. You’ve created transparent processes for communication and chosen tools to help manage your remote team. Once you’ve successfully created a productive, cohesive remote team, the question turns to maintaining it. How do you keep a team engaged?

Create opportunities for connection.

One of the biggest things that get lost in a remote team is the sense of camaraderie and friendship. While it’s still possible for remote employees to forget connections, it typically takes more effort than it does when employees are sharing a physical space.

Consider planning virtual team building events and weekly coffee chats, or create a virtual environment or channel where the focus isn’t just working. Remote working employee engagement activities can be so much more than just meetings, so get creative! Creating natural opportunities for remote employees to connect is one of the most impactful employee engagement ideas for remote workers.

Health and wellness opportunities.

There are certainly some health and wellness benefits of working from home. But more time at home can also mean less movement, more time alone, or less ergonomic work setups. Yet, health and wellness is a big opportunity for employee satisfaction that many employers miss. So how can you change that?

Building health and wellness into your incentives can help keep remote employees healthy and happy in the long run. Health and wellness might look like mental health benefits, stipends for a gym membership, fitness challenges, or a lunch perk that encourages employees to eat healthier from home.

Regular feedback and recognition.

Another thing that often needs to be improved to maximize remote work employee engagement is feedback and recognition.

Schedule regular feedback talks so you can track how employees feel and understand what they need in their day. Without the in-person indications, this can be crucial for managers. Learn how to ask the right questions in feedback talks and notice when there’s a behavior change. Be prepared to offer necessary support when the cause for performance issues is based on the remote work arrangement.

Recognition is also not to be overlooked in managing a remote team. You can keep your remote team engaged by finding ways to recognize your team that are both public and rewarding – even if they’re virtual. For example, with remote teams, a public acknowledgment might look like an email to the team or a call-out in a meeting. This not only celebrates hard work but gives other employees a path to having their contributions acknowledged.

When creating value in your recognition, your rewards don’t have to be strictly virtual. For example, rewards could include time off, gifts in the mail, or access to a team on-site.

Know when to go offline.

We’ll finish this by sharing perhaps the most critical part of how to engage remote employees. Taking things offline.

While it’s possible to create a remote team that’s engaged and successful, remote teams will always benefit from some level of in-person connection. Create opportunities for remote employee to meet each other in person, be it a small gathering for teammates in a shared region or a companywide offsite in a new country. Encourage employees to gather and create opportunities for them to do it.

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