The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically accelerated the adoption of remote work across all industries. In a matter of months, the percentage of American workers with remote capabilities spiked from 7% to more than 50%.
For the most part, this has been a welcome change for workers. In fact, a majority of them want to continue to operate remotely even after the pandemic subsides. But for many business leaders, this has not exactly been an easy transition. Not only do they face countless technical challenges as their companies shift from in-person offices to remote environments, but they also must completely reimagine their approach to team building and employee engagement.
Redefining employee engagement
Employees love working remotely because it affords them two key benefits: freedom and flexibility. They spend less time commuting to and from work, which allows them to devote more energy to their hobbies and passions. And as long as their performance is satisfactory, they can create their own schedules and work whatever hours meet their needs. The beauty of remote work is that everything is asynchronous by default. Keep this in mind when seeking to boost engagement among your remote employees.
Traditional time-sensitive engagement tactics will only eat into their freedom, especially if your teams are spread out across different time zones. For example, a "Zoom Happy Hour" might seem innocent enough, but it could negatively affect your employees, unless it has a clear purpose and expectations around opt-in participation. For some people, attending the happy hour might mean stepping away from an important project and losing momentum; for others, it could mean missing dinner with their family or waking up at an unreasonably early hour.
In a remote setting, employees should not feel like they are being forced to participate in mandatory activities that distract them from things they would rather be doing. Instead, they should be free to engage on their schedules – and they should always be willful participants. Once you begin viewing employee engagement through this lens, the endeavor becomes less about "How can we help employees feel more connected?" and more about "What does each employee need right now?" Instead of trying to herd everyone into the same Zoom room for a weekly game of virtual Pictionary, focus on delivering tailored experiences to each unique individual.
Follow these three tips to build a more engaged remote workforce at your company:
Recognize their individuality
Strive to get to know your employees as human beings. Every two weeks, collect feedback from teammates through an anonymous form, survey, or bot. Use those findings to schedule one-on-one meetings with remote workers to engage with them on a human-to-human level. These conversations should be separate from any daily standups or performance reviews you already have scheduled, which tend to revolve around the company's needs. Instead, use this time to focus solely on your employees' needs.
During these chats, seek to understand each remote worker’s mindset, goals, triumphs and challenges. Ask questions about their personal and professional growth, productivity, well-being, and progress. Keep in mind that each person is living and working in a completely different environment and culture. Try to get a sense of the unique circumstances and quirks they encounter daily, asking how you can help enhance their remote work lifestyle. Genuinely listen to their needs, finding ways to empower them with tools that boost their productivity, comfort and overall happiness. These can be tangible resources (e.g., a new desk chair or funding for a course they think will help them grow) or conceptual resources (e.g., more autonomy and creative freedom at work).
At my company, these routine check-ins have helped us understand each remote employee's unique needs. We empower team members to be open and honest during these conversations; in return, they know that we will unleash all of the support we possibly can. Sometimes, the solution can be as simple as getting an athletic employee a new pair of running shoes to help them boost their energy or sending a surfboard to an employee who loves the beach and is overdue for a vacation. These thoughtful, tailored gestures show remote employees that you understand who they are and care about them, despite any physical distance between the two of you.
You might also go beyond your employees' needs and start to recognize the needs of the people in their local communities. After all, the community surrounding them physically is just as important as the one that surrounds them digitally. Give team members funding to support good causes that will enrich the world around them, or support the people in their lives that keep them energized. We do this through various internal efforts, but each company needs to find the most natural way to do this for their people
Connect through commonalities
The isolation challenge is very real with virtual teams. In a 2020 Buffer survey, remote workers ranked loneliness as the biggest drawback to their lifestyle. This mostly stems from team members feeling emotionally disconnected from their company and colleagues.
To combat this, prescribe a steady dose of what I call "empathy injections." These are opportunities to unify employees around the same cause, values and purpose. In a traditional office, you can engineer these moments pretty easily: You put up a few posters to remind employees of your core values, recognize your top performers, and create mission-driven hype during all-hands meetings, or stop by employees' desks every day to thank them for their hard work and explain how their contributions feed into the company's overarching purpose. But when you lead a remote team, you must remember that no one has your company's values plastered on their living room walls. You also can't just stroll up to someone's desk to thank them for their hard work. Instead, team unification needs to be fostered through a creative mix of intentional digital and analog tactics.
It's your duty, as the business leader, to live your company's core values through every email, Slack message and Zoom meeting. Go above and beyond to unite your team and reinforce your "why" through the countless digital communication channels at your fingertips.
You might also leverage swag – or what we call "collectibles" – to create a sense of connection and belonging among your remote employees. A company like Printfection or Printful can help you ensure that everyone fills their homes and wardrobes with branded T-shirts, pennants, lamps, plushies, and other gear. This also ensures that employees are reminded they're part of something bigger when they sit down at their desks each day. As they join video calls with their colleagues, everyone sees the same branded materials in their rooms and instantly feels a sense of connection and empathy.
While in-person meetings and events should be used sparingly, especially during a pandemic, nothing is more engaging than face-to-face interactions. At my company, we set up a regional meet-up every month that allows employees to gather, hang out and explore work together. We also host an annual retreat, where hundreds of employees from more than 50 countries meet up at unique locations like castles or vibrant cities. Even if it's only for a few days every year, it makes a tremendous difference to get our full group together and reinforce how we share the same mission and values.
Cultivate clear communication
For a remote team to be healthy, productive, and engaged, its members must learn how to communicate clearly and effectively. The vast majority of day-to-day conversations will be through text, which means everyone must focus on strengthening their writing skills. All emails and Slack messages should be succinct and thoughtful rather than stream-of-consciousness brain dumps.
Most importantly, everyone should write in a proactive manner. If you are asking for someone's input on a project, include some options for them to ponder. Don't just ask open-ended questions; ambiguity leads to delayed responses, which will slow your team's progress and frustrate everyone involved.
It is also important to build a discipline for documentation. Create a paper trail of every meeting and work-related conversation, and make these records easily accessible. Traditional office life was inefficient because so many important conversations occurred in silos – behind closed doors in conference rooms, in hallways, at the water cooler and in dining halls. Now, you have a key opportunity to centralize all communication and keep everyone in the loop. An engaged workforce should feel like everyone is moving forward together.
You might also encourage your team to embrace journaling. At my company, each employee has their own public Slack channel, where they are welcome to jot down a wide range of ideas and thoughts for their peers to peruse. These journals contain everything from project updates and personal life victories to links to interesting articles. Of all of our engagement strategies, journaling has easily had the biggest impact on our business, because it helps employees feel connected to each other's thoughts and emotions. As a result, our team members express more empathy toward each other and are more willing to collaborate and move forward together as a cohesive unit.
Employee engagement in a remote setting is an entirely different ballgame, especially when teams are spread across the globe. Once you reimagine your approach, the benefits can be immense. Something magical happens when engaged employees from every corner of the world come together each day to work toward a common goal.
The key is to always keep your employees' needs in mind. Never forget why they love working remotely: Remote work allows you to live a highly fulfilling lifestyle, or as Nietzsche once said, "Live your life in such a way that you must wish to live it again." Encourage your employees to pursue their passions. Along the way, get to know them as individuals while consistently reminding them that they are members of a unified movement.