Updated: Jul 8, 2020
Editor’s note: Check out our special COVID-related remote employee engagement update at the bottom of this article.
We’ve officially entered a brave new world: more and more workers and companies are embracing remote work as a better way to get things done.
We probably don’t need to elaborate too much on the perks of working from home – or from a cafe, or the beach, if you’re really lucky. But who doesn’t want a shortened commute time, a relaxed dress code, and the comfort of working in an environment you know well?
Still, working from home has its drawbacks, particularly when it comes to replacing the face-to-face interaction most office-bound employees enjoy on a daily basis. Video chat can go a long way in replacing this, but stripping out all physical human interaction can make remote employees feel – well, remote, and almost fully removed from the warmth of their colleagues and the flow of company information. If employees don’t feel connected to their coworkers and the company, they’re not going to be engaged; if they’re not engaged, you aren’t going to get much performance out of them.
So how do you engage your remote employees without requiring them to pack up their gear and come into the office? We’ve put together some tips to help you out.
Tools & training are key
Unfortunately, most of us are not able to communicate through the Force...but a lot of companies don’t seem to realize that. Don’t just send your workers home and leave them to (or on) their own devices: provide them with the equipment and software to get them online. What that looks like will be different for every company, but we’ve broken it down a bit here:
Laptops, headsets, and high-speed internet
Zoom, Skype, or some other messaging software
Access to tech support during business hours
Separate phone, if necessary
THAT’S A SWEET HOME OFFICE
Ergonomic chair + mat
A desk, if they don’t have one
But all those devices, tools, and perks aren’t going to do much if your employees don’t know how to use your chat and video apps. Remember: Just because Zoom is easy for you doesn’t mean everyone else is going to pick up on it like it’s nothing. Instead of wishing your employees luck and throwing them to the wolves, devote some time and resources to the creation of a proper training strategy.
We won’t do a deep dive into that today – we do that here – but we do suggest making the training fun, or at least deploying a more creative angle than dry how-to books usually provide. When properly developed and deployed, gamification turns a dull training session into a story featuring the employee as the hero.
Storytelling is one of the oldest tricks in humanity’s book; for thousands of years it was our primary method of transmitting morals, customs, and history to new generations. Gamification doesn’t just turn a learning moment into a glorious adventure, it also taps into that natural urge to take on the starring role.
Whether you opt to include gamification or not in your strategy, rewarding your employees with small prizes after they complete a session or module will keep things lively – think certificates, gift cards for Uber Eats, or even an hour or two of PTO. A happy employee is an engaged employee, and they’re more likely to remain engaged once their training is complete.
Keeping up company engagement
Newsflash: If your employees don’t feel included in company goings-on, they’re not going to feel engaged, either. Unfortunately, as remote work increases, so does the potential for your remote workers to feel cut off from the rest of the company. If your people aren’t engaging with each other – or worse, aren’t receiving necessary information and updates from the company itself – you’re going to see engagement plummet.
Get ahead of this trend, or better yet, prevent it entirely by making sure your remote workers have the same responsibilities and access to information that they would while they’re in the office.
1. Ensure everyone has goals to meet. Working in an office makes it easy for managers to check in on progress; you can poke your head into a cube and ask, “Hey, how’s that article coming along?” The employee can even show you what’s on their screen. Working remotely removes that element, and can lead some workers to feel like they aren’t being held accountable.
Keep them on-task by investing in project management programs, which can break even giant assignments down into bite-sized pieces, and help keep employees working toward daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly goals.
2. Pay attention to your staff! Yes, we felt that merited an exclamation point. Don’t let your workers fall “out of sight, out of mind.” Let them know they matter; maintain weekly or biweekly 1:1 meetings with everyone on your team to check in, find out what they’re working on, hear about any pain points, and go over the latest episode of The Mandalorian.
Make sure you’re looking over their work as necessary and providing the feedback they need to help them stay on track.
3. Make a department chat. You can design this chat room however you want; maybe it’s just text-based, maybe there’s a video component. If you have important updates to send out, by all means send an email...but put it in the chat, too. Your remote employees should never be the last to know about anything.
4. Remember it’s not all business. A team chat room isn’t just about announcements and work-related items, though those should certainly take precedence. But you want to keep your team occupied and interested in each other, too – studies have shown people work better when they have a connection to their coworkers, after all. Encourage them to use the team chat to get to know one another.
It’s not just a place for work communication – it’s also where they can talk about that totally awesome Hot Pocket they’re going to have for lunch.
5. Show your appreciation. Remote workers aren’t just left out of company information – their contributions frequently go undetected. Don’t let that happen. Call out the great work or accomplishment a remote person has done during your department meeting so immediate teammates are aware. Really good work should get a shout-out during weekly or monthly company updates, if possible.
6. Create a phone tree. This should almost go without saying, but if someone does need to take time off, or can’t get online, you need to be able to disperse their work. A phone tree will help your team keep in touch with each other and dispense coverage if necessary.
Keep your team engaged with each other
Like it or not, the office is the lynchpin of many friendships. You spent 40+ hours a week there, sharing information, drinking coffee together, and generally just bonding. This touches on something we touched on earlier: your employees probably aren’t working their backsides off just to contribute to the company. They’re doing it to help out their colleagues and teams.
Embrace and build on that sense of camaraderie by giving them the space to interact and have fun with one another – even if they’re a thousand miles apart.
1. Celebrate together. Rule #32 of Zombieland is explicit about this: “Enjoy the little things.” Create a festive atmosphere and good cheer will follow.
Every Friday, give folks the option to knock off a half-hour (or even an hour!) early and welcome the weekend in the right way – through a team bacchanalia! Maybe you’ve got good news to celebrate, or maybe you’re just glad the end of the week has arrived. Everyone can pop the tab on their favorite beverage – boozy or not – and toast through the video chat.
2. Make introductions. Your employees might be living on their own and working from a ritzy home office...but odds are they share their abode with others who may wander into your video chat orbit from time to time. Why not get to know them, rather than relegate them to the shadowy background? Once everyone is settled in with their equipment, schedule a Meet & Greet and get to know their sidekicks.
Bonus: You can make it part of your official remote training.
Double Bonus: For maximum bonding experience, introduce your pets to each other. You can thank us later.
3. Bring the watercooler home. A good portion of in-office work hours go toward socializing. Think about it: You stand around waiting for someone to finish washing their dishes, or for the microwave to heat your lunch. If a coworker is nearby, you’re taking bets on what series Netflix is going to cancel next. Honestly, the kitchen or watercooler was the place to meet people.
Maybe there’s no watercooler anymore, but apps like Donut will match random employees up with one another so they can still get some face time. Not afraid to eat on camera? Set up department lunches and talk about cheese instead of work.
4. Take a class. It doesn’t have to be work-related. There’s all sorts of classes online these days: mixology, cooking, gardening, writing. Some companies have a 15-minute morning meditation session; others have brought in a virtual yoga instructor to help work the knots out.
Your team will have a shared experience they can talk about and reference, and hey, they might even learn some cool new stuff!
5. Turn up the tunes. You can learn a lot about someone based on what sort of music they listen to. Build out playlists on Spotify or YouTube and send them to each other. You can also use this as a Get-To-Know-You assignment, where everyone makes a list of 5-10 of their favorite songs along with a sentence or two about why they love each tune.
6. Reward their creativity. Creativity is critical to work and play, so encourage your crew to keep developing their own, even outside of work assignments. Do they write limericks? Can one of them make amazing memes? Have them submit pieces to the group chat and let the group vote on the piece of the week. The winner gets a small gift card and/or a certificate celebrating their excellence.
Covid and remote employee engagement
We’d be remiss in our duties if we didn’t discuss the current pandemic and its impact on the workplace. The novel coronavirus has forced many companies to abruptly embrace working remotely. Many did not have a remote work plan before this happened, and thus have faced some challenges in getting everything set up in a hurry.
If this is you, keep these three things in mind as you navigate your new work habits:
1. Extend compassion. If your company didn’t have a solid plan for jumping into remote work, odds are your employees don’t, either. They may not have a proper home office; they may be working from their kitchens or living rooms, often with their kids or pets in the background.
We can’t stress it enough: Emphasize to your employees that it’s all right if their kids pop into frame now and then, or if their pets want attention. This is a new environment for everyone and is taking place during a stressful situation. Your employees do not need to worry about whether they’re going to get in trouble for “drop-ins” they can’t control.
2. Make allowances. Now is not the time to be rigid about hours if you don’t need to be. Your staff may need to adjust their working hours or even take a leave of absence to care for themselves or family members.
If an employee is already stressed about the pandemic and is then faced with either taking care of their spouse or taking care of work, guess what? Work performance is going to suffer. Cultivate compassion and flexibility in your remote team – you’ll all get through this together.
3. Encourage openness. Even several months in, the updates are flying at us. Maybe your staff won’t want to discuss “the Rona” or the situations attached to it, but odds are the odd conversation will pop up now and then. Encourage them to chat about it and get their concerns in the open.
There should be an open door between yourself and your employees, too – if they have worries about their production or their job, they need to feel comfortable bringing those to you.
Keep evolving to engage employees
It all sounds like it should be simple: By keeping up with the concerns of your employees and trusting them to get the job done despite their different work environment, you’re setting yourself, your team, and your department up for success.
But here’s one last tip from us to you: Don’t expect to get everything right automatically. Remote work is still largely in its infancy and it will continue to evolve over the next several years. Who knows; by 2025, Zoom might be old hat and we’ll all be communicating through the fancy chips in our heads like the folks in Black Mirror.
Have you developed any cool new ways to keep your employees engaged? Or are you still looking for some help in that area? Hit us up! We’d love to talk about it.