Employee engagement has been a pretty hot topic over the past year. The “great work from home” experiment forced millions of employees to find new ways to get work done. And as working from home moved from a short-term experiment to a long-haul arrangement, it’s worth considering the long-term impact of working remotely on motivation, collaboration, and engagement.
But it’s difficult to get a clear answer on whether or not employees working remotely are engaged. Depending on the researchers conducting studies, and the timing of when the study was conducted over the past year, you get very different results.
Some surveys suggest employee engagement is at an all-time high.
Other researchers argue that employee engagement is perilously low.
It’s hard to know what’s true about the level of employee engagement. But it’s safe to say that employee engagement has never been harder for most organizations that it has in the past year. If most of your engagement strategies relied on a colocated office, then it’s safe to say they haven’t been working well.
So, in this article, we’ll outline four new strategies to keep remote employees and remote teams engaged.
Make Expectations Clear
The first strategy for keeping remote teams engaged is to make expectations clear, or perhaps better said it is to make expectations clear to everyone involved. Clarity of roles, responsibilities, deliverables and deadlines is key to keeping remote teams engaged and collaborating. It used to be that teams working together could set longer deadlines and be less structured around deliverables because they occupied the same space and could quickly ask each other when clarity was needed. But in a remote team, the number of overlapping hours teammates work is shrinking…and their availability for a quick chat is shrinking even more.
One way to make expectations clear to everyone involved is to establish a regular, teamwide, check-in. Once a week or once every other week, get the whole team to report back on what they’re working on, what they’ve just completed, and what obstacles they’re encountering. This way everyone knows what everyone else is focused on and where they might be able to provide help. This could be a regular meeting, but your team might already be overloaded with meetings. It could also be a spreadsheet or weekly survey with results circulated around the team. If you’re using a project management software to help the team, you probably already have the functionality in place to establish a team-wide check-in.
Make Feedback Plentiful
The second strategy for keeping remote teams engaged is to make feedback plentiful. You need to over communicate feedback. And that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to over-communicate constructive feedback. But as you’ve probably discovered, working remotely makes it a lot harder to know how you’re doing—to know what progress you’ve really made. We know that progress is a powerful human motivator and most of us have been conditioned to judge our progress based on the feedback that we’re receiving. Making feedback plentiful is about helping people see their progress more clearly.
Constructive criticism during your one-on-one check-in meetings is okay, but you want to double down on the positive, progress-oriented feedback. Every time you’re checking in with individuals or the whole team, make it a point to mention the progress you feel they’ve made. In addition, create space during meetings or a system in your electronic communication that lets teammates give feedback to each other. Especially, make it easy for teammates to give praise to each other for both big and small tasks. Peer-to-peer feedback is a recipe for engagement because it reinforces the sense that employees aren’t working alone while also providing the positive, progress-oriented feedback that works so well.
Make Growth Unavoidable
The third strategy for keeping remote teams engaged is to make growth unavoidable. The importance of progress was already mentioned above, but progress on the job or towards a task is only part of how progress motivates us. Another big form of motivating progress is career progress. People want more than an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work from home, they want to know they’re making progress along a career path as well. In fact, when you’re working remotely it can feel even more like you’re just treading along on a meaningless series of repetitive days—which makes feeling progress through a career even more important.
You may not be able to have long-term growth conversations with your people right now, but you can focus on ways to show growth in the short-term. The easiest way to show growth in the short-term is to introduce a little novelty into what each person on the team is doing. Ask people to take on new tasks and learn from other teammates who normally do those tasks. In addition, encourage people to introduce some novelty into their personal learning as well. It’s impossible to know in advance the windy path one’s career will take but learning new information and developing new abilities will leave anyone more prepared to travel the path.
Make Friendships Easy
The final strategy for keeping remote teams engaged is to make friendships easy. One of the more surprising findings when studying employee engagement is just how much having friends at work is a factor. For several decades, “I have a best friend at work” has been one of the core statements in Gallup’s famed Q12 survey. But in the last decade, researchers have found just how powerful friends at work truly are. Having people on your team that you share a bond with for reasons outside of just the team will make you significantly more productive and engaged. But building those bonds through emails and zoom calls is a lot more difficult than doing it in the office.
There are a lot of tactics you can use to make friendships easier to build and maintain on your team, but they all stem from the same concept: finding time for those unstructured moments we used to have at the office several times a day. We used to have coffee breaks, lunch times, or even just time before a meeting where people could walk and talk on the way to the conference room. Those little moments matter, but we have far fewer of them now. So, find new ways to make those moments. That can be by jumping on zoom calls earlier, encouraging people to take virtual coffee breaks together, or even creating a dedicated “nonwork” chat area online for people to connect. You can’t make the friendships happen—but you can make it easier for them to happen.
When you look at all four strategies you might notice that these strategies would work with a colocated team as well. And you’d be right. In each case, you had way more opportunities to employ these strategies with your team when you were working together. They happened organically. But now that you’re working alone together, you need to find specific and deliberate ways to make them happen. When you do, you’ll find your team more engaged than before, and they just might find themselves doing their best work ever.
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