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Engaging Remote Employees: How the Best Workplaces Do It

04

Remote work. Flex work. Working from home. Whatever name you give it, one thing is clear: this is a work trend that isn’t going away anytime soon. 

According to Gallup, 43% of US employees work remotely all or some of the time, which isn’t surprising since remote work comes with a laundry list of benefits. 

Some teams, like sales teams, are especially locked into remote work—and have been for quite some time. “Fifty percent of our sales team works from remote or home offices,” says Amar Shrivastava, Schoology’s Vice President of Finance and Administration.

So, why is this trend getting so big?

One study showed that work flexibility can lead to an increase in gratitude and job satisfaction and can decrease stress, particularly for parents with children at home. 

Working remotely can also help employees save money. A study that looked at data from job boards and the US Bureau of Labor found that the average remote worker saved $444 on gas and spent roughly 50% less on lunches. 

So, there’s plenty of motivation for employees to work remotely. The question is, how do you keep them engaged and productive from afar?

In this post, we’ll look at…

Transitioning your team to remote work doesn’t have to be a hassle. To help you engage your remote employees, we’ve gathered some tips from companies who’ve been leading the charge when it comes to building and retaining highly productive remote teams. 

Why is it important to engage remote employees?

Working from home may be a dream scenario for many modern workers, but it does have its fair share of problems. For one, it can be difficult to create and maintain a company culture when your employees aren’t in the same time zone, let alone the same building. 

One study found that remote employees are more likely to feel left out or isolated than their on-site peers, which can make it harder for teams to collaborate, maintain morale, and retain employees

Additionally, research shows that remote workers often feel like they have to work harder and longer hours than their in-office counterparts as a way to “return the favor” for being able to work flexibly. 

On top of this, employers have been known to overload remote workers with assignments that they can’t reasonably accomplish during work hours since employers can’t see when their employees are working late the same way they would if they were in the office. 

This feeling of indebtedness from remote employees, coupled with the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude of some employers, can have some serious consequences for remote workers—the most serious being burnout. 

With these potential issues in mind, businesses need to make some fundamental changes to address the unique needs and challenges of remote work. Luckily, there are plenty of easy-to-implement tactics that can help you make sure your remote employees are just as engaged and productive when they’re working from home as they would be in the office. 

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6 ways to keep remote employees engaged

While distance may make the heart grow fonder, the same can’t be said for its impact on a team’s ability to communicate and collaborate. But all is not lost! Here are a few tips to make sure your remote employees feel included. 

1. Communicate often

Since you’re no longer a few desks down from your team, think about scheduling 1:1 check-in meetings with them weekly to connect on their goals, upcoming projects, and daily tasks. 

Make sure you clearly understand the progress they’ve made in the past week, which goals they’ve surpassed, and which projects they’ve led. Also, encourage your team to advocate for themselves and bring up important milestones during team meetings or 1:1s.

2. Invest in the right tools for them

At the bare minimum, your company should provide employees with access to communication, collaboration, cloud storage, and productivity software (more on this later). But if you want to go the extra mile, you could follow the lead of Burwood Group (an IT consulting and integration firm) and give your employees a budget for hardware and home office equipment. 

While this might sound generous, remember any money you spend on improving remote workers’ experiences will pay you back in the future—not only will it make your remote team feel valued and appreciated, it’ll ultimately make them more effective at their jobs.

This is especially important if you have customer-facing teammates in different locations. “Many of our employees spend a lot of time on the road,” says David Phillips, CIO at Attraqt

“Because their business numbers were tied to physical landlines, these employees had to give out their personal mobile numbers for work. They didn’t appreciate this, and it didn’t project the professional image we wanted.”

3. Encourage self-care

When the line between “work” and “home” starts to blur, you might find that your remote team is working longer hours compared to if they were in an office. While working overtime can sometimes be necessary when closing a major deal or finalizing an important presentation, if this becomes a habit, it can quickly lead to burnout. 

To help your team prioritize self-care, lead by example and encourage your virtual staff to slow down (even when they don’t want to) by supporting mental-health breaks, taking vacations, and spending time with family.

4. Set clear boundaries

Remote workers often receive emails and chat notifications at all hours (especially if they’re working in a different time zone than their coworkers), which can become overwhelming and stressful because they might feel like they have to respond right away. 

Make sure your remote team knows that they don’t need to be available 24/7. Set clear guidelines around when they need to online or respond to messages and emails—and then stick to them. 

5. Facilitate connections within your team

Research has shown that when employees have friends at work, they’re better performers, more engaged, and happier with their jobs. However, it’s a little harder to make friends when you work remotely and don’t get to see your coworkers in the lunchroom or at work events.

Remote workers are also more likely to communicate with their colleagues only when they have a reason to (such as for a shared task).

Encourage your team to be proactive and create opportunities for them to make friends while working remotely. Give them tools that help them have casual chats, like a team communication app that lets them send instant messages and have video calls:

6. Get feedback

Even if you implement every best practice in the book, there’s still a chance that your company’s remote work setup might miss the mark for some of your teammates. And that’s okay. 

Remote work isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing—it could take months or years to figure out what works for your business. This is why it’s so crucial to make sure you’re getting regular feedback from your remote employees so you can continue to improve and optimize your processes. 

Whether you use surveys, meetings, or a combination of them, ask your remote workers about whether or not they feel engaged, how you can help them feel more engaged and if there are any resources that you could offer to them that would help them feel happier and more productive in their roles. 

Try to check in on this regularly, at least in the beginning if you have a relatively new remote team. Once you receive this feedback, outline the steps you’ll take to improve the experience for remote employees—and share your ideas with them!

Essential tools to keep remote employees engaged

As we mentioned earlier, the hardest parts of working remotely are communication and collaboration. To combat this, if you have a remote team, you have to invest in the right tech to make these two crucial aspects of daily work as seamless as possible. 

There are three types of tools that are essential for working with remote employees:

A communication app

When you can’t meet face-to-face, video calls and instant messaging are the next best thing. They’re a great way to ensure everybody is on the same page about key priorities. Plus, they offer remote teammates the chance to catch up and build rapport with one another once the work conversation is done. 

For example, RingCentral lets you start a video chat with a tap on your phone or computer. It also offers screen sharing, annotation functions, and a virtual whiteboard so your team can mark things up and brainstorm ideas in real time:

 

Pro-tip: If some members on your remote team are in a different time zone, you might want to create a rotating schedule that ensures they can contact someone (or a group of people) at HQ during their working hours.

And when it comes to remote work, team messaging apps are a blessing. They’re way faster than email, they keep conversational clutter out of your inbox, and they’re better for group discussions than email. 

If you can have your team messaging app and your video conferencing app in the same tool and save some money, even better. RingCentral’s mobile app lets you do just that—and make phone calls too (among other useful features for remote teams). 

File management

Cloud storage is a popular file management solution for remote teams, as it allows them to store important documents on a remote server—meaning these files can be accessed from anywhere, with any device. 

It’s also great for collaboration because multiple people can be working on a single project or task together at the same time. 

The most popular file management tools are probably Google Drive and Dropbox, but if you’re using RingCentral, there’s a file sharing feature in there too that lets you share files from your computer with teammates and groups. 

Because it integrates with those cloud file management tools we mentioned above like Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and Evernote, you can also pull these files right into chats and video calls with your team:

Task management

When you can’t walk by your colleagues’ desks and ask for status updates on projects, task management software becomes even more essential. 

Ideally, you want software that allows you to easily create, assign, share, and track tasks. A few popular ones are Todoist and Trello, but again, if you want to consolidate your tools and minimize the number of different apps you’re paying for every month, RingCentral has a task management feature too:

You can also assign tasks within team conversations, see your tasks in a calendar or list view, and even sort your tasks by project or team. 

7 activities to engage remote employees

Now that you know what tools and processes you need for working with remote employees, it’s time to put these into action. These fun activities for remote employees will help them feel like they’re a part of a close-knit team—no matter how far away they may be.

1. Morning kick-off meetings

At 5 (a professional services company), employees start the day together by joining a Skype meeting called TMZ. This call serves as their kickoff to the new day, allowing everyone to hear a quick update on what’s happening and helping remote employees stay plugged in to the culture and conversation of the main office. 

2. Virtual networking programs

American Express worked with their HR team to launch BlueEn, a Virtual Working Employee Network, that’s specifically designed to bring together employees who have flexible work arrangements. They also host a Virtual Career Week for more than 2,000 employees and even have BlueEn Ambassadors who advocate for resources and support for the company’s virtual population, create awareness of the BlueEn employee network, and build connections between remote employees.

3. Virtual coffee breaks

GitLab, a web-based repository manager, has virtual coffee breaks where team members can take a break and chat with each other via video calls. They’re also encouraged to spend a few hours every week taking these calls to ultimately create “a more comfortable, well-rounded environment” to work in.

4. Small group calls

Customer support service Help Scout hosts a monthly “Troop Talk,” which brings together groups of 10 or more employees on a video call. The company’s People Ops leader chooses a theme for each conversation, like sharing favorite recipes or phone apps:

Then a date is set in advance, so the employees have time to think about what they want to say. During the call itself, everyone takes turns talking and sharing. To accommodate employees in different time zones, calls are recorded and held at different times each month.

5. Home workspace tours

Help Scout encourages team members to create fun little videos of their workspaces. Inspired by the television show MTV Cribs, these “At Home with Help Scout” video home tours allow employees to share more of their personality and day-to-day life with their coworkers:

Some fun things that their employees have discovered about each other: some colleagues raise chickens and others have lie-down desks.

6. Video call discussion prompts

At the end of every meeting, employees at Workswell, a corporate consulting group, have to share “an aha, an apology, or an appreciation.”

This means they can share something they liked, talk about a lightbulb moment the meeting sparked, or apologize for something they did, like overreacting to someone else’s comment.

7. Online video game sessions

No happy hours? No problem. At software development firm Clevertech, remote employees connect and bond through online video game sessions. At first, Clevertech tried getting the team to play mission-based multiplayer games like Fortnite and League of Legends, but these ended up being too easy.

They found that teams needed to face failure to truly band together and coordinate properly. So, the company upped the ante by incorporating more complex games like Factorio, which is known to trip up even experienced gamers.

How will you engage your remote employees?

Whether your company is 100% remote or has just a handful of remote coworkers, showing your company’s commitment to building a shared culture can motivate remote employees to do their best work.

Just as importantly, it can help them create lasting bonds with their colleagues so they truly feel like they’re a part of the team.

People want to feel connected and part of something at work, so make the effort to support and advocate for your remote employees—you’ll reap the rewards in the form of a happy, healthy, and productive distributed team.