According to the latest Gallup American Workplace Report,1 remote employees are actually more engaged than office workers.
Well, not really.
While it’s true that offering flexibility makes a huge difference to engagement (which in turn impacts ROI), it’s not a miracle drug. The rate of employee engagement among remote workers at 28% is still only 4% higher than that of full-time office employees (32%).2
As companies begin to pivot to more robust work from home and work from anywhere policies, and industry leaders like Twitter declare that their employees can work from home “forever,” companies are finding that there’s a lot of work to do with employee engagement.
In the new normal, businesses need to adapt quickly to meet the needs of an increasingly remote workforce.
In this post, we’ll cover:
- Why engaging remote employees isn’t the same as engaging on-site employees
- If a remote work policy is enough to engage employees
- 7 tips for engaging remote employees
- Worst practices: How not to engage remote employees
- A few great ways that companies are tackling employee engagement
Why engaging remote employees isn’t the same as engaging on-site employees
Remote or on-site, employees have the same psychological and professional needs from their organizations: flexibility, transparency, respect, autonomy, purpose, and a long list of others. Here’s a quick clip from our Remote Work Masterclass on engaging your remote employees:
But while most WFH policies cover the flexibility part, crucial aspects of employee engagement (such as team spirit, office culture, communication) become harder to facilitate.
Take for instance, an all-important ingredient of engagement: team and culture building. Being so far away from the office and colleagues, it becomes harder for remote teams to cement connections with their peers. In fact, 62% of remote workers struggle with social isolation,3 which leads to mental health consequences. When mental health suffers, engagement suffers.
And then there are those all-too-common communication challenges, as work-from-anywhere employees miss out on all the non-verbal cues that come from proximity to their peers and managers.
The good news is it’s possible to have high levels of engagement among remote employees. Actually, several fully-remote companies are doing great at this (we’ll tell you more about them a little later). It’s just that the tactics are different and there’s a steeper learning curve involved.
Is a remote work-from-anywhere policy enough?
Think of a WFH/WFA policy as a trust-building document in spirit, and a protective one in function.
It outlines guidelines to handle the legal, tax, and security concerns that arise from transitioning to remote work and also establishes ground rules for effective communication and collaboration.
These provide certainty and structure to what is essentially new ground for most employees and organizations. It’s the bare minimum.
Without emphasizing on and investing in good leadership, skill development, fair pay structure, diversity, trust, employee autonomy, team building and motivation, a remote work program is doomed to fail. What a remote company needs is all of these things, some ingenuity to think outside the box (and a good remote working tool).
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7 tips for engaging remote employees
1. Proactively check in with your team
One of the best ways to help your remote work be successful is regular, disciplined communication. The first and easiest step? Have managers check in on their team frequently.
Something as simple as asking “Are there any issues you’re currently facing? How can I help?” will help create that needed space where employees feel comfortable talking about any problems they might be having.
2. Provide open, two-way channels of communication
Remote workers often feel isolated and disconnected from their teams.4 Provide off-site employees with plenty of communication channels to contact managers and engage freely with their coworkers.
Many teams today communicate through not only emails and phone calls, but also video conferencing and team messaging. Give your team those options—and ideally, all in one app so they don’t have to keep switching between windows and tabs. Here’s one example of how it looks, in the RingCentral app:
Periodically host virtual, all-hands meetings to bring everyone on the same page and align each other toward your big-picture goals.
3. Train your leaders
Incompetent leadership is one of the biggest killers of employee engagement.5
But it’s unfair to chalk disengaged remote employees to poor leadership if the leaders in your business don’t get the training needed to engage and motivate their employees.
4. Choose the right connection and collaboration tools
Frictionless communication is the way forward to build the connections so essential to the knowledge sharing and social learning that happens in great teams.
To this end, give your team the best possible communication tools to facilitate collaboration. Video conferencing software, file sharing, project management, and instant messaging are just a few features to look for that can make remote work easier.
Here’s a quick look at how a video conferencing tool works:
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5. Value the input of your remote workers
Employees need to feel like their input is valued. Research shows that employees who feel empowered measure in the 79th percentile for engagement, while those who don’t measure in the 24th percentile.6 That’s a huge difference.
Recognize your employees’ contributions. Empower your remote employees to contribute to company culture by giving them autonomy and opportunities to implement new ideas and contribute feedback on initiatives.
6. Organize in-person (and virtual) team-building initiatives
While team-building efforts are important for any company, remote teams present a different challenge. You can build community through regular team calls and informal virtual meetings to allow your team members to interact with each other casually.
Another great way to facilitate this is through company retreats that allow off-site workers to meet each other, strengthen relationships, and discuss the future of the company.
If you can’t make in-person meetings happen, there are lots of virtual team-building activities to try.
7. Invest in professional development for remote employees
Forty percent of employees who receive poor job training quit within their first year.7
Continuous professional development is crucial not for not only the growth of your employees, but also the progress of your company. Offering remote workers the option to pursue professional development through individual mentorships, online webinars, or tuition assistance, shows them that you recognize their value, and it helps them feel enthusiastic about being part of your team.
Worst practices: How not to engage remote employees
Companies diving into remote teams for the first time may also face a few bumps in the road before getting into the groove of things. To make sure this doesn’t happen, knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what the best practices are.
A work-from-home or work-from-anywhere policy is meant to provide flexibility to employees so they can enjoy work-life balance (yes, even for the leaders). Sometimes, nervous and inexperienced managers overcompensate by insisting that employees adhere to a strict schedule, over-emphasize on daily reports, and have too many long meetings that could have been emails.
This is the virtual version of “breathing down their necks.” These practices hamper productivity and breed resentment as employees feel they are not trusted.
2. Treating communication as an afterthought
Communication is everything with remote work. It’s impossible to find out how a person is feeling, without being able to read their body language or non-verbal signals, which means that people will need to be ready and willing to learn new ways of communicating and handling conflict.
Communication needs work and leaders will need to introspect on and improve their own communication practices.
3. Ignoring mental health
Working from anywhere hasn’t always directly translated to work-life balance—especially if you’re in a leadership position. Sometimes the disappearing boundaries between home and work life increase loneliness and isolation—a recent survey in Japan showed that 35% of people who were working from home reported poor mental health.8
When managers fail to address these struggles, employees feel unheard and dissatisfied. Simple gestures such as encouraging remote workers to take breaks, helping them manage their time, supporting them as they transition to the new normal, and empathizing with their problems can go a long way in building trust and community within a remote team.
4. Not providing opportunities for growth and learning
Employees aren’t just interested in the growth of the company. They also want to know how to advance their careers. Career advancement and a lack of opportunity remains a top concern among remote workers, ranking up there with social isolation.9
Managers who don’t address this important motivator will set themselves up for decreased employee engagement.
Make a point to discuss career paths, individual goals, and opportunities to develop your employees’ skills.
A few ways companies are tackling employee engagement
Here are ideas from three companies that you can steal:
1. Clever Tech powers collaboration with play
Software development firm Clever Tech decided to tap into one of the world’s most popular pastimes to encourage employee interaction—video games.10 The company is 100% remote and has operated that way for over a decade. Founder Kuty Shaley started first with team-based games like Fortnite, and eventually moved onto more complex games like Factorio. It worked out brilliantly.
Playing video games together can allow employees to learn from each other, deal with each other’s negative emotions, and create better team dynamics… all while having fun.
2. GitLab leverages the power of informal communication
GitLab proclaims itself to be the largest all-remote workforce in the world,11 and it does a splendid job of using video conferencing and collaborative technology to bring the spirit of coffee breaks and watercooler conversations to virtual meetings.
Initiatives include movie nights with Netflix parties, group fitness sessions, dress-up themes for all-hands meetings, and even virtual scavenger hunts.12
3. Automattic helps employees create their ideal workspace
Automattic, the 100% distributed company behind WordPress, has 1,186 employees in 77 countries speaking 93 different languages. Sounds like some pretty intimidating numbers if you want to keep all those people engaged.
Their fix: provide the work-from-anywhere employees with a $250 stipend to spend on their workspaces—whether they choose to order coffee at Starbucks or spruce up their home office.13
It takes time to learn to engage remote employees, but it’s worth it
At a time when employee engagement levels remain abysmally low the world over, the sudden catapult to remote work can be frightening.
Managers who have a hard enough time engaging employees in real life often find themselves struggling to adapt to the demands of the new normal.
In this testing time, newly remote businesses can make it work too—talk to your employees, think outside the box, and embrace the power of collaborative technology.
Originally published Jun 03, 2020, updated Jan 30, 2023