The Slice

How to Keep Employees Engaged While Working Remotely

February 23, 2022

Some employees are more engaged when working remotely than they ever were in an office environment. Others, though, may struggle with the lack of personal connection and the barrier of technology between them and their teammates, managers, and customers. If your company is working remotely and struggling with engagement, or you want to proactively grow engagement rates before a shift to fully remote work, here are some methods you can explore.

Historically, there has been a lot of pushback against the concept of working from home. "If we can't see them working, how can we know they're actually working," companies ask. As it turns out, this was mostly coming from middle managers who did no work themselves aside from looking over everyone's shoulders. 

The pandemic has proven that remote work is not just viable; it's often better than office work. Check out some statistics:

"A study by Standford of 16,000 workers over 9 months found that working from home increased productivity by 13%. This increase in performance was due to more calls per minute attributed to a quieter, more convenient working environment and working more minutes per shift because of fewer breaks and sick days.

77% of those who work remotely at least a few times per month show increased productivity, with 30% doing more work in less time and 24% doing more work in the same period of time, according to a survey by ConnectSolutions."

So, while remote work is clearly better for many people than working in an office, there's one major roadblock many companies experience: a lack of engagement.

Some employees are more engaged when working remotely than they ever were in an office environment. Others, though, may struggle with the lack of personal connection and the barrier of technology between them and their teammates, managers, and customers.

If your company is working remotely and struggling with engagement, or you want to proactively grow engagement rates before a shift to fully remote work, here are some methods you can explore.

Encourage Video Calling

There's a reason why Zoom took off during the start of the pandemic. Well, it's actually a combination of two reasons. The first is that they were simply the company in the right place at the right time. They're far from the only company making video calling software, and indeed, they aren't even one of the best. They've been plagued with security and privacy problems since the start

The other reason is that remote work really benefits from video calling and video chat for most workers. This is doubly true for workers whose lifestyle before transitioning to remote thrived on face-to-face communication, chats around the water cooler, and the ability to casually drop by someone's desk and sort out an issue quickly in person.

Let's face it; your office was already using a lot of modern communications technologies to stay connected, whether it was an internal phone service, a company Slack setup, or cloud-based productivity boards like Asana. What's one more?

The trick is to make sure you aren't forcing video chats when other options would suffice. Video calls and video conferences are great for all-hands meetings, weekly round tables, planning sessions, and other events. They're much less useful in cases where a simple one-on-one call needs to happen or an issue can be solved quickly with a few back-and-forth Slack messages.

Foster Social Interaction

Socializing with your employees and encouraging socialization amongst them is a key way to encourage engagement and friendship. There are quite a few different options you can explore here, so keep in mind that there's no singular "best" solution. Your roster is unique. Some companies prefer casual meets, some love team-building games, and some like more formalized socialization.

Ideas might include:

  • Pizza parties, for distributed casual socialization and a company-sponsored dinner.

Of course, you'll often find that your company and your workforce will benefit from implementing some or all of these, rather than just one. Different levels of enforced socialization, different levels of formality; these play a role in making everyone feel at home with each other.

Keep in Touch with Employee Personal Lives

This one is a tricky line to walk. As an employer, you don't really have the right or the responsibility to manage the personal lives of your employees. Technically, they aren't your business. It doesn't matter what your employees get up to on their days off or after work, so long as they get their work done and aren't disruptive to the rest of your company.

On the other hand, you need some level of awareness of the lives of your employees outside of work. You need to know if they're fighting medical issues, if their family situation is time-consuming and stressful, or if they have other responsibilities that put pressure on their work.

Why? Well, quite often, the job is the first thing to go when it gets in the way. Work, enforced in an already stressful life situation, leads to burnout. Burned-out employees have very low productivity and engagement, and are much more likely to quit, no matter what retention methods you offer.

So: engage with your employees and chat with them as acquaintances or friends. Learn about their personal situation, not as an employer, but as a buddy.

Moreover, use what you learn to help adjust, enforce boundaries, and support your employees. For example:

  • If an employee is over-worked, check to see if their team can take some of the burden, or consider hiring someone new to distribute the workload. 

  • If an employee has a stressful family situation, consider enforcing stricter work hours specifically to force them to stop working and attend to their family, without worrying about not giving their 110%.

  • Consider investing in company-supported benefits that include therapy and other forms of mental healthcare, or even just required paid vacations to de-stress and relax.

You can even follow the example of some companies pushing the envelope by offering a stipend for personal development or hobbies to encourage your employees to have lives and interests outside of work.

The goal of all of this, by the way, is to help show your employees that you care about more than just the work they put out. You care about them as people, about their holistic health and well-being, and about their ability to thrive, not just survive.

Maintain Communication and Encourage Feedback

Sometimes, you have a brilliant idea to help encourage communication and facilitate socialization in your workforce, so you implement it. Maybe people participate begrudgingly. Maybe they join in at first, but attendance starts to slip. Maybe it has an initial bump to productivity and engagement that drops off after the novelty wears off.

Do you know why?

Often, the way to find out is to solicit feedback from your employees. More importantly, it can be critical to have open feedback and lines of communication that your employees can take advantage of at any time. 

The goal is to ensure that employees can leave feedback about systems they like or don't like, and can offer their own suggestions based on their perspectives.

For example, your idea for a weekly all-hands video chat might be great for some employees who thrive on social interaction, but it's a meaningless burden on a few who don't like video chatting or who have a disruptive home environment where forcing a meeting becomes a stressful event. It can also be difficult for employees in disparate time zones if your all-hands meeting takes place in the early morning hours or late at night where they are.

Make sure you allow and encourage your employees to give feedback about what they don't like – and about what they might want or need – and take that feedback into consideration. Often, they'll have ideas you might not have considered, but which prove to be just what you needed to encourage engagement.

Make Sure Everyone is Involved

Small teams don't necessarily have this problem, but mid-sized and larger businesses may find that a few employees slip through the cracks. Those employees might be highly productive and simply skip out on enforced socialization. Or, they might feel ignored, left out, and disengaged. 

It's a tricky balance to locate. On the one hand, you want to make sure everyone is engaged with the team and that everyone has opportunities to be active participants. On the other hand, you don't want to suppress independence and motivation by being overly regimented or draconian in your collaborative communications.

This is, usually, an opportunity. When you find an employee who seems disengaged and doesn't participate, consider talking to them directly and asking them for their feedback. It could be that they feel talked over or ignored, so they stopped caring. It could be that they're simply introverted and like watching others socialize rather than participating themselves. It could be that the scheduling is always inconvenient, so they get left out. 

Maintain a Dedicated Digital Water Cooler

A large part of the office environment that many people miss is the ability to just have a casual chat with a coworker. The traditional office water cooler chat is the stereotype, but you can also consider break room chats, chats over lunch, trips to the pub after work, and so on. You don't get these moments in remote and distributed work, so you need to set up ways to simulate it.

One of the most common is a single or a set of "digital water cooler" chat channels. A dedicated Slack channel for socialization, dropping memes, discussing movies, and chatting about hobbies is trivially easy to set up and encourage. 

Make sure that you participate as well, and make doubly sure that you don't use it in a negative way. The best way to kill engagement is to see employees chatting in the water cooler and step in to tell them to get back to work. Likewise, using something they say against them in future discussions will make them less likely to participate or share.

Build a Culture of Recognition

One of the best ways to keep employees engaged is to recognize their contributions, large and small. You want to build a culture of recognition within your organization on both a formalized and an informal basis. 

  • Set up larger, overarching recognition programs, like a project-based MVP or an employee of the month designation.

  • Set up smaller, more casual recognition meetings, like picking an employee and publicly acknowledging something good they did in the weekly all-hands meeting.

  • Encourage employees to recognize one another when someone contributes meaningfully or is even just a positive influence in general.

  • Celebrate milestones in employee lives. Celebrate birthdays, career anniversaries, professional development achievements like earning industry certificates, and even personal achievements like staying sober, reaching a weight lifting goal, or achieving something noteworthy in a hobby. Just make sure to have permission before celebrating such a thing publicly.

It's also important to make sure recognition is more or less equal throughout your organization. You want to ensure that no one is being left out or ignored. Even if they feel like they never stand out or they don't achieve anything, with a little creative thinking, you can find something to highlight.

Be Flexible and Adaptable

Things change. The methods that work to increase engagement and productivity immediately after a shift to remote work might no longer be valuable or relevant a year or two in. Your workforce changes, and what people like to do and hear and talk about can change. Perspectives change. Lifestyles and personal situations change.

Always remember that you need to be reviewing, monitoring, and adapting your processes to improve on a continual basis. Yes, that even means that a well-received program from two years ago might no longer be necessary or relevant and can be replaced by something better adapted to your new situation.

One of the best things you can do as an employer is be flexible and responsive to what your employees want and need to succeed. If that means providing additional support and independence for remote work, so be it. If it means allowing some employees to return to the office, great. Whatever the case, finding your unique path to success is an ongoing journey, not a destination.

These are just a few of the possible options your company can implement to keep employees engaged while working remotely, but they're not the only ones. There are dozens of available options you can choose to go with, including options that stem from these listed ones. It's just a matter of figuring out what works best for your company and employees.

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