Leading remote teams comes with its challenges. Chief among them is listening to the voice of your employees so that you can create a great workplace that reinforces and even energizes remote employee engagement.
Research shows a majority of organizations are adapting their operating models to include remote work. HR Executive, for instance, reports around 80% “plan to embrace a hybrid work model where employees will work three days in the office and two days at home.”
Meanwhile, according to Bloomberg, a May survey of 1,000 U.S. adults showed that 39% would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work.
Leaders are in for some interesting days ahead. Leadership skills will be distinguished by those who lead in a way that:
- Gives remote employees the flexibility they’ve come to enjoy
- Fits with the direction of the organization
- Enriches levels of engagement are what will distinguish your superior leadership skills over others.
In the early days of the pandemic probably the most common thing heard from leaders running remote teams was “well leadership is leadership, we’re going to just keep doing what we were doing.”
The thing is, people new to this weren’t necessarily acknowledging that they had to think about things differently. But the unprecedented circumstances behind today’s hybrid work changes means adjusting leadership styles.
Remote Leadership Requires a Shift in Mindset
A shift in mindset means asking ourselves how we’re dealing with the day-to-day things that are in our purview. How our teams work. How we’re conversing with people. How we think about teams, and work, and barriers.
Traditional notions no longer apply when people are working from home, when they have kids at home, and other loved ones in their space.
Leading Remote Work Then: The Sudden Swing Sent Shockwaves
Initially, so much of what was out there was scary, unknown.
At the outset, there were leaders facing remote work management responsibilities who had never worked from home themselves. Who had never had colleagues that worked from home.
Many were facing challenges around how to manage time. They were booking meetings the same way they always had. Dealing with people the same way they always had. Thinking work happened from 9 ’til 5.
Remote Work Today (No Surprise It’s Here to Stay)
Now, as many of us make a return to the office we’re facing scary, hybrid workplace unknowns.
While the natural tendency is to revert to what feels familiar and known, that’s not going to serve any of us well.
We’re walking into a collage of different working styles and workspace situations.
That’s why it’s so important to acknowledge that things are changing by giving space for conversations like: “How are you dealing with these changes? How are these changes affecting you or your team? What are you seeing in your team?”
The idea is to shift our leadership mindset toward being more inclusive. To allow people and conversations to be flexible, to be open-minded, to shift away from thinking someone’s not working hard enough because we can’t see them.
The reality is when we’re in the same space as others, physically interacting, were involved in conversations in a different way. We can see and interpret facial expressions and body language. A lot of us don’t ask for context as much as we could or should, simply because we’re in the same space.
For organizations and leaders that are very solutions-focused, which is a fantastic thing, it can mean that staying remote is more challenging because people don’t have solutions right now. We’re stuck in not knowing.
The secret? Be curious. Ask. Listen. Support. Empathize.
The following nine ways will help you support, empathize and increase employee engagement remotely.
Nine Ways to Support Employee Engagement Remotely
As leaders, how do we begin to think about remote work differently, and within a hybrid context, while our responsibilities and our accountability for employee engagement levels remain unchanged?
1. If your organization hasn’t created a Remote Work Policy, it’s good to have a blanket policy in place. HR can enable the conversation around these rules and policies. Click here for an emergency work from home policy example.
2. A work-from-home policy tends to be company–wide. However, rules of remote employee engagement are more for the subculture of each team. As leaders, this is the time to play within the overall policy. To listen to individual needs. To show your support. Scheduling and timelines and getting and keeping people involved in how they work together as individuals and as members of a team are key for building and maintaining employee engagement in remote situations.
3. Hold daily check-ins. A time that works for the majority every single day for 10 to 15 minutes brings your team together. Be flexible and give your team grace. Some people may not join because they’re doing something else: on another call, taking care of their kids. Be aware. Recognize that things are different. As a leader, if there’s someone who’s not coming to these meetings or someone who isn’t really participating, check in with them individually after the fact. You want to keep everyone connected and engaged.
TIP: Leaders who send a text or quick message to their reports, something as simple as “good morning, how are you doing?” – help their people feel more valued and engaged. That tiny bit of effort to reach out goes a long way.
4. What’s best? To book a 1-1? Or a team meeting? Any one-on-ones that you normally have should remain the same; that cadence shouldn’t change because those are important touchpoints for people. But if you have something to discuss that affects or involves more than one person, include those people in a group meeting. It’s not like being in the office where you can tell something to one person, and then mention the same thing to another as you pass by their office or desk. Otherwise, in a remote work environment, you’re going to feel like you’re having back-to-back meetings all day. And your remote people need to see and feel a sense of inclusion. Leading remote teams means being intentional in every single activity you do – whether discussing the idea of a team lunch or assigning a new project. Think of the remote connection first and engagement will follow.
5. Set clear expectations and outcomes. One of the things that happens most when we go from an office environment to a remote or hybrid work environment is that we’re used to (subconsciously or not) thinking the number of hours someone’s at their desk is a direct measure of their productivity. We know what they’re working on, what they’re doing because we can see them at their desks – so they’re working. But when people are working from home, we don’t have that. Setting really clear KPIs, outcomes, things that people are working on – and then relinquishing control over how they get there and letting them do it without interruption, without micromanaging – becomes more and more important. That empowerment is engaging in and of itself.
6.Communicate! You can’t communicate too much – ever. And you can’t be too transparent. Leaders don’t have to say they’re struggling, however, it IS ok for leaders to say “I don’t know what this is going to look like in six months but I’m going to keep you informed every step of the way.”
That vulnerability, that transparency helps people feel like there’s a community around them. They’re not in this alone. This is really important for people’s mental health, for people to feel some sense of stability in times that feel ever-changing.
Tip: An effective communication approach is to establish virtual office hours where you set aside maybe 90 minutes on Zoom so someone can step in and have a private (locked) conversation for five or ten minutes. It’s like the university professor who makes themselves available to their students, in their office, during a specific period of time. People can reach out. There’s a lifeline if needed.
Employee Engagement surveys are an important tool to get and keep conversations going but, you need to know how to act on survey insights. Download WorkTango’s guide on helping leaders act on employee survey insights here.
7. Create opportunities for social connection to lift spirits. Don’t change what you’ve been doing to engage people. Adapt. And have fun with it. Toss out the question: “What’s one cool thing in your house, your prized possession?” – a virtual show and tell of sorts. Set up a team book club. Establish an activity around another purpose bigger than work. Have a Monday morning coffee room where the Zoom room is open for an hour for drop-in chats. Bring people together who may not know each other (they have kids of a similar age or they live in a similar area). Whatever it is, put them in groups of three for more for support and connection.
There are lots of great apps. For instance, Donut and RandomCoffee create targeted connections between people (sometimes people in the office you don’t yet know). Virtual office apps like TeamFlow and Orbital bring back the energy and spontaneity of people coworking together throughout the day.
8. Beware of ghost expectations. These are the invisible expectations we place on people around us. They’re often baked into the assumptions we have about how things work or how we work or how people work.
We don’t talk about them, they’re not verbalized, they’re not put into place, they’re undocumented. But they drive how we think.
In an environment where we’re with and seeing people every day, there are lots of times and opportunities to disprove these ghost expectations or to quiet them down. We have checkpoints in person.
A common ghost expectation that’s less toxic when we’re in an office is the expectation for a prompt response to an email. In a day-to-day environment, those responses can slide a bit more. But at home, because we’re not seeing what people are actually doing, we’re not seeing what’s happening around them… they become toxic. Pay attention to the mindset that accompanies your expectations. Your sensitivity and flexibility conveys respect for your people. And strengthens their bond to you and the organization.
9. Focus on well-being. There’s the physical environment – making sure that people have the tools and resources. And there’s the mental health angle – providing the support and resources (like a yoga app for example) that can help with feelings of stress, anxiety, and isolation.
Double down on gratitude. Thank people for what they’re doing; if people feel valued, that influences their mental well-being and their sense of engagement.
Start a meeting with a roundtable expression of gratitude. Ask people in one word to describe how they’re feeling today. It’s okay for people to feel whatever they’re feeling and to share. Bring people together for a guided meditation. Have people internally coach each other. (At WorkTango we sent succulents to our people’s homes as a way of brightening up their remote work environment. And in our daily full staff Zoom meetings, people give shout-outs to colleagues by name for stepping in, helping out, simply being there as a support.)
How Do you Tell if you have Remote Employee Engagement?
Leaders can maintain and even build employee engagement with their remote teams. As an international speaker and executive coach who has experienced remote work both as a corporate employee and leader, Céline Williams suggests we’d all do well to remember we manage things and we lead people. Remote Employee Engagement is about enabling leaders in the leadership of people. Managing things is NOT the most important thing right now.”
We’ve covered the nine ways to be a more effective remote leader, and it’s clear that people are at the core of this strategy, not things. If you want to see if these nine activities are paying dividends in your organization, you can measure employee engagement with our tool. To see it for yourself…
Check out our guides on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys. Learn about every aspect of a successful employee voice initiative!
Read great blog posts on workplace culture, employee engagement, employee surveys and other great workplace topics.