Like it or not, remote work is here to stay. With everything that we as a collective have experienced over the past two years, one could successfully argue that companies were forced into a situation where they had to consider ways of working that would have never occurred to management before.
In some ways, the coronavirus pandemic only sped up existing trends toward more flexible work arrangements, but now that we find ourselves with a foreseeable future where a hybrid (office and home) work model will be the norm, remote employee engagement ideas are rising to the top of the priority list for executives, managers and supervisors. Gallup reports that about 70 percent of white collar workers are still working remotely, and so with team members working from home more and more, engaging remote employees has become an important conversation.
So let's dive in...
What is virtual employee engagement?
According to Forbes, employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals. They don't work just for a paycheck, or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organization's goals. When employees care—when they are engaged—they use discretionary effort.
And so if we apply that definition to a remote workforce, it becomes clear that managing remote employees is essential, especially given the new workplace set-up that so many businesses are having to improvise, and especially if any semblance of team cohesiveness is to remain.
Why engaging remote employees is important
Keeping remote employees engaged can be a challenge. They're at home most of the time, and that brings with it all sorts of distractions. Particularly in a home environment where there are kids present who aren't in school full-time.
Team meetings, social interaction, planning across different time zones, keeping real-time updates on tasks, etc. These things all fall under the "challenging" column when it comes to managing remote team members who each keep a different workspace.
The discipline it requires to treat a home office with the same dedication and respect that is afforded a traditional office space is immense. Too many invitations are present to slack off, or to get distracted by home-life elements. But when you have remote workers and remote teams who have that emotional commitment that Forbes talks about, discipline becomes less of a factor because employees are prioritizing their work and contributions to the overall goals of the company over an episode of daytime TV, or some other distraction.
Signs that your team may not be engaged in their work life
If you are trying to keeping employees engaged while working from home, you may run into some signs that things aren't going according to plan while on that road. And while not all of the items listed below are dead giveaways, since there may also be other contributing factors to any of these things, here are some clues to be on the lookout for.
- Communication levels drop on non-essential subjects
- Lower productivity levels
- Negative attitudes or pushback on tasks
- Higher employee turnover (lower employee retention)
- Lower morale
- Lower reliability
- Silence during team calls (lack of participation, disengagement)
- General apathetic or complacent approach to work
- Higher absenteeism than normal
- Quality of work declines
- Chronic tiredness / exhaustion
Virtual employee engagement ideas / tips
Talk, talk, talk
Communication is the number one thing to put on your list of ideas. This is something that is part and parcel of every positive company culture, and is extremely important when you can't have a face-to-face with someone. Regular check-ins with employees via video conferencing (zoom etc) can serve as a virtual water cooler. Maintaining a sense of community among the virtual team can go a long way to keep engagement levels high.
Make it fun
Team building activities on video calls can really pull employees together quite rapidly. Even if you spend five or ten minutes playing a fun trivia game to kick off a meeting once a week, it's a good way to throw in some "company cheer". Weekly "happy hours" can become a virtual social activity that engages and socializes the workplace, remote or otherwise. Employee recognition is something that is overlooked at times. Celebrating work anniversaries online can be a fun way to let someone know that they are appreciated, recognized and valued.
The team has entered the chat
Collaboration tools and project management software is a great way to keep your team members in touch with one another. Most of these apps come with chat or messaging functions, and while that becomes essential to work collaboration, it also has a nifty side-effect of keeping the water-cooler chats going among employees and encouraging community and non-work-related conversation.
The more the better
Schedule more calls and video chats, not less. It might feel a bit overbearing, or like you're interrupting their work flow at times, but the truth of the matter is we all enjoy a friendly face popping by the office and sticking their face in your doorway to say hi and check-in. This is particularly important when onboarding new staff.
Assign more responsibility
Assigning more responsibility to remote staff makes them feel valued, it gives them purpose, it adds to their career experience, and it guarantees more communication and opportunities for contribution outside of their primary role at the company.
Spend a little
Set aside a budget to help improve home office spaces. Even if it only goes toward a pleasant looking room partition for the background of their zoom calls, or a new coat of paint for the corner of the house that they're using as an office. They might need better internet connection speeds, or a new laptop, or any number of simple yet very much appreciated perks.
Whether it’s as simple as sending some high-quality office supplies or as generous as giving every remote employee a standing desk for their home office, any money you spend on improving remote workers’ experience has a very high return on investment. Employees will appreciate the generosity, make them feel cared for and valued, plus it has an additional benefit of making your remote team more effective at their jobs.
Add a personal touch
When communicating with your remote team, we can sometimes fall into the trap of blurting out orders or requests without remembering to keep it cordial and friendly. Try adding a personal touch so that it doesn't come off as impersonal or cold and too "business-like". That may seem counter-intuitive, being that it is a business-centric communication first and foremost. But it is an unfortunate fact: Work emails and other intra-office messages can sometimes come off colder and more curt than we'd like. If your internal messaging could use more of a “helpful teammate” flavor rather than a “red-pen-wielding tyrant,” then this approach might be for you.
Screen captures with a friendly VoiceOver can make a highly effective use of the awesome potential of video communication for your entire organization. Videos of yourself going over today's agenda, or a photo of the group from the "good old days in the office" can all add a personal and human touch to an otherwise impersonal medium.
Measuring the effects of your work from home engagement activities
Any team building activities and engagement strategies are designed to strengthen the bond between employers and remote employees and to improve your employee experience, but without a way to measure their effectiveness, especially the work from home engagement ideas that cost money, getting approval from those who hold the purse strings can be a challenge.
Ultimately, it all comes back to communication: if you can understand what needs and wants, concerns and problems remote employees may run into, you have a basic guide for addressing those issues. And if you can tap in to how your employees are feeling throughout the year, you can track that sentiment against your efforts to see if what you’re doing is effective or not, and if it is adding value to their well-being and work-life balance.
You could get crafty about measuring your progress by adding scores to certain things (like a satisfaction score out of 10, or a "how engaged do you feel" score, etc.), which would give you a way to measure and analyze, graph with statistics, and give you a tangible, measurable result for how your employees are faring during their workday. This information can be referred to Human Resources and HR professionals can address any particularly concerning issues relating to employee mental health, or any other areas that require attention.
Surveys are a great way to track sentiment among your team members. They don't have to be highly technical or long-winded and involved. They could be as simple as one or two questions. Example: "How satisfied are you with your remote working experience?" and "Are there any areas where we can improve our efforts to help employees while you work from home?"
Summary on how to engage remote employees
We are living in a time where remote work is practically unavoidable and team leaders and management need to find new and creative ways to engage their remote employees. Company culture should embrace this and always be on the lookout for not only ways to improve engagement, but also for signs of disengagement. Hopefully the ideas and tips above have been of help to you.