Remote work isn’t likely to go away any time soon, even if some companies do return to office-based operations when the COVID-19 pandemic is over. The fact is that the number of people working from home has been rising for many years, and is expected to continue to grow into the future.
According to a June 2021 survey by Global Workplace Analytics, there has been a 173% increase in remote working since 2005.
That is why it’s important that managers understand the basics of engaging remote employees.
Table of contents
Why engaging remote employees is important
Employee engagement is important for every business, large or small. Engaged employees are more productive, committed to seeing the organization succeed, and less likely to leave their jobs. But engaging people can be difficult even in circumstances where they have face-to-face contact with their employers and is even more challenging when they are located off-site.
However, according to Gallup research, there is some good news: employees who work remotely 60 to 80% of the time are more likely to be engaged than other types of employees.
And the Harvard Business Review found that 62% of employees feel that remote working has a positive effect on engagement.
This is not really surprising in and of itself: one of the key ways to keep employees engaged is to give them flexible working conditions and recognize work/life balance.
A Staples workplace survey found that two-thirds of employees would consider looking for a new job if they lost workplace flexibility.
An Owl Labs survey found 54% of employees would stay with their employer if they weren’t allowed to work remotely but would not be willing to go the extra mile with effort.
Statistics also show there are engagement challenges for employers with remote staff.
The Harvard Business Review found that only 5% of remote employees are likely to remain with their companies in the long term.
How to keep remote employees engaged
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution when you’re determining how to engage remote employees. Leaders need to take stock of the current state of engagement within their organizations and determine what improvements could be made.
Here are some ideas to consider implementing in your organization:
1. Have the right types of conversations with remote employees
Managers need to keep in touch with their remote employees to help prevent them from feeling disconnected from the company.
According to Gallup, managers must conduct five different types of conversations with their remote employees to help keep them engaged and performing well. These include:
- Conversations that develop the role and relationship between manager and worker
- Quick connects
- Coaching and development
- Reviews of progress.
2. Recognize remote workers’ contributions
There is a perception that traditional organizations penalize workers because they don’t spend enough face time in the office – even if working remotely has boosted their productivity.
According to a study carried out by MITSloan Management Review, employees from some of the USA’s largest companies who enjoyed working remotely were more likely to speak negatively about their organization’s approach to rewarding and recognizing performance, the likelihood of being promoted, and job expectation clarity.
3. Give remote employees a voice
It’s important to hear from your employees, no matter where they are located.
And employees want to be heard – research from Salesforce found that employees who feel as though they have a voice within their organization are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to be able to perform at their very best.
Employee engagement surveys, pulse surveys, polls and other methods of providing feedback can help you to find out your employees’ views on just about anything so that you can take their feedback to build a more positive workplace.
4. Try games and social activities
It’s easier to arrange social activities when in the office, even if it’s just a cup of coffee or grabbing lunch with some colleagues. Unfortunately, remote work has removed this type of relationship building and informal connectivity.
A recent Digital.com survey found almost 47% of workers who have moved to remote work during the pandemic miss social interactions with coworkers in the office.
You can help overcome this by introducing remote team communication activities like coffee Zoom meetings, virtual team lunches, trivia games, happy hours and other social activities to keep people connected in a social way.
5. Have a virtual water cooler
As well as structured social interaction, remote employees also miss the spontaneity and the ability to collaborate with colleagues in a spontaneous way.
While some digital initiatives have helped with this, 26% of employees responded to a Qualtrics “Future of Work” survey to feel less connected to their co-workers than before the pandemic.
The answer could be a “virtual water cooler”. This is a digital tool that replaces the common workplace, like the break room, that you find in a traditional office. This digital space can be set aside to encourage informal conversations around the water cooler like sports results, television shows, book recommendations, what people got up to on the weekend – all of those conversations that naturally happen between colleagues in the office.
6. Are your internal communication channels fit for purpose?
Communication is one of the most important aspects of employee engagement. But if the tools you’re using aren’t up to the job of connecting with remote workers, your efforts will be wasted. Using various digital channels can help you reach employees no matter where they are… it simply isn’t enough to rely on email and intranet to keep people informed.
Try pop-up alerts, custom screensavers and scrolling desktop tickers on corporate devices. Some remote employees might be easier to reach with an employee app on their smartphones and other devices.
7. Make sure your onboarding process is a positive experience
In general, poor onboarding processes can result in new hires deciding almost straight away that they want to leave the company and work somewhere else. These negative first impressions are even more likely during remote working. Starting a new job can be a daunting experience that is exacerbated by having to do it working in a room by yourself away from your new colleagues.
Having a structured, ongoing onboarding program covering the new hire’s first few weeks with the organization is critical.
This should include lots of time to find out about their role, company policies and procedures, spending time one-on-one with their manager, and meeting the rest of their team… albeit virtually.
Read more: How to onboard a new employee during COVID
8. Don’t forget about learning and development opportunities
One of the things that employees value in their employer is the opportunity to learn and develop new skills. Professional development shouldn’t fall by the wayside just because people are working from home. Give your employees opportunities to take part in courses and workshops online, and even look at other ways to develop them, such as secondments, mentor programs and job shadowing.
9. Support mental health
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) there has been a significant deterioration in mental health in people around the world since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anxiety, stress and depression are conditions that have been notable in their increase.
The OECD recommends that companies adapt their workplace policies to promote mental health during the pandemic and future. Employers can recognize this and offer advice and tips and access to free or subsidized mental health services such as counseling. Other measures should also be taken such as managing workloads and expectations.
10. Have virtual social clubs
You may have had different clubs meeting at lunchtime to participate in different activities in the office. There’s no reason these can’t continue virtually. Zoom yoga sessions, book clubs and any other types of activities can continue virtually. Remote working can even unite people to play online games together in their lunch breaks.
11. Try a virtual open mic session
Your employees probably have lots of hidden talents. Maybe they’re great musicians, write poetry or can sing beautifully. When you have meetings that involve the entire company, you can allow employees to showcase these skills as a bit of an ice breaker.
12. Encourage team health challenges
These days many people have access to wearable fitness trackers such as Fitbits or Apple Watches. They allow you to compete against others to see who can do the most activity, for example, steps walked, each day. As an employer, you could encourage employees to get up away from their desks and exercise by encouraging them to use these devices, or if you’re able to, purchase them so that your team can compete.
13. Ditch long meetings
Have you ever heard people complain that they just sat through a meeting that could have been an email? These are bad enough in the office but are even more fatiguing for people who may have to sit through multiple, back-to-back, lengthy meetings on screen. Particularly if the meeting didn’t need to be long I the first place. You can even go back to audio calls for some meetings to stop people from getting “Zoom fatigue”.
14. Leadership still needs to be visible
A fundamental element of employee engagement is to have a leadership team in the organization that is approachable, transparent and visible.
When employees don’t get to see the leaders in action very often, they can feel a real disconnect if they only see them rarely. In large organizations with multiple locations, it isn’t always possible for people to see the senior leaders in the hallway, so innovative solutions are needed, such as regular video sessions, interactive town hall webinars, and more. With remote working, there’s an opportunity to go even further with this and encourage your leadership team to be more involved in team meetings and social activities.
15. Incorporate virtual ice-breakers in your meetings
A good way to build your team and help them get to know one another better is to incorporate opportunities to “break the ice” and find out more about each other over time.
My team, for example, has a meeting every two weeks, and the end of the meeting is dedicated to asking a random, sometimes serious, sometimes fun question that everyone has to answer.
We’ve had topics like “what would you do if you won the lottery” or “tell us about something you’ve done that you’re proud of.” In doing this, we’ve discovered things about our colleagues we would never have known otherwise.
Examining how to engage remote employees and investing time and resources into improving your engagement with them is extremely important for every company with non-office-based workers. Not only will you improve productivity, but you’ll help to build a strong company culture that will be the envy of your competitors.