How to Lead, Drive Engagement and Create Culture for Remote Workers

January 21, 2020 | Shannon Shoemaker

As more workers are looking for the flexibility to work from home, leaders are faced with new challenges on how not just to communicate and set expectations with leadership but also with creating a culture and driving engagement for workers who are working outside the office. Employers that offer candidates the possibility of working remotely have an advantage when it comes to recruitment. Remote work tends to be very attractive to prospective employees, especially for those workers who want to establish a good balance between their work and family life.

In its 2019 Future Workforce Report, freelancing website Upwork reports that nearly two-thirds of companies today have remote workers and 2 out of 5 full-time employees will be working remotely within the next three years. While increased adoption of remote work is making it easier for companies to find talent – 52 percent of hiring managers that work at companies with work-from-home policies believe hiring has become easier in the past year – educating our managers on leading remote teams effectively hasn’t necessarily kept pace with these numbers.

Not having employees on-site during consistent work hours can make communication more difficult, particular for team- and relationship-building. This means we have to train our team leaders and managers on best practices for keeping remote employees engaged.

 

Best Practices for Leading Remote Teams

For a study on remote work and engagement, the Harvard Business Review polled 1,153 employees, and 52 percent said they work, at least some of the time, from home. When they do, according to HBR, many feel their colleagues don’t treat them equally. Remote employees are more likely to report feeling that colleagues mistreat them and leave them out. Specifically, they worry that coworkers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without telling them in advance, lobby against them, and don’t fight for their priorities.

Consider what makes your company culture on-site important to your on-site employees, and how that same perception can be communicated remotely. Here’s an abbreviated best practices list from the HBR study along with ideas for leading and engaging your remote workforce:

 

    • Frequent check-ins. Nearly half of respondents (46%) to the HBR study said the most successful managers checked in frequently and regularly with remote employees. The check-ins varied from daily to weekly to biweekly, but they were always consistent and usually entailed a standing meeting or scheduled one-on-ones.
    • Face (or voice) time. One in four respondents to the HBR study said managers who insisted on some face time with remote employees were more successful. Make a visit to remote employees or schedule a mandatory on-site day once a week, month, quarter, or year. Use this time for team building (depending on how far away your remote employee lives). If in-person meetings are not possible, use video conferencing or pick up the phone to ensure colleagues occasionally see one another’s face or hear one another’s voice. It can be hard on your travel budget, but bringing remote workers together on-site on a quarterly or biannual basis can go a long way toward engaging these employees and helping them build relationships with on-site and remote team members and leadership.
    • Communication, communication, communication. The most successful remote team managers are good listeners, inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of over communicating, while encouraging the same for others on the team. A “how is your week going?” Slack message is very different from hovering over a remote employee with a deadline. We simply need to make sure our remote workers understand that quick check-ins throughout the week are not just fine, but expected. Being available online to remote workers is like having an open door policy with on-site employees.A highly effective way of reducing “first day” stress before your new remote hires even begin orientation is to get them fully engaged with the company. This is where technology support comes in. Giving access to your internal employee site as soon as the offer is accepted is a great way to get new hires acclimated quickly. This should be a destination for incoming remote employees to find everything they need to know about working for your company, including standard operating procedures, what technology the company uses (such as performance tracking apps and communication tools), company values and expectations from remote employees. At Fog Creek Software, where 60 percent of team members work remotely, a monthly online meeting called a Town Hall is used as an outlet to discuss feelings and problems as well as upcoming events and company-wide changes.
    • Explicit expectations. Managers who are direct with their expectations of both remote and on-site employees have happier teams that can live up to those expectations. People are never left in the dark about projects, roles, or deadlines. Remote employees can suffer from the perception that it’s harder for them to show the value of their work to their superiors, making it harder to get a promotion. Part of your onboarding training for remote workers should include team leaders addressing this directly by outlining expectations, KPIs, and communication around how and when performance reviews are conducted for remote employees. Technology can also be effective for goal tracking and team communication. Platforms like Weekdone or 15Five allow managers to set goals and employees to report on the progress weekly, as well as communicate any obstacles and even give a virtual high-five to a team member who did something exceptional. It’s the virtual version of weekly team meetings and ensures that all team members have access to team goals and understand how their work fits in with the bigger picture.
    • Be available. Survey respondents said successful managers are available during remote employees’ working hours, no matter their time zone. They go above and beyond to maintain an open door policy for both remote and on-site employees — making themselves available across multiple time zones and through different means of technology.
    • e tech-savvy. Successful managers don’t just resort to phone or email; they are familiar with video conferencing technologies and a variety of services like Skype, Slack, Zoom, Adobe Connect, and more. They tailor communication style and medium to each employee.
    • Make relationships a priority. Good managers go out of their way to form personal bonds with remote employees. They use check-in time to ask about their personal lives, families, and hobbies. They designate team meeting time for “water cooler” conversation so that the whole team can create personal connections and strengthen relationships. Being intentional in terms of including employees in events and activities (like holidays and birthday celebrations) alleviates some of the FOMO (fear of missing out) remote employees may have.

Be Intentional in Creating a Culture for Your Remote Workforce

Taking this a step further by giving your new hires access to influential employees at your company as mentors can not only give them an additional layer of comfort at their new job, but it also creates a mentor/mentee relationship that continues past new employee orientation, giving them an opportunity for ongoing learning on the job and a point of contact when in need of advice. Providing new hires with a mentor or peer buddy can have a positive impact on both productivity and retention. Under Google’s “Buddy Hire Program,” most Nooglers (Google’s affectionate term for its new hires) are assigned a mentor to help speed progress toward becoming a productive employee. IBM’s Royal Blue Ambassador Program provides every new hire with an experienced employee mentor for 30 days in order to help them adapt quickly. Beyond 30 days, IBM has a volunteer collaborative group known as its “grassroots community” which continues to help new hires transition into IBM both virtually and on-site. Consider forming a “new hire” affinity group, so that your new employees can share problems, opportunities and experiences with each other. This is particularly helpful if you onboard large groups remotely. It’s important that your new hires bond with others, and their fellow new employees are the best people to understand this period of adaptation and learning.

Finally, understanding that employing a remote workforce is the new normal is critical to making a significant shift in how we engage with remote employees. This is how we lead, drive engagement, and create a culture that reflects and accommodates this growing population.

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