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7 Proven Ways to Improve Remote Employee Engagement Across Your Distributed Workforce

You want to improve the engagement of your remote workforce? Here are proven tips to get started.

Congratulations! Your organization has joined the 25% of American workers who work from home.

With enhanced productivity, lower overhead costs, and happier employees, many would argue remote work is the way to go.

But as the person in charge of keeping workers motivated, happy, and productive, you’ve got a new challenge. How do you keep workers feeling connected to the company and their colleagues…

...When they don’t physically work at the company and they don’t see their colleagues?

Behold the new frontier of employee engagement: remote staff engagement.

Now, the channels and tactics may have changed, but the main objectives remain the same. Namely the dual objectives to:

  • Cultivate an environment where workers feel respected, motivated, and productive
  • Reduce employee turnover by making your organization the best place to work

This means evaluating the digital tools available to remain connected to your workforce.

Fortunately, the tools you need already exist.

The trick is figuring out how they fit into your remote staff engagement strategy.

Check out these tips to get started.

Conduct an initial work-from-home survey if your organization is just switching to remote work

Did you just make the transition to remote work? Your next order of business is distributing a work from home survey.

Consider this: Your employees have just experienced a massive change in how they work. Many of them will have to re-evaluate their pre-existing assumptions about what it means to be a good worker.

And if the majority of your workforce has never worked from home, they may feel a sense of uncertainty about how they’ll be assessed.

Traditionally, corporate environments have put a lot of stock into “facetime”. Social scientists and business management scholars call this the “ideal worker” norm.

In other words, employees will have to re-learn what it means to be a good employee.

That said, it’s inefficient for companies to speak to every single employee or to roll out massive remote working training.

Your workforce may already employ people who understand how to thrive in remote environments while other workers, accustomed to more traditional environments, may have issues.

A great way to develop a needs assessment and plan is to conduct a work-from-home survey.

With a work-from-home survey, your HR team can assess a number of work-from-home success factors including:

  • Autonomy
  • Efficiency
  • Quality of interaction with managers
  • Quality of interaction with colleagues
  • Quality of communication

Suppose you want to assess the level of efficiency among your remote workforce. You would include a question that asks employees to rank their level of agreement with statements like:

  • I’m able to stick to a work schedule.
  • Our remote work tools (e.g. VPN, remote work access, communication tools) don’t hinder my work
  • I’m as productive at home as I am at the office

By distributing a survey, you can quickly identify pain points that frustrate employees and address them before they cause too much friction.

Organize and host company events for remote employees

Sure, everyone likes to crack jokes about “forced fun” or “organized fun”. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.

Events create a sense of camaraderie, give employees an opportunity to meet others outside their team, and develop stronger ties to the company.

They also give people an opportunity to see their colleagues and managers in a less formal environment.

When companies abruptly made the shift to remote work this year, they looked for ways to continue hosting events remotely.

Handshake, a job search company, hosted a company-wide remote talent show.

And instead of hosting their Tuesday “all-hands-on-deck” meetings, Handshake opted for remote “Ask Me Anything” sessions on Friday nights.

Above all, events help change things up, keep people feeling connected, and avoid “remote working fatigue” that can set in even among seasoned remote workers.

Other companies have decided to mail out gift cards or offer a stipend so employees can order what they want from a local restaurant and participate in a team lunch.

One public relations firm in New York organized deliveries to employees’ homes for their weekly lunches.

The same firm is currently cooking up other ideas like a virtual book club or shared music playlist.

Set up new digital channels for employees outside of an old school intranet

How can you stay connected to your employees?

The traditional approach is corporate communications distributed via email blasts or the company intranet.

But this may not be the best way for employees to receive and digest a message, especially at home.

In fact, your employees may not use your company intranet at all.

And in a remote working environment, the chances a worker will casually scroll through your company’s intranet are rather low.

That said, setting up digital communication channels is something that can’t be ignored. Remote workers need access to information right at their fingertips. They shouldn’t have to go looking for it.

As a result, developing a communication strategy using a variety of tools is a smart approach.

Use video conferencing for work-from-home orientation sessions

When employees physically start at a new company, there’s an orientation session and an onboarding period.

Done correctly, these activities set employees up for success by telling them who to go to for specific information, where everything is, and what their expectations are.

In fact, companies that take onboarding programs seriously enjoy greater employee outcomes:

  • 50% greater productivity among new hires
  • 69% of new hires are more likely to stay for three years
  • 58% more likely to stay for more than three years

When an employee’s role becomes a remote role, it can feel like starting a new job, especially if they’ve never worked in such an arrangement.

Onboarding and orientation activities can be beneficial.

Organize an orientation session with managers or members of the IT team. This session should specifically cover:

  • How to get set up in your remote work space
  • How to stay productive while working from home
  • Communication policy with general guidelines on which channels to use for different matters (e.g. text for urgent issues, video call for complex matters)
  • Tutorial from IT on how to install your VPN

Use Video Conferencing Apps For Social Gatherings

Virtually reproducing the social environment of an office is difficult. But that doesn’t mean virtual teams should abandon social functions and gatherings altogether.

In fact, companies can empower their own employees to take the lead organizing social events. For instance, an employee at one company has long organized happy hours, farewell breakfasts, and work-alongs to infuse energy into remote working sessions.

Get Creative With Online Channels Like Slack or Social Media

Yotpo Inc, an e-commerce tools company, created a Slack channel exclusively dedicated to puppy photos after it recently made the switch to working from home.

Meanwhile, global creative agency Sid Lee has taken an omnichannel approach to engaging its remote staff.

In addition to using videoconferencing software for exercise classes and yoga sessions, the agency also embraces another tool: social media.

It recently started a private Instagram account that shares news and tips for company employees like work-from-home guides.

They also use the private account to test pilot new ideas that eventually make it to public-facing channels.

Using Instagram also means Sid Lee can reach their employees where they spend the most time (when they’re not on their computers): Their phones.

An employee scrolling through their Instagram feed can stay up to date on the latest projects at Sid Lee and engage with relevant work information as well.

Boost the resources of your IT department

In a controlled office environment, companies can reduce points of friction.

There are standardized computers, controlled by a centralized IT team, and a set of policies and procedures that keep the company’s data protected.

This isn’t the case for a distributed workforce. At least not at first.

In the beginning, you have employees setting up their remote work stations, installing VPNs, or trying to access enterprise applications they can’t work without.

This creates several issues:

  • Productivity decreases drastically in the short-term because workers can’t access the tools they need
  • Productivity decreases incrementally over the long-term because employees have to use clunky work-from-home tools
  • Employee satisfaction decreases because workers find this new arrangement frustrating, lacking support, and counterintuitive to a productive work environment
  • Employee turnover increases because employees either seek an organization with a better work-from-home arrangement or no remote working at all

As the Wall Street Journal noted,today’s workforces host five generations of workers and this brings different levels of “technology fluency”.

So it’s important for companies to create an easy, straightforward way for employees to flag issues and receive support.

What exactly does this look like?

On the face of it, this may mean hiring more tech support professionals. This is an important step considering some employees will need someone to walk them through various tools.

Both iOS and Windows operating systems provide tools that allow employees to transfer control of their computer to a remote IT staff member.

This way, teams can cut down on miscommunications and start solving tech problems straight away.

On the other hand, exclusively focusing on tech support isn’t the most efficient strategy either.

Recall we mentioned the various levels of technology fluency within the workplace?

There will be employees who are more than capable of setting themselves up, but who need basic information like where to find the approved VPN or what a specific password is.

These resourceful employees don’t want to go through the hassle of calling IT.

A good way to solve this problem is to create a channel, knowledge base, or social media feed that addresses some of the most common IT issues faced by remote workers.

This offers a user-friendly place for employees to find answers rather than wasting time and growing frustrated with regular calls to IT.

This ability to quickly find answers allows workers to focus on completing their core tasks.

Ensure frequent, face-to-face communication between managers and individual contributors

Launching into a remote work generates uncertainty.

There are so many norms and customs tied to the physical workplace that applying them to virtual work can be overwhelming.

Case in point: Communicating with one’s boss.

For example, there are physical cues that indicate when it’s appropriate to pop into their office with a question (e.g. closed door versus open door).

For a distributed workforce, this becomes a little unclear.

For instance, if there’s an urgent matter for a remote worker it makes sense to call and if the person isn’t reached, to send a text instead of an email which may not be checked until the following day.

But what if your last 5 years of formal communication through email or face-to-face meetings makes you uncomfortable texting your boss?

If your boss has never explicitly stated what is and isn’t appropriate, it’s easy to become overly cautious and ignore all these efficient modes of communication.

The reverse is also a problem. Suppose you have several ways of reaching your boss through channels like text, Slack, Trello, or email.

Because of these channels, you may rarely get facetime.

While it sounds like an acceptable trade-off in the short term, over the long-term this creates a sense of isolation.

It also makes it difficult to form meaningful connections with direct managers who use these conversations to understand an employee’s motivations and develop a clear career progression plan.

Channels like Slack, Trello, or Asana are efficient for completing tasks, but they are not designed to replace one-on-one conversations between managers and individual contributors.

Furthermore, these channels aren’t designed to replace complex conversations related to specific projects.

For example, while Slack, Trello, or Asana helps a team keep track of several moving parts.

But they won’t be effective unless the people overseeing those moving parts have a clear understanding of the project and the intended project outcome.

These conversations, which provide context and clarity, usually happen during a kick-off meeting.

In a remote work environment, these kick-off meetings should be replicated in video chats. This avoids miscommunication, isolation, and frustration. Make the following elements a mandatory part of your work-from-home strategy:

Organize weekly check in calls between managers and their teams

Once a week, every manager holds a video call with their team to discuss the priorities for the week, any challenges they’ve encountered on current projects, and to have a quick catch up on everyone’s lives.

Ideally, this would turn into short, daily calls.

Schedule one-on-one calls with individual contributors

Provide opportunities for individual contributors to ask questions, discuss progress towards their annual goals, and catch up socially.

This is also a way for managers to gauge the productivity level of each individual contributor in a non-confrontational way.

The key is consistency, so employees know they have these regular forums for communicating with their boss.

Develop “rule of engagement” for communication

Encourage managers to share how they want employees to communicate with them, whether it’s using texts for urgent matters after 5pm, Slack for urgent matters between 9am and 5pm, meeting invite for a video call for discussions, etc.

This streamlines communication and prevents a delay in information sharing.

Create opportunities for casual interactions

One of the first things that gets lost in a remote work set up is casual interactions or “chit chat” with co-workers.

Despite the jokes about “avoiding eye contact” or “chit-chat” with co-workers, there’s a sense of community and connection that’s built up by seeing and interacting with the same people every day.

A 2018 study in Psychological Science showed that people routinely underestimate how much their conversation partner enjoys their company.

So “water cooler conversations” are something people may not even realize they miss once they start remote working.

At the New York Times, the UX Foundations team thought up a simple way to reproduce office chit chat.

The first team member to log into the site each day posts a question like, “What’s your favorite show to binge watch?” and others respond as they logged in, creating light conversation before diving into deeper work.

Avoid delays to critical career development conversations

Receiving clear goals and objectives improves employee engagement.

According to research from Glassdoor, every 10 months that an employee “stagnates” in a role, their < class="clickable-span" data-href="https://www.glassdoor.com/research/app/uploads/sites/2/2017/02/GD_ResearchReport_WhyWorkersQuit_Rebrand_Draft3-1.pdf">chances of leaving the company for another position goes up by 1 percent.

You can imagine how that 1 percent increases in a remote work environment when there isn’t a clear sense of purpose.

In a physical work environment, assignments may be handed out because your manager had a chat with you at the elevator or it came up during a one-on-one meeting.

On the other hand, employees working from home can feel disconnected from the larger business goals and activities.

As a result, they may not feel like they have an opportunity to actively participate and land promotions.

Even in remote environments, it’s important for managers to make time to set goals and objectives with their employees.

McKinsey recommends that managers follow these best practices for effective goal setting.

Involve employees in the goal setting process

It’s not enough to simply assign goals and objectives. It’s important to involve team members in the process of setting these goals and objectives.

Does this mean they can pick any project that interests them?

No. But your job as a manager is to help them understand the larger business context and find projects within that context that also align with their personal interests.

Tie an individual contributor’s goals to business goals

The best employees are self-directed, curious, and resourceful.

As a result, they like to know the why behind what they’re doing and how it offers value. So demonstrating the link between their individual goals and business goals can help.

Suppose you’re a marketing manager. During a meeting about goals, you’re working with a marketing co-ordinator to set objectives for the year.

Naturally, you want to find a project she will be passionate about that is also tied to business goals.

One business goal may be to ensure the success of a recent product launch. Perhaps your company develops enterprise software and it recently rolled out an accounting tool.

So a marketing objective may be to create a company blog dedicated to tips and tricks for using this enterprise software or how to improve accounting processes in general.

If overseeing a content marketing strategy is something your marketing coordinator is interested in, this is a perfect example of an individual goal tying neatly with a business goal.

Next, it’s important to set SMART goals related to this objective. A goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. For example:

  • By the end of Q1, I will have a year long content calendar detailing 2 blog post topics per week
  • By the end of Q4, 25% of our overall blog traffic will go to our accounting content
  • Each month, our blog content will have a 4% conversion rate with conversion defined as customers providing their contact information (for e-books, blog posts, whitepapers) that can be passed on to sales

And of course, this goal setting exercise should offer a clear incentive. If the worker accomplishes this goal, and any others that have been set, will they receive a raise? A bonus? A promotion?

In sum, your professional development conversations should offer employees:

  • A meaningful project tied to business goals
  • Clear, measurable expectations about what constitutes success
  • An incentive for accomplishing these goals

This gives individual contributors something they can point to at the end of the year. And during frustrating work days, meaningful projects quash questions like, “What will I have to show for my time here?” or “Are there no opportunities to demonstrate my value within this company?”

Solicit feedback and gauge the success of your strategy using pulse surveys

Once you’ve put these methods in place, continue to touch base with your workforce using pulse surveys.

You don’t have to distribute a lengthy survey like your annual survey or even your initial work-from-home survey.

Instead, send out one or two questions, on a regular basis. These questions could gauge how employees feel about the quality of interaction with managers or whether they feel like they have a clear professional development plan as a remote worker.

Which elements should you focus on in your pulse surveys?

Start by focusing on the weakest areas of your original work-from-home survey. Where did your organization receive negative results?

For example, did your employees say that their work from home digital tools hindered, rather than improved, their productivity?

You may have introduced new tools or increased your IT team to give remote workers the tech support they need.

Once that initiative’s completed, you’ll want to assess its impact and pulse surveys are a great way to do so.

Are pulse surveys meant to replace your annual employee engagement survey?

Nope.

Instead, your pulse surveys help you determine how far you’ve come in your engagement strategy. Think of it this way. You have:

  • Your purpose: Improving employee engagement and reducing retention
  • Your objectives: Anything from eliminating remote working efficiencies or improving the quality of communications with managers
  • Your tactics: Introducing newer remote working tools or rolling out a “Managing Remote Teams” program for managers
  • Your method of measurement: Whether your tactics helped you achieve your objectives and get closer to meeting your purpose:

Your pulse surveys are your method of measurement.

Pulse surveys can also help you see how enthusiastic your workforce is about specific initiatives before investing a lot of time and energy into implementing them.

Interested in implementing a work-from-home survey or pulse survey?

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