WFH: How to Motivate Remote Employees and Build Virtual Teams Morale

Working from home? Here's how to keep your employee morale and motivation.

Raising employee morale has become your top priority as HR Director.

For the past several years, your competitors are moving faster than your company can keep up.

The theory among management is that the company can’t hold on to great employees. In fact, many of your best people have gone to work for your competitors.

In other words: Everyone’s blaming HR.

To understand the problem, you’ve started talking to people. Finally, one manager levels with you:

“People aren’t motivated. They think of this place as a way to pay the bills until they can land a better job elsewhere.”

Not good.

Sure, a job is a source of income, but if that’s the only reason employees work at your organization, you know you won’t get the best results.

People won’t bring their best ideas. They won’t raise their hand for special projects. And they won’t devote themselves to solving problems.

They’ll clock in, they’ll clock out, and when a better position comes along, they’ll leave.

So you got to work, you designed an employee engagement and motivation strategy...and then your company shifted to remote work.

And what does this mean for your plan?

We’re going to break down the unique challenges of motivating a remote workforce and then get into specific solutions managers can implement.

Motivating a remote team comes with unique challenges

Motivating employees and building employee morale is difficult when working with a remote team for the following reasons.

Face-to-face communication is limited

You know communication is important for organizational success. But it’s also an important part of motivating employees and developing morale.

In a physical workplace, managers can sense when their team is struggling and provide words of encouragement. It’s also easier to compliment someone’s good work informally and on the spot.

In a virtual environment, it’s harder to find casual ways to do this. But these moments of recognition are important.

But you may not realize just how important it is until you’re managing a distributed workforce.

The first challenge is understanding the protocol around communication. In the workplace, there are visual cues. You know that when your boss’s door is closed, he or she shouldn’t be disturbed.

You unconsciously choose when to raise certain issues. You might ask a quick question about a project while standing by the elevators or by popping into their office. When there’s a more complex conversation needed, you’ll send an invite and book a meeting.

In a remote working environment, the rules aren’t clear.

If you have a quick but time-sensitive question, should you send a text or an email?

What if you just want to check in with your boss face to face? You no longer have the option of craning your neck to check if their door’s open.

All of these can impact morale and motivation in small, insidious ways. Feeling uncertain about asking for help or posing questions amplifies feelings of isolation, chipping away at both morale and motivation.

Lack of collective purpose within distributed teams

Teams feel energized and motivated when they’re working towards a shared goal. But this sense of cohesion and collective purpose can be difficult to maintain when managing a distributed team.

Another element that creates friction is the lack of clarity about expectations. A director at an HR consultancy recommends that managers clearly articulate what they expect from individual contributors.

This is important. About 57% of employees report that they aren’t given clear directions from managers.

With clear objectives and metrics, employees can understand how what they’re doing fits into the team’s collective goal, how it complements the work that other team members do, and how the team’s work fits into the company’s larger business goals.

Managers project their own insecurities about managing remote teams

A conversation about motivating remote workers is not complete without discussing managers.

Remote work is an adjustment for managers as well. Traditional management techniques focus on command and control.

While the discourse has moved away from this approach, it’s still the standard approach in most workplaces, where managers rely on physical walk-bys to ensure employees remain on task.

In a remote environment, employers can’t necessarily do that. And any attempts to do so electronically can be viewed as intrusive.

One HR director says it’s best for remote team managers to do some introspection to manage this anxiety. She suggests managers ask themselves whether they can’t work well without their team around them, and if they’re projecting their own anxiety onto their teams.

Managers start micromanaging remote employees

For managers used to office environments, a shift to remote work can feel like a loss of control.

The result? Managers overcompensate and micromanage, worried that their team members won’t produce the same results.

This is bad news. Micromanagement is one of the top employee complaints. Plus, it’s an expensive management style since micromanagement often leads to turnover, particularly among top performers.

Superstar employees are motivated and dedicated, and they find micromanagement both frustrating and condescending.

If they’re micromanaged, they’ll eventually look for a company where they’re respected as contributors.

How to motivate remote teams

Now that you appreciate the challenges, here’s how to address them to motivate your remote team.

Set goals based on output

Assessing employee performance based on “butt in seat time” is an outdated management method. Especially if you’re in a knowledge-based business like tech, finance, or management consulting.

Research - and anecdotal evidence - shows that employers value employees who practice expected facetime (during regular business hours) and extracurricular facetime (outside of regular business hours).

This heuristic for evaluating employee dependability is hard to replicate while managing remote teams.

As a result, managers may try to compensate by implementing rules that micromanage employees, like spot checks to ensure they’re at their desk or unexpected calls. This is an irritating, and possibly intrusive, approach.

Instead, remote team managers should focus on evaluating employees based on output, not facetime.

While facetime is important for keeping a team connected, it shouldn’t be used as a way to evaluate employee performance.

Centralize your communications

Remote workers sometimes feel isolated not just from the company, but from their team. This is especially true if only one portion of a team works remotely.

Consider centralizing all your communications through electronic channels, so that everyone is in the loop and on the same page.

According to one startup founder, creating an environment where employees should make decisions through centralized channels is more productive.

Once companies embrace this “asynchronous” working style, they can stop worrying about remote-first or office-first and just become results-focused.

Actively show gratitude and appreciation for your team

Just because you can’t walk by a co-worker’s desk and congratulate them on a successful project, doesn’t mean you can’t congratulate them at all.

The problem is that it’s harder to do so in a remote environment.

Colleagues who work together every day may feel comfortable directly emailing someone to say “Well done!” but that may not be the case for everyone.

As HR Director, you can create forums for recognizing employee accomplishments. These forums give others a chance to recognize these accomplishments as well.

For instance, you might want to create a newsletter that recognizes accomplishments across the company (or across divisions if you’re a large organization).

You could also introduce an “Employee of the Week” or “Employee of the Month” segment in your update calls. Employees can submit nominations throughout the month.

At the team level, encourage managers to reach out with messages of gratitude to their team when possible.

A former President and CEO of Campbell’s would spend up to an hour a day scanning his email and the internal website with his executive assistant.

The goal? He wanted to find success stories from across Campbell’s many divisions. For example, if an employee in the customer success department earned a promotion, he could personally congratulate her.

This may not have been a remote working situation, but it is an example of showing appreciation and boosting morale even when you don’t work with someone every day.

Create moments for casual facetime

Simply seeing your co-workers often builds morale and motivation.

When companies switch over to a virtual work environment, they tend to reserve facetime for work-related conversations.

But it’s worth finding time for non-work related facetime.

Some companies choose to dedicate the first five minutes of their morning virtual meeting to discussing the weekend or chatting about current events.

Others have started organizing weekly virtual lunches. Every Friday, food is delivered to every remote worker’s house, and employees get to share a meal remotely.

As one founder of a fully remote company of 20 employees explained, “Probably the biggest benefit is seeing each other’s faces. Even though it’s only for half an hour or so, it makes people realise they are working with a team.”

A CEO of a Toronto-based company recommends finding out what employees love and making an effort to bring it up during meetings.

This way team members can discover what they have in common with each other outside of work and build rapport.

Make employees in different geographies feel recognized and included

Sometimes, a company’s remote worker engagement efforts only include a portion of their remote team.

How does this happen?

Suppose your San Fransicso-based company rolls out a remote worker engagement program. Managers organize virtual team lunches for casual face-to-face time, and they’re a success. Your employees feel connected, motivated, and enthusiastic about the team.

But what if 20% of your team is located in London, Paris, or Mumbai? These teams are hours ahead, and unable to participate in these events. In fact, they may sometimes be forced to attend inconveniently scheduled meetings.

While your employee engagement strategy can’t bend time and space, it can look for ways to make these individuals feel more included.

When a U.S. MetLife team was training workers in India via teleconference, it made a conscious effort to build trust through remote worker engagement by taking the geographic difference into consideration.

The virtual trainer consulted colleagues to come up with a quiz of Bollywood and cricket facts. The game proved to be an effective icebreaker that led to laughter among the participants.

It also helped the India-based team feel more comfortable asking questions and contributing to the conversation.

People already feel hesitant participating when meeting people for the first time.

That hesitancy increases when you’re interacting for the first time through teleconferencing technology.

“Too often, offshore teams are treated like a machine rather than a group of people who have useful input,” the lead trainer explained. “We’re all humans...and you have to figure out how to find the commonalities in order to build collaboration.”

Carve out one-on-one facetime with employees

If one-on-one meetings are the first thing to go out the window when your team goes remote, that’s a bad sign.

“One-on-ones are one of the most important productivity tools you have as a manager,” says time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders.

Saunders says they serve both a productivity and engagement purpose. They give employees a chance to ask strategic questions, so they devote their energy to the right tasks.

At the same time, they’re a relationship building opportunity. If a busy manager takes time to sit down and check in with an employee, it shows that they’re a valued member of the team, and that their success and happiness are important.

Ask for feedback - and make an effort to implement it

If this is your company’s first attempt at remote working, regularly ask for feedback.

There will be a lot of things that do and do not work as your company transitions into remote working.

And here’s the thing: Most employees appreciate the need for an adjustment period.

What they won’t appreciate is your company’s unwillingness to learn from it.

When you’re managing a remote workforce, it’s important to solicit and act on feedback.

Every workforce is different. While there are some common features of a remote employee engagement plan, some aspects will be more important than others depending on your workforce.

Distribute a remote worker engagement survey. You may be surprised at what you find. Your survey results may reveal:

  • Inadequate IT resources: Something as simple to fix as an inadequate video conferencing tool or VPN may be causing your employees daily stress.
  • High levels of worker anxiety: Are your workers doing well? If not, what workplace factors are contributing to their anxiety?
  • Difficulty adjusting to remote work: Newer workers may not understand how to work within this new paradigm or effectively separate work from home.
  • Confusion about communication protocols: Do your employees hesitate to reach out because they’re not sure which channels are appropriate? This is something you need to know.
  • Disengagement and dissatisfaction: If your workforce feels this, it’s important to know why. Maybe they feel like they don’t receive clear goals and KPIs and that their career progression is impacted.

Once you receive this feedback, implementing it is critical. Otherwise, your workforce will view the HR department as “all talk, no action”.

Naturally, you won’t be able to turn every piece of feedback into a strategy for increasing employee morale and motivation. But you can follow up on the most relevant ones and actively track the impact of these initiatives.

So how do you do that?

Organizing, distributing, and acting on the result of a remote worker survey

You’ve got an idea of how to measure employee engagement, but you want to be as strategic as possible.

After all, you don’t want to spend 6 months working on a comprehensive post-survey action plan to later hear someone go, “That’s nice, but I woulda preferred something else…”

The first step is to figure out how your workforce feels about remote working.

Don’t wait for your usual annual survey to do this. Instead, distribute a work from home survey that asks your team specific questions about their experience as a remote worker. This survey should cover the following topics.

Remote autonomy

  • Do employees know their goals and objectives?
  • How can managers better communicate goals and objectives to them?

Remote efficiency

  • Do employees feel like they can stick to a work schedule?
  • Do they feel like their remote tools hinder their productivity?
  • Are there any necessary tools they are missing?
  • Do you feel like you’re as productive at home as you are at the office?
  • What is the biggest struggle you have while working from home?

Remote interaction with managers

  • Do you feel like you’re getting enough support from your direct manager?
  • How can we improve your interaction with your direct manager?
  • Do you feel like you can connect with your direct manager as if they were in the office?
  • Are you happy with how frequently you connect with your direct manager?

Remote interactions with colleagues

  • Do you feel like you can easily reach your colleagues?
  • Do you feel like your colleagues keep you in the loop?
  • Are you happy with how frequently you interact with your colleagues?
  • How can we improve your interactions with your colleagues?

Remote communication

  • Do you feel like the work from home policy is clear?
  • Do you know what’s expected of you every day?
  • How can we better communicate work expectations?
  • How can we improve communication from our organization?

Remote wellbeing

  • Are you able to create a clear division between work and home?
  • Are you happy with your ability to work from home?
  • How can we improve your work from home experience?

Once you have the responses, you can choose where to focus your attention.

For instance, if your lowest responses are in the remote communication and remote wellbeing section, you can create programs that align with these priorities.

But your WFH surveys don’t end once you roll out your programs. Instead, it’s important to test and re-iterate.

After a month, you’ll want to distribute a pulse WFH survey. This pulse survey is a shorter, faster questionnaire designed to gauge how your employees feel about a specific topic.

For example, your team may roll out a new communication protocol for remote workers. Your pulse survey can check in to see what elements of this communication protocol work and which don’t.

If you quickly identify an issue - for instance, a recommended channel introduces more friction than anticipated - you can quickly make a change.

You want your employees to come to work for more than just a paycheck. You want to them to come to work because they respect the company’s values, thrive in the company culture, and feel excited to share their skills.

Understanding what motivates employees - and eliminating what demoralizes them - is key.