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How to Improve Remote Staff Retention?

Managing a fully remote or hybrid workforce? Here's how to improve remote employees retention.

Like many companies, you’re now managing a split workforce: part remote, part on site.

It’s worked way better than expected.

As experts have said for years, your remote teams of knowledge workers are more productive than they were while working on site.

Your company’s leaders are pleased. After all, fewer in-person workers means less office space is needed. Demand for office space is expected to fall by 10 to 25%.

But you’ve noticed something interesting while reviewing your employee engagement pulse surveys.

While your scores on questions about autonomy and productivity have gone up, your scores for employee satisfaction, mental health, and wellness have gone down.

In short, your workforce is getting work done and even better than before. But they aren’t particularly happy while doing so.

That said, the majority of them report that they’re happy with the option to work from home.

So what gives? Clearly, the shift to remote working has something to do with these negative results, but people seem to prefer working from home.

How are you supposed to address this?

Hybrid work cultures come with pros and cons

Here’s the thing: Remote working is not a band-aid solution for employee dissatisfaction and disengagement.

While remote working gives workers freedom, flexibility, and the ability to work at the times and in the places that suit them best, they still wind up feeling a sense of isolation.

This is magnified if you have a hybrid in-person and remote workforce.

Differences in perceived status, work ethic, and access to information can create tensions between in-person and remote workers.

You can address this by revamping your employee retention strategy to account for both in-person and remote workers. This helps you:

  • Keep employee engagement levels high
  • Maintain or increase employee retention levels
  • Boost productivity and collaboration
  • Reduce employee turnover

Here are 7 ideas for improving remote staff retention:

Hold remote-first meetings

Meetings say a lot about a company’s culture. They also play a meaningful role when it comes to developing and maintaining it. Meetings provide new employees with a crash course in:

  • The company’s power structure and dynamics
  • The openness of senior leaders and managers to new ideas
  • Whether employees are given the support to take risks or whether there’s a heavy blame culture
  • How people are treated in group environments
  • How the company collaborates and brainstorms
  • How the company makes decisions

If culture is how things get done, and meetings are – hopefully! – one of the places where a company gets things done, then they hold a lot of weight.

Your in-person employee retention strategy may already recognize this about meetings. In response, you may have already done things like:

  • Setting meeting agendas and distributing briefs to ensure meetings are short and meaningful
  • Encouraging participation from new voices and ensuring people’s ideas are not interrupted or dismissed
  • Making an effort to act on the ideas and solutions presented in meetings so that they’re a productive use of time

Of course, all of these best practices have to be re-visited when you’re thinking about a hybrid on-site / in-person workforce.

There are elements of in-person meetings, such as chit chat before and after, that allow employees to build relationships.

Remote employees don’t have this same luxury.

Consider incorporating the following best practices into your hybrid on-site / remote employee meetings.

Make participation accessible for remote attendees

Instead of using a physical whiteboard, consider using an online application that both in-person and remote workers can use.

Otherwise, you’ll make it difficult for remote employees to participate in the onboarding session while their in-person colleagues can easily get up and draw a note or add a post-it to the whiteboard.

Remember to add a meeting link or dial-in info to calendar invites

As the split of in-person to remote workers becomes more even, this has become less of a problem.

That said, if a specific team has only one remote worker, it’s easy for the meeting organizer to forget to add the meeting link or dial-in info.

This creates a frustrating experience for a worker who wants to join on time.

Send an agenda out in advance

This is meeting best practice no matter what the composition of your team is.

Outline the objective of the meeting, what you want to discuss, and what the intended outcome is and set the expectation that people review the meeting details beforehand.

This way, remote workers can prepare their thoughts and ideas in advance and send them in the chat when appropriate.

Give time for remote workers to provide their input

So much of communication relies on non-verbal cues. This is how people in meetings understand when it’s appropriate to jump in, make a comment, or ask a question.

Picking up on these non-verbal cues is harder for remote workers. To avoid the awkwardness of jumping in at the wrong time, they may avoid saying anything at all.

Before moving on to the next topic of discussion always ask your remote participants if there’s anything they’d like to add.

Ask in-person participants to dial in from their desks

The best hybrid in-person / remote cultures make their employees everywhere feel like they’re part of the same company. But there are areas where it’s hard to maintain this perception.

Hybrid in-person / remote meetings are one of the places where this division pops up.

All of the in-person employees gather in a meeting room while remote workers dial in individually from their home computer. This creates an asymmetric meeting environment. Instead, ask your in-person employees to dial in from their desks as well.

Have transparent promotions

Companies have traditionally had a facetime work culture where employees are rewarded for showing up early or leaving late.

This is the norm despite the fact that research shows productivity declines sharply after passing 50 hours per week.

And the old nine-to-five, butt-in-seat standby is not the most effective structure for knowledge workers.

Unfortunately, there’s an institutional bias against remote workers that can undermine your intended hybrid work culture.

A recent study found that 78% of remote workers believe their non-remote colleagues resent them.

This perception of resentment – whether accurate or not – undermines remote workers’ motivation, especially if they don’t feel like they have an equal opportunity for advancement.

How can you avoid this?

One strategy is to focus on highlighting the contributions of remote workers.

For instance, on-site employees may see their colleagues when they’re putting in long hours, but they may not see the remote worker who wakes up at 4 in the morning to support an urgent project in a different time zone.

Another important strategy is re-evaluating your existing frameworks for evaluating and promoting employees.

When there aren’t clear guidelines on how people become eligible for promotions, people make up theories as to who gets promoted and why.

Again, the perception can be more important than the reality when it comes to employee engagement and satisfaction.

To combat this, create a metrics-driven promotion strategy that:

  • Includes clearly defined, metrics-based, and timebound performance goals
  • Clearly presents incentives (e.g. bonuses, raises, promotions) tied to accomplishing specific goals as opposed to leaving employees wondering
  • Delivers the support and resources employees need to meet their advancement goals

Have a virtual break room

Relationship building, collaboration, and innovation often happen informally through water cooler conversations, discussions at the elevator, or discussions before and after meetings.

This is great for developing a collaborative, friendly culture for in-person employees, but it’s difficult to replicate for remote teams.

But just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The massive shift to remote work recently has prompted technologists to come up with solutions to this problem.

Hallway is an application that allows companies to replicate the feeling of running into other employees in the hallway using tools like Slack.

Companies add the application to Slack channels – Hallway recommends adding the app to channels with around 30 people.

Members of that channel can have spur-of-the-moment video calls or be randomly matched with another employee in the channel.

GitHub encourages employees to have virtual coffee breaks with each other through video calls. They also provide opportunities for people to meet new people in the company.

In their Slack channel, #donut_be_strangers, employees can be randomly connected to other employees using a bot. There’s also a Random Room that employees can pop into for spontaneous conversations with whoever’s around.

While spontaneous conversations are ideal, your remote workers may not feel comfortable participating in these at first.

Ask your managers to book time into employees’ calendars to chat, discuss non-worked related topics, share what they’re grateful for, or shout out other colleagues for their work on a project.

Above all, encourage your on-site employees to participate in these virtual platforms whether they’re slack channels or Hallway. This matters in a hybrid culture.

Measure employee engagement

You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

If you want to introduce initiatives, you need to know whether they’re working.

Gauge how well your hybrid workforce is currently doing by measuring employee engagement though an employee survey.

If you’ve already conducted one, use the results from this survey to understand where you should focus your efforts.

Conducting a survey helps you avoid charging forward with incorrect assumptions such as “remote workers are automatically happier because they work from home.”

It allows you to identify potential grievances such as “Meetings are always scheduled too late because I’m located in this office” or “My development opportunities are limited because I’m not located on-site.”

How should companies with existing survey results proceed?

If you’ve conducted a survey of your hybrid workforce already, review the results. Where do employees indicate the most dissatisfaction? Are they dissatisfied with:

  • Their lack of connectivity to the rest of the workforce?
  • The lack of transparency around promotions and raises?
  • Their feelings of social isolation?

Once you’ve identified the most pressing problem, use this to prioritize your upcoming initiatives. Once you’ve rolled out a program, use pulse surveys to gauge its overall success.

How should companies without engagement data proceed?

No engagement data? No problem. Put together an employee engagement and satisfaction survey to get a sense of how your employees feel. This employee engagement survey should be:

  • Relevant: Don’t ask questions just for the sake of asking questions
  • Concise: Ditch the standard, full length annual surveys and distribute pulse surveys on a more frequent basis
  • Clear: Avoid jargon and compound questions and make sure your response scales are clear (e.g. if you ask people to rank their level of agreement or satisfaction from 1 to 5, indicate what 1 is supposed to be and what 5 is supposed to be)

Once you’ve created your survey, market it to your company.

The average worker receives 121 emails per day and sends out at least 40.

If the first time they hear about the survey is when you expect them to fill it out, it will quickly plummet down their priority list.

Create an internal communications strategy that emphasizes the following messages:

  • The importance of creating a unified culture between on-site and remote employees
  • The fact that the survey is completely anonymous and the use of unique survey links is only to avoid duplicate answers
  • The impact that the results of the employee engagement survey have on what people and culture projects are prioritized over the coming year
  • The impact that the previous year’s survey had on recent changes (e.g. “You said you wanted better benefits, and we listened. It’s time to share your thoughts again.”)

Review the survey results with your managers

Once you receive your employee survey results, review them independently, pull out the major findings, and then review the results with your managers.

While it’s tempting to simply forward all of your managers an Excel spreadsheet of the raw data and direct them to improve their team’s engagement metrics, this isn’t very effective for the following reasons:

  • Managers have a lot on their plates and will prioritize their day-to-day work
  • Managers may feel like most of the survey findings are irrelevant to them
  • Managers may not understand why employee engagement is important
  • Manager may not have the skill set to have meaningful conversations with their employees

Make managers accountable for their employee engagement metrics

What are your managers evaluated on? If employee engagement isn’t one of them and they aren’t already passionate about it, they likely won’t prioritize it.

On the other hand, if employee engagement metrics, such as their overall team score on the engagement survey, impacts whether they receive a bonus or not, there’s a higher chance they’ll start paying attention.

  • Add employee engagement and responsibility for team engagement metrics to job descriptions
  • Ask directors to work with their managers to develop S.M.A.R.T. goals for improving key engagement metrics
  • Follow up with managers to learn more about how they’re actively working towards meeting these S.M.A.R.T. goals

Give employees the flexibility to set their own working hours

Measuring outputs instead of inputs is a smarter way to manage workers, particularly when your workforce consists of knowledge workers.

When you’re producing work that requires creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking, expecting a fixed number of hours between two set times doesn’t make sense.

Instead, give your on-site and remote workers the freedom to set their own hours with the stipulation that they’re mindful of important team or client meetings.

Allowing flexible hours has another helpful benefit: It decreases the divide between remote workers and on-site workers.

The resentment that flows from on-site workers to remote workers often comes from the feeling that remote workers don’t have to sacrifice as much and therefore aren’t that dedicated to their jobs.

Plus, saying you prioritize outputs rather than inputs, when you expect half your workforce to clock in at 9 and stay until 5 when they’ll likely spend hours in the evening putting in extra work, makes the message ring hollow.

They have to miss important events or struggle to schedule doctor’s appointments while they think that their remote colleagues don’t. Offering flexible working hours across the entire company helps alleviate this.

This also boosts employee satisfaction by giving employees the freedom to manage the other areas of their life, such as caring for children or parents, while also meeting their work obligations.

A flexible work schedule also helps you meet the general desire among employees for autonomy, trust, and less micromanagement.

Ensure employees receive the same pay whether they’re on-site or remote

Pay your remote workers and your on-site employees the same salary instead of adjusting the salary to their place of residence.

Spotify recently announced that it would pay employees the same rate even if they moved to another city with a lower cost of living.

This gives them a competitive advantage over companies that expect employees to accept a pay cut if they move from, let’s say, San Francisco to Denver.

Similarly, companies should pay remote workers the appropriate rate based on their title.

In other words, consider offering a remote senior architect working from Raleigh the same pay as his or her counterpart in San Francisco to avoid creating a remote versus on-site division.

Organize a company wide on-site at least once a year

Imagine working with someone for close to a year and only interacting with them via video calls and emails?

Depending on the intensity of the project you’re working on, you may wind up interacting with them more than you do other team members.

Give your remote workers and your on-site workers an opportunity to meet by organizing an annual, company-wide on-site with speakers, events, and opportunities for people to meet with their remote colleagues.

This is a chance to view team members as people as opposed to just profile pictures or names on a screen.

Develop a unified employee engagement strategy

The future of work will be a hybrid of remote workers and on-site workers.

This represents new and interesting challenges for people and culture teams trying to foster a unified culture and increase employee engagement.

To that end, use employee engagement surveys to identify areas of friction and find opportunities to bring your on-site and remote workers together through virtual tools and annual on-sites.

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