How to increase remote team engagement

Pek Mahajan
December 10, 2020
8
Minutes

Team engagement is vital to high performance and quality work.

Inspiring team engagement was difficult when employees had facetime for eight or more hours a day. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced remote work, engagement became an even greater challenge. 

What is team engagement?

Employee engagement is an individual's willingness and ability to contribute to company success. Engaged employees are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace. Team engagement is the collective result of employees with high levels of engagement. A team of engaged employees can produce innovative solutions to challenges and collaborate to achieve company goals. 

In short, engaged teams deliver outstanding performance.

Employee engagement vs. employee satisfaction

Employee engagement and employee satisfaction often get confused. Devotion to a company's long-term success is not required for employee satisfaction. A staff member can enjoy their job for a variety of reasons. An example could be the ability to work with minimal compromises in their personal life.

Many people enjoy the autonomous nature of their role but don’t care which company lets them do that job. These satisfied employees may receive good benefits and feel appreciated. Yet, they lack the commitment level that helps the company reach organizational goals.

Why is team engagement important?

In an ideal world, all employees would have a dedication toward productivity, help fellow team members, and drive the company forward. Engaged teams are more than productive, they want to better themselves and the business.

These employees invest their time and energy into the organization’s success, and their professional development

Yet, with so many teams working remote, there’s good reason to worry that even historically engaged teams are at risk for burnout. Unfortunately, the absence of a normal office setting makes it more challenging for managers to identify when an employee’s engagement is declining. 

Key factors that play into team engagement include intrinsic motivation, confidence in the workplace, security, collaboration, and open communication. 

Intrinsic motivation is often the critical element missing in team engagement. Motivation, internal and external, will cultivate more proactive teams that respond better when faced with challenges. 

But, external motivation, such as benefits, don’t connect the reward to the work. It’s hard to see the correlation between good sales figures and a healthcare plan. Intrinsic motivation ties the work to the reward because it impacts how the employee feels about their behavior at work. It allows them to connect with personal drivers, excitement, satisfaction, and personal accomplishment. 

If businesses fail to engage their employees they could face lower retention rates. But, low employee retention may not be the most significant risk of poor engagement.

Given the uncertain economic times, disengaged employees may not leave and instead drag down morale, productivity, and negatively impact the workplace culture. 

With disengaged employees, the best outcome is often employee turnover. The worst-case scenario is long-lasting negativity in the workplace. 

What are the behaviors of engaged teams?

Engaged teams are productive, enthusiastic, and focused. But how can managers keep a pulse on their team when these are very subjective traits to measure?

Engaged teams and employees often:

  • Confide in and show trust in their leadership team

  • Work with a win-win mindset

  • Provide better performance on day-to-day tasks

  • Work with purpose and reevaluate priorities without instruction

  • Challenge priorities and push back on assignments when they don’t see the value of them

  • Collaborate with team members (and other departments) with a positive attitude

On the other side, disengaged teams and employees do the following:

  • Shuffle responsibility from person to person

  • Approach projects with a defeatist attitude

  • Fail to speak up or contribute during team meetings

  • Come to one on ones without any agenda items 

  • Fail to follow through on commitments

These are the telltale signs that something has gone awry. Yet, managers may not have the visibility to identify these signs early when managing remote and distributed teams. COVID-19 has presented unique challenges to the workplace, often impacting team and employee engagement. 

The challenges of remote team engagement

Many managers are working to sustain employee engagement during the pandemic. At the same time, employees and managers alike have higher levels of stress. World events outside of the workplace in 2020 have been difficult for us all. The traditional office environment is unlikely to return, even after a virus vaccine is available and the pandemic passes. COVID-19 has accelerated remote work acceptance and that will endure for the long-term. 

Home and work-life balance is an idea of the past. Parents are at home, pulling double-duty as a part-time teacher, full-time employee, and full-time parent. 

Even those who aren’t parents may have roommates or spouses around the house during work hours. Or, it may be as simple as not having a proper office set-up at home. These are all factors that can make it difficult to concentrate. Home and work are now one and the same.

In a recent survey from McKinsey and Company, 45.7% of respondents reported feeling engaged. Yet, only 29.8% felt positive work effectiveness. Employees noted a “diminished sense of community” as a key challenge. This sentiment was highest for employees who did not have dependents at home.

People are experiencing high levels of stress, and the idea of a home-work life balance is gone. Now employees are working near roommates, children, spouses, and family members. They face more distractions, may not have an ideal working environment, and feel disconnected. These are challenges that managers and teams are experiencing for the first time. 

The 5 sabotagers of team engagement

In 2019, Gallup posted that engaged employees only account for about 34% of the U.S. workforce. That means that the majority of employees are showing signs or behaviors of low engagement. Leaders can identify factors that sabotage team engagement and influence these elements within the workplace for the better. 

These forms of engagement sabotage are something that leaders and staff can identify, assess, and improve:

Poor communication: Leaders can watch for snappy or short responses in communication forums. They should also identify when individuals dominate or avoid communicating with team members.

Uncertain trajectory: Unclear goals have always presented challenges for engagement. But, in 2020 when unemployment rates skyrocketed overnight, this problem worsened. Teams spent months operating in survival mode, and now many teams don't have goals or objectives to work toward.

Poor organization: Unmanaged systems and processes are frustrating at best. They not only kill team efficiency, but they make small daily tasks feel like an uphill battle.

Lack of praise: Employees often note a lack of recognition from the top down, but there is also an issue when there’s no recognition between team members. It can make everyone involved feel unappreciated.

Heavy workloads: Teams have their breaking point, and sometimes they just have too much work. This issue makes team members shut down.

Those in the workforce, leaders, and employees alike, can impact engagement. As a leader, you can cultivate remote team engagement, and it doesn’t require monumental changes.

7 best practices for remote team engagement

Looking for employee engagement ideas? These best practices can help managers improve team engagement. Adopting a different viewpoint or reconsidering common elements of our day can substantially impact the people in our teams.

You can make that difference and help your team have a better working experience, even as they handle stress and obstacles in modern-day life with COVID-19 and working from home.

1.  Give thanks and kudos

Thanking employees addresses one of the primary agents working against engagement: feeling unappreciated. Recognizing employees and your peers shouldn't end with the old-fashioned 'thank you'; instead, take it to the next level. 

Within WorkPatterns, you can send kudos, which is like a virtual high-five. Anyone can say 'good job,' and it promotes praise between coworkers. Best of all, you can say thank you in a way that works best for the recipient. Socialize a kudos by sharing it on Slack or Microsoft Teams. Or, if you know the recipient prefers private recognition, send it straight to them! 

2.  Increase manager availability

Manager availability is a sore subject for everyone involved. Most middle management professionals focus on top-down goals and projects; yet, their team wants more from them too.

In one-on-ones or when a team member asks for help with a problem, put everything else aside. If someone has a question or needs help, then give them your attention. 

As the final step here, make sure you’re providing compassion in your conversations. Don’t bring in your frustration, anger, or spend that time thinking of all the other things you need to do. When you make yourself available ensure that you’re present

3.  Make feedback an experience

The employee experience on feedback is usually rocky, at best. First, have a format for your feedback. People thrive when their environments offer consistency. An example is the 'good-start-stop' model. Point out something good they should keep doing, recommend something they should start, and then offer constructive criticism on what should stop. 

Regardless of your format for providing constructive feedback, you should also:

  • Have a direct feedback module or communication line so employees and managers can exchange feedback asynchronously.

  • Regularly schedule one-on-ones so that feedback can be discussed together.

WorkPatterns automates these best practices. The employee and manager can both review the feedback independently. This method allows both sides to go over the feedback and have conversation points for their next 1:1 meeting.

📚 Learn more about building a culture of continuous feedback.

4.  Lead intentional meetings

In 2017, Harvard Business Review urged businesses to stop having so many meetings. They had a point and estimated that at that point, executives averaged 23 hours of meeting time per week. 71% of senior managers reported that meetings were unproductive and inefficient.

Then two years later, it was evident that nothing had changed when Doodle reported that in 2019 the U.S. lost $399 billion because of poorly organized meetings.

The solution is to review how you approach and plan meetings. When you call a meeting, asking yourself these critical questions:

  • What type of meeting is this?—Standing, agile, team meeting, project meeting, daily meeting, brainstorm, or any other type of meeting.

  • What are the top priorities for this meeting? 

  • How will this meeting connect team members as individuals to goals and objectives?

Use these questions to help decide who should attend, how to structure the agenda, and why this meeting is important. Make sure that you consider how each of the individuals on your team can take something valuable from the meeting.

5.  Establish consistent channels for communication

Sharing information keeps employees feeling engaged, useful and help them connect to their purpose at work. 

Think about the things that your staff, and your team as a whole, need to know:

  • What are their top priorities?

  • What are the team’s current goals?

  • How are the team’s goals and performance helping or supporting other departments?

  • How is the company doing, and does the company have new goals?

Having clear ways to connect on these matters is important, and it helps keep people from feeling isolated. Use Slack, MS Teams, or similar collaboration tools to address these elements of team life. In Slack, you can dedicate a channel to these discussions or use a tag to track these questions so you can follow up in a one on one or team meeting.

💡  Learn more about the WorkPatterns Slack Integration

6.  Focus on the employee experience

While team members are working from home, helping their children with schoolwork, and managing their household, team leaders should be more flexible. Of course, this flexibility should apply to everyone on the team, even those without the extra duties to tend to during the day.

The challenge that employers experience with flexibility is how to be consistent. Set clear expectations on deadlines and give structure to why priorities could change. Additionally, keep the team informed of changes that impact one or many team members. 

7.  Try these fun employee engagement activities

Employee engagement initiatives can feel a little stale or forced. Instead, look for fun ways to get everyone involved.

Try these fun employee engagement activities:

  • Do a 10-minute trivia round at the beginning or end of a meeting.

  • Mystery Coworker—have everyone turn off their cameras, then turn them on as they're "found out" based on their personality or voice. Assign each person a number so that the team can investigate each person with questions such as "What’s your favorite administrative task?” or “What is this person’s least favorite way to communicate?”

  • Lunch Roulette is a simple software to break people out of their lunch habits. Everyone signs up and the system randomly assigns them a lunch partner. Encourage your team to get to know each other better.  

  • Movie, Show, or Book Club—Create a separate chat (or Slack) channel and plan some time for the team to discuss a shared interest. Take votes for the best movie, show, or book to experience together. 

  • At Home Scavenger Hunts or Photo Challenges—The manager creates a list of items that everyone would have on-hand. Then, ask everyone to submit photos of the items, or show them off during team video calls for points. This activity is great for livening up holidays as you can make themed lists. 

Many of these games are to promote fun, collaboration and team bonding. You can also create your own games or use work-related materials for mystery games and trivia.

📚 Check out this comprehensive round-up of virtual team building activities.

Looking ahead—team engagement and the future of work

Our organizations and work environments have undergone dramatic changes over a few months. Now that people have had time to adjust to remote work, there’s a discussion about how we will proceed into the future. Should teams expect to return to an office or connect between screens?

Many major companies have chosen to make this change permanent. With leaders such as Microsoft deciding that staff could work-from-home indefinitely if they choose to. Uber has also extended its voluntary work-from-home policy and provides incentives to staff that work remotely. Many other companies are following suit.  

Employees may have the freedom to decide whether they work from home or from a traditional office setting. But, a hybrid approach to remote work can make it even more difficult to keep teams feeling connected. The individual variability in workplace environments presents challenges and opportunities. 

The responsibility for fostering team engagement falls on managers and executive leadership. They must ensure that employees feel connected and can rely on each other for support. Team engagement must be purposeful, and that is the team leaders or manager’s responsibility.

The future of work is uncertain. Some employees will continue to work from home, others will return to the office, and some staff may choose a partial-remote-work agreement. 

Although these factors impacted engagement throughout 2020, there are opportunities to develop and maintain high levels of engagement among remote, and partial remote, teams. Leaders can influence factors that negatively impact team engagement while promoting good communication and keeping their teams feeling connected.

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