8 Thoughtful Ways to Engage Remote Teams

Written by:
Ben Travis
March 29, 2021

Remote work is the new norm for many organizations, and now that more folks understand the benefits of remote teams, they’re never going away. Whether it’s saving on office rent, being able to offer a more flexible schedule for employees, or widening your potential hiring pool, being remote just makes sense for some teams.

However, it’s uniquely challenging to maintain employee engagement on remote teams. 72% of employees are either not engaged or actively disengaged, and 41% of employees who transitioned to remote work said that the primary way their work has changed was “collaboration and communication”.

So how can you reap the benefits of remote work on your team while successfully addressing employee engagement challenges?

Employee engagement on remote teams

First, let’s start with what employee engagement really means. Taken from The Essential Employee Engagement Guide, employee engagement is the emotional commitment an employee has to their work, their team's goals, and their company's mission.

When you’re able to engage employees, your team will be more productive, perform better, and experience less turnover. That said, experiencing those benefits on a remote team requires teammates to communicate at a very high level, transparency in and between teams, and the right tools to empower high performance.

Wouldn't the Zoom call be more fun with a blue brain celebrating?

Employee engagement challenges on remote teams can include but aren’t limited to:

  • Lack of face-to-face interaction
  • Decreased insight into team projects
  • Difficulty organizing informal social opportunities to build relationships
  • Less frequent impromptu recognition across the team
  • Fewer organic opportunities for feedback

Now that we’ve covered some challenges, let’s look at thoughtful ways to confront them and engage remote teams!

Ways to engage remote teams

Use chat apps to keep internal communication in one place

Over the past few years, chat apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams have taken the world by storm. In many ways, they’ve replaced email as a communication medium. And because of their many integrations, chat apps allow teams to easily monitor activity across many different tools.

When it comes to engaging employees on remote teams, chat apps help level the playing field in a few different ways. First, by communicating in public channels, it’s easier to get work done, refer back to those same conversations, and share that information with anyone else on your team. Second, they allow for flexible, culture-building communication – just whip up a channel, add GIFs, and sprinkle in some custom emoji ✨

Little known fact: you can wear a crown while using Slack.

Of course that’s a simplistic explanation, but chat apps truly make work more seamless in most industries, and leveraging the right integrations can make engaging remote teams much easier.

Prioritize video calls for synchronous conversations

Remember your first video call?

Chances are you had to get used to them, but being able to pick up on nonverbal cues makes video calls extremely powerful, especially in lieu of face-to-face interactions. They’re not a perfect replacement for interacting in person, but they’re about as close as we’re going to get for now (at least until we reach Ready Player One levels of VR), and they’re crucial for remote teams.

If you want to share how to do something, hold an important meeting, meet someone new, or brainstorm together, seeing your team is extremely important. Whats more, you can only get to know your teammates so well via audio. Seeing them over video adds another deeper layer, including smiling and eye contact, that helps to build trust and strengthen relationships in ways that phone calls or written messages just can’t. Successful remote teams use video calls, and there’s not much wiggle room here.

While we’re on the topic of video calls, remember that it’s also easy to go too far in the other direction. Too much video, sometimes know as “Zoom fatigue” is very much a thing. Nonverbal overload is a very real risk. And the additional neurological burden of viewing multiple faces looking directly at you while also staring at a mirror of yourself can be truly taxing in ways that in-person meetings aren’t.

Recognize employees to motivate and encourage transparency

Did you know that teams who emphasize praising and recognizing employee achievements see engagement levels increase by nearly 60%?

Recognition is an integral aspect of employee engagement for any team. It can take many forms, but remote work doesn’t always make it easy to recognize coworkers for the work they’re doing. That’s why an employee recognition program based on peer recognition can be extremely effective in engaging remote employees.

By amplifying the visibility of team members’ contributions, these kind of recognition programs help remote employees feel appreciated. Public employee recognition also helps teams understand what’s going on across departments, addressing team siloes and showing teammates the impact of contributions from others around the organization.

To get started on the right foot, consider an employee recognition solution optimized for remote work as well as educating your team on the characteristics of effective recognition:

  • Timely
  • Frequent
  • Specific
  • Visible
  • Inclusive
  • Values-based

Even better? Use one of the fantastic 1:1 meeting templates provided by Hypercontext.

Create social opportunities to build trust and team culture

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

To really engage a remote team, you’ll need to focus on the fun parts of your culture! Make time for social opportunities that aren’t tied to work to help your team get to know each other. Working remotely means that your team doesn’t have the same in-office impromptu opportunities to get to know each other, so deliberately creating those opportunities is key.

Building trust is just like building a house: neither requires a giant blue brain with a map.

Social and team building activities facilitate relationship-building, and having friends at work increases job satisfaction, loyalty, and...you guessed it, employee engagement! Through the right social opportunities, remote teams can improve their cohesiveness through non-project interactions.

What might those interactions look like for remote teams? Consider what your employees want – maybe that’s a synchronous event like a group cooking lesson 👩‍🍳, a virtual concert 🎵, or a round of Among Us 🎮. For larger groups looking to interact, think about leveraging newer platforms like Gather, that make virtual interactions more natural than a 50-person Zoom call.

To bring your remote colleagues together on a regular basis, though, you’ll need to provide asynchronous opportunities to interact. They’re an inclusive way to socialize, especially for teams spread out across time zones or whose members prefer a mix of social opportunities. For example, weekly team trivia is an excellent way to engage your team, adding a little friendly competition into your routine and giving everyone a chance to learn more about each other (and ask “How did you know that answer!?”).

Share projects to promote visibility and feedback

Engaged teams are transparent. In fact, engaged employees are 2.1x more likely to report working for a transparent organization than disengaged ones.

Transparent company culture foster trust, and remote teams require an even stronger level of transparency. To facilitate a more transparent culture, encourage teams to share projects across the organization.

Fact: all internal demos go better if using a projector and dry ice.

Whether it’s a new marketing campaign, an updated product feature, or a switch in benefits providers, give your team a chance to share what they’re working on. Consider what format would be most effective for your organization:

  • Discussing a project at an all-hands meeting
  • Contributing a write-up on a project in your chat app
  • Recording a project walk-through for your team to watch on their own

Regardless of how you share projects across departments, try to make it easy to understand, and provide opportunities for others to share their own thoughts or ask questions to learn more. Showing your work to the entire company isn’t always easy, but it makes for better work, and it’s better than working in a silo!

Support your team with the right tools and equipment

Working at the optimal level for any job requires appropriate tools and equipment, and it’s no different when working remotely. That doesn’t mean everyone needs a Bose home theater and portrait lighting for their video calls, but your team should be able to efficiently do their work without unnecessary stress from faulty equipment or suboptimal tools.

By successfully equipping your team, you’re communicating that you value and trust them to do what they do best. It’s also important to acknowledge that people have different working styles and needs. And on remote teams, everyone’s work environment will be different. That means a one-size-fits-all approach won’t cut it.

Consider a remote office budget for your remote team, allowing them to choose what suits them best. They might choose additional technology, power banks for when they’re on-the-go, a standing desk, or even a few extra plants to brighten their workspace. 

Prioritize wellness and exemplify it from the top

Both physical and mental wellness are necessary for employees to be fully engaged at work. Fortunately, businesses are now taking wellness more seriously, and employees rightfully expect their employers to provide sufficient healthcare, flexible benefits, and healthy perks.

Thinking about physical health, does your organization encourage healthy living? How about your employees – do they eat well and get enough sleep? You can encourage physical health through subsidized memberships and a wellness budget. However, a well-rounded wellness program is always grounded in strong healthcare coverage.

It's important for "remote" to sometimes mean away from a computer, not just the office.

When it comes to mental health, how does your organization create a supportive and psychologically safe culture? Do you offer mental health coverage, and do you welcome conversations related to mental health? Engaged employees are 3.2 times more likely to be on a team that encourages open discussion of anxiety and stress at work than their disengaged counterparts.

Employees should be able to talk openly about taking time off in the middle of the day to get important things done. That means having enough trust to let employees take health appointments as well as other non-health related appointments with the expectation of privacy. If you don’t already offer a flexible schedule, you’re behind the curve.

Prioritize feedback, and act on it

You won’t be able to engage your team without feedback. That includes soliciting feedback from your team and thoughtfully providing feedback.

You won’t be able to fix what’s wrong if you don’t know what issues your team is facing in the first place. Any modern employee engagement program includes a way for the organization to get honest feedback from a team. That means regular 1:1 meetings between direct reports and managers, engagement surveys, and stay interviews.

Make it easy for your team to share feedback by modeling it at the top, creating an accessible system to gather that feedback, and here’s the important part...act on that feedback! Even if no changes come about from feedback, share why. Your team needs to feel like they can safely share honest feedback and that leadership cares about that feedback.

Equally important is sharing useful feedback with your team. Share positive outcomes, and create systems to track performance management so your employees know where they need to grow. Feedback is based on the notion of improvement, and you want your team (and yourself!) to keep improving, right?

Parting thoughts

Is your remote team engaged?

Employee engagement should be a top focus for any organization, but that’s doubly true for remote teams. Despite all the advantages that remote work provides, people leaders need to be aware of the employee engagement challenges that remote teams face.

Once those challenges are solved and remote teams are really engaged, they’ll have created something unstoppable, a cultural flywheel.