John Bartley, Director – People and HR Services
Jeni Rulon – Program Manager, Leadership Training
The pandemic forced many of us to create more flexible workplaces. This, in turn, set new expectations for workers. Today, while some are still working remotely because of the Covid-19 pandemic, most people who work remotely now are doing so due to their preference. Employees are looking for the flexibility to build work around their lives.
Engagement scores tend to be lowest for on-site workers whose job responsibilities can be performed remotely.
For a lot of workers, if a new job doesn’t have the option to work remotely, they aren’t going to take that job, even if they aren’t planning on working fully remotely right now. It’s the flexibility and the option to work remotely that matters. In addition, engagement scores tend to be lowest for on-site workers whose job responsibilities can be performed remotely.
Meanwhile, spending time with other team members at an in-person workplace is still important for many. It’s a complicated equation with a lot of competing factors. As a supervisor, you need to balance maintaining the social aspects of work with flexibility for your team members.
Our four big things for keeping remote teams connected:
- Do it with intention
- Support employees’ social connections in the virtual space
- Engagement and well-being are different
- Measure outcomes, not busyness
Let’s take them one by one.
1. Do it with intention
When it comes to managing remote work, intentionality is front and center. Be intentional around what makes sense for the company, but also what makes sense for employees.
The first thing about intentionality: communicate! Letting things evolve organically might be effective for a little while, but then codify it once you settle on what works so that your whole team shares the same clear expectations. Draft new team charters and norms around meetings and hybrid work.
- If some team members are participating virtually, ensure their voices are heard.
- Limit side conversations in the physical room that virtual attendees can’t hear.
- If decisions or action items come up in the hallway after the meeting, loop in virtual attendees.
- Unless there are major barriers, cameras on for virtual attendees.
- Workplace as a destination – when you do ask employees to come into the office, make it purposeful. Team building, brainstorming, strategic work, project planning, or any other work that truly benefits from people being in person. Make it worth their time to be in person.
2. Support employees’ social connections in the virtual space
At TTC, we tell our clients, “go slow to go fast.” Team building and checking in with your employees are investments that pay dividends in the long run. Those points of connection lead to more engagement and trust. When you focus on your people and help them feel connected, committed, competent, and healthy, they will stick with you.
Be intentional about building connections and fostering community among your team. Supervisors often need to give permission to employees to take time to connect socially in the virtual space. Do something small on a weekly basis, and something bigger on a monthly or quarterly basis.
Team meetings are a great opportunity to support these interactions. At our weekly Turning the Corner meetings, we typically have a celebration time at the beginning where we give kudos to each other, and towards the end, we share something fun. Encourage each individual to share with their team whatever it is that excites them–recipe or music recommendations, for example. The idea is to get the team sharing or communicating about something that is meaningful to them.
Finally, when it comes to bigger team events, supervisors often find that, when they organize virtual social events, such as a quarterly trivia game, a lot of employees show up–a testament to how many people want that connection.
3. Engagement and well-being are two different things
Keep in mind that not all individuals like remote work! Some experience loneliness and isolation. Some have home situations that don’t make remote work feasible. Some people find that remote work bleeds over into the rest of their lives and that they’re working 24/7. These are all things we have to consider when we figure out how remote work might impact employee engagement.
Make sure that your employees know that you understand that their job performance and their health and happiness are different things. If they’re struggling, you want them to feel safe telling you, “I really like my job, but I’m not doing well.” Realistically, not everyone will do that with their boss, so be sure they know other avenues, like an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that can help them when they’re struggling.
Be intentional about setting those times to check in to make sure your team members are doing well and aren’t experiencing loneliness or lack of connection to what they’re doing and who they’re working with. It can be hard to build connections, especially when it comes to onboarding new employees virtually. Because you’re not going to casually pass each other at the workplace, you have to be more intentional about checking in with new hires and ensuring they feel connected to you and the team.
4. Measure outcomes, not busyness
Managers tend to stress about the performance side of things when it comes to letting their teams work from home, and many leaders struggle with switching into a goal mindset from a busyness one. Switch the focus to outcomes, rather than the time spent getting there.
It takes time to figure out what the outcomes of a project need to be, but doing so yields clarity for both you and your employees, and clarity is the secret sauce. Clarity allows your team to feel competent and succeed. Ensure that, with each set of outcomes, you’re linking back up to the company’s mission and purpose. Ask yourself, “Are we doing mission-driven work in a way that’s reflective of who we want to be as a company?”
Be intentional about the goals that you’re setting (you can read more about our approach to goal setting here). It’s really about getting buy-in from your team.
As it said in a recent Gallup article, “The path to performance excellence is built on trust and relationships, not increased monitoring or arbitrary metrics of busyness.” If you have a trusting relationship with your supervisor, you’re more likely to perform reliably and at a high level.
Lastly, when team members achieve milestones, celebrate those in team meetings. Also be sure to point out when team members are modeling company values. Not only is it important to give kudos where kudos are due, but doing so in the group reinforces to everyone how you define success on your team.
Employees who work remotely are looking to their managers to create these structures and implement best practices.
Here’s a quick refresher on some remote work best practices:
- Use video whenever possible. Everyone needs to go off camera sometimes, but be visually present on calls when you can.
- Discover how your people want to communicate. Talk to everybody about their preferences. Do they prefer Slack, text message, or email for quick pings? Find out and use what works best.
- Maximize the impact of in-person interactions. If a hybrid model works best for your team, figure out one day of the week or the month that works for everybody (so that everyone’s in the office on Wednesdays for brainstorming sessions, for example).
- Be transparent about schedules, including non-work meetings. Keep your own virtual calendar up to date and make it available to your employees. Then, when you occasionally ask for what you need (a child’s soccer practice, a dental appointment, or whatever it might be), employees will feel safer asking for what they need.
Flexibility is going to be key for many supervisors and companies going forward
Finally, take the role of the curious scientist! Figuring out what works for your team requires some trial and error, and employees’ situations will evolve and may require multiple iterations over time.
The cost of commuting, where employees are located, and health and family health issues can all affect employee preferences. Be compassionate with your team and yourself as you figure out solutions that work for everybody.
Eventually, you want each individual to be able to say, “my team has my back.” With these remote work practices, that’s what you’re building: trust.