The term “remote” was once reserved for colleagues in distant offices and employees who had little connection to the heart of an organization. But thanks to technological advances and the rise of new collaboration tools, remote work has become a convenient, productive option for both individual workers and the wider business. According to an often-cited Gallup poll, 43% of Americans spend time working remotely, and the number of workers who telecommute four or five days a week increased from 24% to 31% between 2012 and 2016. All of which proves that, regardless of their location, remote workers can be a central part of any team.
It makes sense: The ability to work remotely means greater freedom for local employees who can benefit from a few extra days at home, freelancers who balance projects for multiple businesses, and full-time staff and teams who work in other countries and time zones. It also enables companies to connect with talent across the globe, making it a win for both employers and employees.
Along with its many advantages, however, remote work has the potential to isolate staff, which can have a significant negative impact on team performance and employee retention. Here are some tips for effectively engaging remote colleagues and teams.
The challenges of working remotely
By its very nature, a remote workforce is physically less connected to a company’s central hub of activity, which means people may miss out on communal gatherings like team lunches, celebrating colleagues’ birthdays, water-cooler conversations, and other informal moments that make a group of individuals feels like a team. It’s an absence that’s felt across the organization. In a recent study, we found that 85% of workers want to feel closer to their remote colleagues. But the effects of detachment aren’t limited to interoffice relationships—employee engagement takes a hit too.
Gallup describes engaged employees as those who feel “involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace,” part of which comes from their belief in the transparency of their company and colleagues. Unfortunately, many organizations’ leaders aren’t doing enough to make employees feel informed: 55% of business owners believe they’re “very transparent,” but only 18% of their employees agree.
When employees lack clarity and context, they feel out of the loop, which ultimately leads to disengagement, so much so that they might not even voice their opinions. In a study, Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, co-authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, discovered that 84% of remote workers hide workplace concerns for a few days before informing higher-ups, and 47% admitted that they didn’t address issues for more than a week.
These communication gaps can hurt productivity and morale in the long run. Without proper feedback from managers, employees are twice as likely to say they’ll quit because they feel like they’ve been taken for granted. Failure to work inclusively with a remote team can also hurt a business’s bottom line. Every year, disengaged workers cost the U.S. economy up to $605 billion in lost productivity—they frequently arrive late to work, or miss shifts entirely, and disrupt others with their negativity.
How to create an inclusive work environment for remote workers
To make remote employees feel as valued as in-office staff, you need to implement processes that allow for more collaboration across the organization. Providing access to information and easy methods of communication is necessary for boosting engagement. And it’s not as hard as you might expect.
Prioritize open communication
Using a communication channel that lets employees receive quick responses from managers and colleagues is one of the simplest ways to improve engagement for remote teams. But regular check-ins shouldn’t just be the responsibility of employees—46% of remote workers believe the best managers are the ones who check in frequently. Err on the side of communicating too much, and use collaborative tools to ensure an open flow of conversation.
Frequent group updates and anonymous feedback surveys can also help a remote workforce feel included and give them the opportunity to voice their needs without the added concern of reaching out at an inopportune moment.
Find time for small talk
It might be tempting to reserve conference calls only for formal meetings, but phone or video conversations present a unique opportunity to chat with remote team members about work- and non-work-related topics. Discuss their hobbies and interests, and ask for their thoughts on company processes in a less formal setting—it all helps to cultivate a sense of community within the digital workplace. Asking in-office employees to call in for video conferences can also help eliminate the feeling that remote workers are on the outside looking in.
Daily greetings and regular check-ins over shared communication channels are effective ways to acknowledge remote employees, but the biggest impact comes from celebrating contributions and achievements with specific, purposeful feedback and recognition.
Acknowledge personal milestones, like birthdays and work anniversaries—a simple, thoughtful note or signed card from the in-office team goes a long way. You might also want to share lighthearted news alongside quirky office rituals (like GitHub’s internal #toasts forum). Extending company culture to your digital workforce is necessary for inclusion and engagement. Plus, it’s a fun infusion to your workplace culture that makes everyone feel good.
Teach teammates how to work with each other
It can be difficult to communicate with team members across continents and time zones, especially if you’re working on a deadline-driven project. But there are efficient ways to collaborate with remote teams, and it all starts with setting digital workplace expectations. Create guidelines and schedules for team members’ availability—some collaboration tools even let you create custom profiles and statuses to inform everyone of your location—and remind in-office teams that remote workers aren’t always able to answer questions right away. And of course, you can always use dedicated channels to share meeting notes, videos, and other communal docs for employees to catch up on their own time.
A team is a team regardless of everyone’s location
Companies are defined by the culture they create—and when remote workers feel alienated from that culture, it can take a serious toll on employee engagement and productivity. Connecting with distant employees can sometimes feel daunting, but there are lots of workplace collaboration tools and engagement techniques to help your team feel like, well, a team.