Working remotely has its fair share of benefits, such as saving time and money on commutes and encouraging better work-life balance. However, virtual workplaces do also have some downsides. Because virtual workers are not in the office with their team, they often feel less engaged and connected to their company, which may hurt productivity and performance.
When managers and company leaders prioritize employee engagement and teamwork, regardless of an employee’s location, the organization as a whole thrives. We’ve outlined six steps businesses can take to help ensure their remote employees stay happy, engaged and productive.
Here are some ways to maintain your company culture and make your virtual staff feel like they’re truly part of the team.
Your workers’ health should be your priority. At the end of the day, if your employees get sick, they won’t be able to perform at their highest level – or at all. Perhaps you can create an incentive for your team to get outside, cook a decent meal, exercise or create some sort of healthy habit. You could even start a wellness program for your team (30 days of yoga, one month of daily walks, etc.).
This will not only support your workers’ health, but also bring them closer together and prove to them that you care about their overall well-being. Look for ways to make healthy habits easier to practice, like by allowing a longer midday break for workouts or letting them off early on a nice day to enjoy the sunshine.
A fun way to encourage healthy habits among workers is to set up individual or team-based challenges. Using wearable fitness trackers for movement competitions can go a long way toward encouraging health and wellness, especially if these contests end with an additional reward.
Many remote teams maintain regular communication through video calls, instant messaging, email and web conferencing platforms. When the whole team is working, a voice or video conferencing call can go a long way toward encouraging group collaboration. You can also use communication and collaboration tools like Google Chat, Slack and Trello. [Read related article: Choosing a Video Conferencing Service]
It’s also important to plan out virtual get-togethers for non-work-related chats, said Rachel Williams, content production manager at First Page Strategy. At work, there’s always something stressful to discuss, but you don’t want every conversation to feel tense and dreaded. Make time for work outings or casual video calls to keep employees engaged and excited to be part of the team.
Your employees deserve to feel appreciated – even from a distance. Since you’re not in the office with them each day to extend a quick thank-you or take them out to lunch for their work anniversary, you should find small ways to celebrate your employees as often as possible.
Is it someone’s birthday? Send them a virtual gift card. Did a worker go above and beyond on an assignment? Schedule a team call to recognize their efforts. Look for simple acts to show your workers you care about them.
Additionally, make sure your (virtual) door is always open. Miscommunications are common between remote workers, and the last thing you want is for your employees to feel like they can’t talk to you, ask questions or voice concerns. Make it clear that you are available for one-on-one meetings, and really listen and take action when an employee confides in you.
While you want to be professional with your team, keep in mind that your workers are still human. They have loved ones, celebrations and bad days like everyone else. As an employer, you need to recognize their strengths, weaknesses and interests to better connect with them.
“Keep tabs on what your workers do but also what they really love to do,” said Williams. When you know what they enjoy, you can implement it into their work by creating assignments for them or awarding them promotions related to their passions.
Remote employees will feel more engaged and committed to the company and their role if they know you care about them not only as employees but as people.
“Remember that engagement is not simply ‘checking up’ but fostering personal connection,” Williams said.
Even with something as simple as benefits or bonuses, communicating with employees about their own individual experiences in a personalized, relevant way stands out to remote workers.
“Businesses struggle with one-size-fits-all communication, [because] it doesn’t necessarily work,” said Chris Wakely, executive vice president of international sales for Benify. “Sending information based on the circumstances of the individual is a great way to get a person’s attention.”
Above all, companies must remember that transparency and honesty are key to cultivating strong employee engagement, both in and out of the office. [Read related article: How to Manage a Remote Workforce]
“Build stronger relationships with virtual workers,” Wakely said. “Personal, short, direct and honest [communication] is crucial.”
According to an Enboarder survey, connections drive better business outcomes. In fact, 96 percent of employees who reported feeling connected were satisfied with their roles, whereas only 60 percent of employees who self-reported as feeling disconnected were satisfied.
Remote employees, especially those who work nontraditional hours or are outside the headquarters’ time zone, sometimes feel that their team isn’t around when they are, and vice versa.
While it’s impossible to expect everyone to be available 24/7, knowing that they can reach out to their colleagues and stay in touch through digital communication helps virtual workers feel more connected.
“Online communities, social collaboration software and chat clients help bring remote employees inside the cultural conversation,” said Tony Ventrice, senior product manager at Inkitt. “It’s important that not all of these communications are even completely serious. Much of what brings a team together is the shared banter.”
Williams advises considering everyone’s time zone when setting meeting times or sending emails. For instance, if you want to send a message at noon in your time to a person who is already clocked out for the evening, acknowledge that you don’t expect a response until the following workday.
“Things like this can go a long way in creating camaraderie and trust among employees when their work schedules are understood and respected,” Williams added.
Gamification, the application of game-playing elements to nongame environments, has become a popular tactic for companies to encourage customer loyalty and engagement in a fun way. The same tactics of encouraging competitions and rewards for everyday activities can be an effective employee engagement strategy.
“Employees need to feel included, as if they are part of a team,” Ventrice said. “Team-based goals and competitions help build a sense of collaboration and cooperation. Teams can be based on function or location, with the key goal being inclusion in striving towards a common objective.”
[Read next: 6 Tips for Getting Your Team to Work Together]
Ventrice also noted that game-based performance management systems can help standardize performance metrics and evaluation criteria. This is especially important for remote employees, who may feel like they are missing out on vital promotion opportunities by not being physically present.
Engaging remote employees will ensure your team is still as efficient and productive as they would be in the office, if not more so. However, defining and measuring engagement, as well as finding ways for virtual employees to engage, can present additional challenges to management.
“Keeping remote workers engaged is a necessary part of leading a remote team, company or employee,” said Williams. “Without the ability to have organic conversations in the break room or at each other’s cubicles, it takes a more concentrated effort for remote workers to engage with others … A lack of engagement can lead to isolation and loneliness, a lack of passion for the company’s vision or goals, and feeling unhappy and unappreciated.”
Successfully engaging remote employees will help to make them feel valued and involved in the business overall. While it may take additional work to foster employee engagement in a virtual workplace, it is important for businesses to try to achieve this, as working remotely presents additional challenges for many, with distractions like chores, housemates or roommates, social media, and TV at home.
The best way to gauge your employees’ engagement levels is by simply asking them about their work and their passion levels. You can also monitor their progress on assignments and confront any concerns you might have about their performance.
As remote work, hybrid roles and virtual workspaces become increasingly accepted, businesses need to prioritize worker engagement. While it may require additional legwork by managers, it will pay dividends as workers feel increasingly connected and valued. This will lay a strong foundation for workers to feel comfortable approaching managers with their concerns and passions, ultimately allowing remote workers to be as engaged and satisfied as in-office workers.
Jeremy Bender, Nicole Fallon and Adam C. Uzialko contributed to this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.