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Lead Your Team Managing

No Face Time? No Problem: How to Keep Virtual Workers Engaged

Engaging remote employees
Credit: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

Remote work is common practice in many industries today. While it has its fair share of benefits, like saving time and money on commutes and encouraging better work-life balance, it also has some downsides.

Because they're not in the office with their team, remote workers often feel less engaged and connected to their company, which can hurt productivity and performance.

"Keeping remote workers engaged is a necessary part of leading a remote team, company or employee," said Rachel Jay, senior career writer at FlexJobs. "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."

When managers and company leaders make priorities of employee engagement and teamwork, regardless of an employee's location, the organization, as a whole, thrives.

Here are some ways to make your virtual staff feel like they're truly part of the team.

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, 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 Jay. When you know what they enjoy, you can implement it into their work by creating assignments or awarding promotions related to their passions.

Remote employees will feel more engaged and committed to the company and their role if they know that you care about them not only as an employee but as a person as well.

"Remember that engagement is not simply 'checking up' but fostering personal connection," she said.

In fact, it's important to plan out personal time like virtual get-togethers for non-work related chats, Jay added. 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 celebratory video calls.

Even with something as simple as benefits or bonuses, communicating with employees about their own individual experience in a personalized, relevant way stands out to a remote worker.

"Businesses struggle with one-size-fits-all communication, [because] it doesn't necessarily work," said Chris Wakely, executive vice president of global enterprise 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 is key to cultivating strong employee engagement, in or out of the office.

"Build stronger relationships with virtual workers," Wakely said. "Personal, short, direct and honest [communication] is crucial."

More: Overcoming the Challenges of Managing Remote Employees

Remote employees, especially those who work nontraditional hours or are outside the headquarters' time zone, can 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 Eversight. "It's important that not all of these communications are even completely serious – much of what brings a team together is the shared banter."

Jay advised considering everyone's time zone when setting meeting times or sending emails. For instance, if you want to send a message at noon your time to a person who is already clocked out for the evening, be sure to acknowledge that you don't expect a response until the following workday, Jay said.

"Things like this can go a long way in creating camaraderie and trust among employees when their work schedules are understood and respected," she added.

According to research by Remote.co, many remote teams host regular video calls and conferences, and maintain regular communication through instant messaging, email, on message boards, and through web conferencing platforms. When the whole team is working, a voice or video conference call can go a long way to encourage group collaboration.

Gamification, the application of game-playing elements to nongame environments, has become a popular tactic for companies who want to encourage customer loyalty and engagement in a fun way. But the same tactics of encouraging competitions and rewards for everyday activities can also 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."

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 promotional opportunities by not being physically present.

Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon and Adam C. Uzialko. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Sammi Caramela

Sammi Caramela has always loved words. When she isn't working as a Purch B2B staff writer, she's writing (and furiously editing) her first novel, reading a YA book with a third cup of coffee, or attending local pop-punk concerts. The only time Sammi doesn't play it safe is when she's writing. Reach her by email, or check out her blog at sammisays.org.