Organizations around the world have been forced to shift to remote work environments. And guess what? They’ve discovered that this remote-working thing is not so bad after all. Most of those downside assumptions about working from home — like employees shirking their responsibilities and surfing the Internet all day — have proven false.
In fact, many organizations have found that their employees are more productive than ever, as they’re free to focus on their work without distractions like office politics and the grind of a daily commute.
Personally, I’m not surprised by any of this because our company has been virtual since day one. Over the last two years, I’ve built a software engineering team of people who are all working remotely — happily and productively.
Here are five best practices to keep remote team members motivated and maximize their abilities:
1. Get a cue – When people are physically in front of us, we consciously or subconsciously tune into their body language. But when we interact with employees by videoconference, it’s much harder to see those physical cues.
For instance, when you talk to someone face-to-face, it’s normal to use a lot of hand gestures, which could indicate how engaged you are in the conversation. But in a video or virtual setting, most people don’t use those gestures. That doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention. Actually, it’s often the opposite. People who look impassive are in fact intently focused on the screen. By the same token, some employees may not be comfortable speaking with the camera switched on, instead preferring to communicate via audio only. Don’t take it personally and don’t think less of these people.
Leaders should lift their empathy level in this environment and that means learning a new set of cues for remote working.
2. Establish unwavering two-way trust with employees – A big part of building trust is not only letting employees work where they want, but how they want. The truth is that employees all function differently and it’s important to give all of them the autonomy to operate the way they work best.
I have one employee on my engineering team who loves to work at night because that’s when he writes his best code. If I demanded that he work a 9-to-5 schedule, I wouldn’t get the best out of him.
I place unwavering trust in all my team members to get their jobs done by the method of their choice and they in turn reward our company by building a positive work culture that is highly creative and productive.
3. Go the extra mile – As I mentioned, our company has always been virtual. But for onboarding, we’re always there in person to welcome our new team member to the company.
How does this work? Well, I travel to wherever the new hire is based and then spend the day with them, explaining various company procedures or just getting to know them better over lunch or dinner. It’s a special day and it shows new employees right away that they’re valued members of the organization.
Another way we show our value for positive workplace relationships is by getting together for an annual offsite. We meet for about three days at a neutral city, so we can all get to know each other better, while we plan our future goals together. We work hard and of course play hard too!
Of course, this kind of in-person greeting isn’t possible during the pandemic but we plan to return to this practice as soon as it is safe to do so.
4. Ease the sense of separation – One of the side effects of working in an all-virtual, all-the-time environment is an occasional sense of isolation. I experience it and I know other team members do too. You feel cut off. But the sensation usually has nothing to do with physical distance. It comes when people feel “out of the loop” and unaware of some important information or decision.
I address this issue — for both myself and my employees — by thinking of it as a structural disconnect. I look for cues that demonstrate a sense of isolation and then try to facilitate for what exactly is missing and how I can help that employee feel more engaged and part of the process.
This approach helps immensely in breaking down barriers, which oftentimes exist in our own heads. I’ve also strived to eliminate red tape and provide a virtual open-door policy to employees, which has helped to improve overall engagement.
5. Enable an on-demand communications culture – One way to ensure a sustained productive environment with distributed teams across various time zones is to facilitate an asynchronous communications style. It’s a departure from the norm and defies standard corporate notions that equate frequent emails or being present for meetings with productivity.
When executing this on-demand communications style, in which team members interact as needed, managers can’t fall into the trap of mistaking the lack of communication for incompetency or unproductiveness. Actually, it can be quite the contrary, provided that you allow the work to proceed without causing systemic dependencies.
How do we do it? Like a lot of companies, we are not alien to tools like Slack for team collaboration, Zoom for video meetings, and Trello for project management (it literally does track everything!!) These tools are only as effective as you let them to be. They work for us because they are able to match our style of communications. If a team member needs a piece of data, creative content, or even an architectural decision, they use the tools to ask for it — at the time of need —with a clear expectation of when he or she needs it and what the impact of not getting it in time would be.
This takes the guessing game out of the picture and eliminates the time-consuming back and forth. If a meeting of minds is desired, we demand it asynchronously, so we can solve problems in a timely, efficient manner. With such an intentional, asynchronous communications culture, my team and I have successfully managed to greenfield our product. In fact, I’m always amazed as remote team members are able to come together, bounce ideas off each other, and ultimately move in the right direction.
Sadly, it has taken a global pandemic for organizations to realize that remote working can actually work in their favor. As our company discovered several years ago, remote work can indeed boost efficiencies, open doors to a larger talent pool and lead to happier, more loyal and more productive employees.