Remote work is, without a doubt, here to stay.
One Gartner survey done in May 2021 found that more than 60 percent of white-collar employers were preparing for a hybrid office future, with just one percent indicating they planned to have all employees back in the office full-time. An increasing number of companies are opting not to renew their leases on physical office spaces, and former business hubs like Manhattan still sit largely empty, with about 90% of Manhattan office workers continuing to work remotely.
Figuring out how to keep remote workers supported and engaged in the midst of a pandemic has been, for many executives, the biggest career challenge they’ve faced. Yet, the theoretically temporary nature of these remote arrangements may have helped soften some of their sharper edges. Now, as we creep toward two years of this pandemic, with remote work still in full force and turnover at a historic high, executives will need to revisit some of their earlier stopgap solutions.
One critical area for leaders to zero in on? Reassessing what it looks like to keep a remote workforce motivated in a sustained, ongoing way. Below, we heard from business leaders who’ve led fully remote teams since long before the pandemic about the tactics today’s executives can use to keep remote workers engaged.
1. Keep workers connected to the company mission.
If your remote team understands the “why” of their work, motivation will be easier to tap into, Dan Close, CEO at We Buy Houses in Kentucky, said.
“What impact will your organization have on the world, and why does everyone’s job matter?” he said. “It may appear simple enough, yet when going remote, this basic mission-oriented communication might be overlooked. You lose the tangible, human-to-human nudges to explain the broad picture when you don’t see your staff in the workplace.”
Crucially, your company’s mission isn’t something you can “say once and then forget about,” Close added.
“To ensure your team rallies around the mission, you must maintain consistent communication,” he said. “We issue an end-of-week email at my company about the value of our work and why we believe we’re making a difference. We show our team direct user feedback on why they enjoy our games. It serves as a reminder to keep the larger picture in mind.”
2. Trust them.
Above all else, resist the urge to micromanage, Daniel Foley, SEO Executive at MCS Software Rental, said.
“Not everyone is suited to work remotely. However, individuals who prefer to work remotely do so for flexibility — therefore, grant them that,” Foley said. “That is not synonymous with being entirely hands-off. You must still explicitly define roles, expectations and deadlines, as well as monitor them. Apart from that, there is no reason to micromanage them. Remove yourself from their path and allow them to do their job.”
You’ll also want to ensure that trust is present between colleagues and across the team as a whole, Adam Wood, Co-Founder of RevenueGeeks, said.
“I’ve observed certain trust concerns that I had never seen before while everyone was at the office,” he said. “I tackled this issue by holding a meeting with the entire team to discuss how they can improve trust. One thing I proposed is that everyone in the group shares their progress and accomplishments in meetings so that everyone understands how they’re contributing to the group’s success.”
3. Thank people regularly.
When you can’t physically see one another, it’s your job as a leader to ensure workers still feel seen. The quickest path to becoming unmotivated, after all, is feeling like your work isn’t appreciated, Gary Vari, CEO of Lensa, said.
“There’s been a lot of talk about ‘cultures of recognition’ over the last couple of years, but not a lot of implementation from what I’ve seen,” he said. “I have always strived to make sure my remote team members feel appreciated and, furthermore, that they understand how their contributions impact our success. I notice major differences in productivity and general happiness between workers who feel recognized and appreciated and those that don’t.”
To make people feel truly seen, be sure to get specific, added Tanner Arnold, CEO of Revelation Machinery.
“Express your gratitude and appreciation by being precise in your compliments and letting them know exactly what they did well,” Arnold said. “You must explain in depth what they have done correctly rather than giving a simple ‘well done.’”
4. Encourage breaks (and take them yourself).
As many of us have learned since the start of COVID, it’s all-too easy for the hours to blur together when you’ve been staring at a screen from your couch for hours. Don’t assume your team is taking breaks during the day. Check in with them and ensure they are, including by modeling a healthy work-life balance yourself.
“I encourage my team to take a break every 90 minutes of working,” Sherry Morgan, Founder of Petsolino, said. “This is to ensure they can really stay focused and give their all on their tasks. It’s important that, not just as the CEO but also as the leader of my team, I encourage my employees to take breaks while working from home.”
5. Set clear work-life boundaries, and bring in tools that help.
As a leader, telling employees you support their work-life balance while simultaneously sending emails with 9 p.m. timestamps won’t cut it. Practice what you preach, and bring in technology to help where possible, Ravi Patel, CEO of Job Alert, said.
“I suggest encouraging your employees to use the ‘away’ and ‘do not disturb’ modes on their phones,” he said. “Encourage your staff to unplug and combat the always-on mentality to help them create separation between ‘home’ and ‘work from home.’ It’s a good idea to turn off notifications and let the team know you’re offline to encourage this.”
You should be making a point of actively encouraging employees to take advantage of their PTO, too.
“Remind your employees that their vacation days are still available,” Patel added. “If your staff had to postpone any travel during the shift to remote work, they may have also had to postpone the PTO they had requested for the trip. Encourage them to use their vacation time, even if it’s simply for a ‘staycation.’”
6. Make time for “water cooler” conversations from afar.
One of the biggest challenges of a fully remote environment is keeping employees connected not only to the company’s mission, but to each other. Facilitate these moments of connection, Nunzio Ross, CEO of Majesty Coffee, said.
“A creative way of keeping your remote team motivated and engaged is hosting casual social meetings and hangouts,” Ross said. “Fostering social interactions, even remotely, is critical in building trust within your team. It can be in the form of a Teleparty movie night or online coffee dates during the day. Not everything has to be about work. It keeps connections strong between you and your colleagues and promotes a collaborative environment that can benefit the company.”
7. Provide feedback, always.
Without opportunities for regular feedback, it’s easy for workers to feel like their contributions have no impact, Neil Shaw, CEO of Lottery Sambad, said.
“Regular feedback, in addition to mission-oriented communication, is essential for keeping your team engaged,” Shaw said. “Yes, it aids in the alignment of expectations and goals. More significantly, it shows your team that you care about their job and professional growth. In a remote setup, it’s easy to overlook input… but keep your eye on the ball and act as a coach to your teammates. Provide regular comments on how they can improve on a continual basis.”
8. Overcommunicate — the right way.
This doesn’t mean micromanage your remote team with overly frequent check-ins and daily phone calls. It does mean transparently sharing all information that could impact their jobs, erring on the side of over- rather than under-communicating, Gerrid Smith, CMO at Joy Organics, said.
“Keep your team informed about any new projects and maintain a safe space when new knowledge and emotions emerge,” Smith said. “Keep them up to date when things change so they have the information they need, and enable cross-functional dialogues so that everyone is on the same page. Maintaining a single source of truth across all of your teams, such as Asana, is an excellent method to accomplish this.”
Feeling out of the loop is one of the surest ways for remote employees’ motivation to take a hit, he added.
“When you work remotely, it’s easy to feel out of the loop. That’s why, when it comes to planning, comments and praise, it’s critical to overcommunicate,” he said. “When you’re in person, a smile will be enough, but when you’re working remotely, make an effort to express your emotions and tone more purposefully.”
Find more leadership advice on the blog.