It is notoriously difficult to build business relationships whilst working in a remote team, yet the trend towards remote work is growing rapidly. Remote offices save on real estate costs, allow employee flexibility and have low environmental impact, yet at the same time present a unique set of management challenges when compared to a regular, co-located office. This article will help you consider the challenges of building engagement within a remote team, and offers suggestions to overcome some common problems.
One of the primary issues encountered by remote team leaders is the difficulty in building team culture. In a traditional co-located office, culture can be developed by simply organizing weekly lunches or on-site group activities, however remote workplaces require forethought and constant commitment to enable a workplace culture to grow amongst the team.
Building team culture begins with showing appreciation for each team member individually. You can do this by celebrating birthdays, encouraging team members to share personal achievements, or even sponsoring the team for charity or sports events. Whilst managing 11 staff in a global project, I used the Step Up App to encourage friendly competition by tracking the step count of my team over the project period, rewarding the winner with a $300 gift card. This led to friendly engagement on our social platforms and a heightened sense of camaraderie amongst the team.
Promote common goals
When creating positions and hiring for remote teams, it is important to ensure that the new role is clearly defined and contributes directly to the organisational goals. Even in a traditional office setting, employees can get lost in the small details and forget the relevance of their role, potentially leading to disengagement and poor performance. With a remote team it is even more important that all team members understand their responsibilities and how their performance directly impacts their team-mates and the goals of the organisation.
Share your vision of the future of your organisation, and ensure that you consistently update team members when there is a change in direction. Consider sending out a weekly internal newsletter or business vlog, and invite team members to contribute to the publication by sharing their own work-related successes. In some cases, it is even appropriate to involve your team in strategic discussions to foster a sense of responsibility in business outcomes.
Use virtual communication tools
Communication is the key to good performance in any team, and there is no reason why a remote team cannot communicate as effectively as a team that is co-located. There are multitudes of tools available for real-time business communication, each of which has the added benefit of keeping records of all interactions. Not only do communication tools give your team the ability to interact in a business sense, they also encourage social communication and allow team members to build relationships and let their personalities shine.
Slack is my personal favourite business communication tool for remote teams as it allows conversations to be organised by topic into different threads. Other popular tools include Yammer (known as the Facebook for business), Jive, Skype for Business and Trello, each of which has its own pros and cons which I will discuss in a separate post.
There are plenty of tools available today to help you track the time and work progress of your remote teams, however they need to be used with care to avoid your employees feeling as if they are being micromanaged. Unless there are time sensitive meetings, allow your employees the freedom to choose what time they work, and adjust your view of performance to focus on results achieved rather than time spent working.
A good remote worker is typically self-motivated, organised and trustworthy, and as a business owner/hirer it is your responsibility to ensure that all employees fit that mould. You should also question candidates on their views of remote working, and whether they will be able to cope with the social isolation that sometimes comes with a remote workplace. A candidate who is already aware of the challenges of remote work is more likely to be able to perform effectively and come on board for the long term.
Traditional employee rewards are often inappropriate in a remote workplace, but a creative rewards program can reap benefits in encouraging employee engagement and retention. Think about the type of person you want in your organisation, then consider what type of rewards would make their life easier. Perhaps a childcare allowance would enable a remote working mother to catch some much-needed rest, or a younger team may be motivated by the opportunity to travel more often through discounted tickets and vouchers.
Aside from providing monetary rewards or bonuses, a simple thank you can often motivate even the most experienced staff. Make sure that your team know you appreciate their effort, and take the time to acknowledge a job well done through a personal thank you email.
Just as important as thanking staff for a job well done, you must also be able to provide constructive criticism where required. Conscientious employees appreciate the opportunity to improve their performance, and constructive feedback given privately and professionally is often the impetus for an employee to drive for better performance.
The art of giving good constructive criticism requires empathy for the receiving party, as well as an openness to feedback. Make sure you invite two-way communication and note any concerns your employee brings to the table. Be ready to offer support where needed and ensure that the employee knows they can come to you should they face issues in future. However, at the same time you need to prepare for the worst-case-scenario of unresponsive employees, and have a performance management plan ready in case it is needed.
Face to face encounters
With all the communication software available today, nothing beats the relationship building benefits of a face-to-face meeting. For teams that work together long-term, a quarterly meeting is ideal to foster social interaction and allow employees to get to know one another. For projects, a project kick-off meeting is often enough to encourage engagement between team members.
Having worked on multiple global projects, there is nothing that resets my enthusiasm more than a team dinner in a relaxed atmosphere where business-talk is banned. Although it may seem an expense at first, the value of building strong relationships and responsibility toward each other in a team cannot be overstated.