engaging remote employees

My wife, a middle school Language Arts teacher, absolutely loves being in the classroom. She can plan fun lessons like scavenger hunts, assess engagement by looking around the room and work one on one with students who need extra help.

But in September my wife’s school decided to take a part in-person, part virtual approach to learning. So, like teachers everywhere, my wife is now challenged with engaging a mix of hybrid and in-person students.

With no end to COVID-19 in sight, I’m seeing many companies struggle with this same issue: How can they engage employees when some are in the workplace and others are remote?

The answer: craft an experience that levels the playing field. Here are 5 ways to do so:

1. Set expectations
This is a new situation for everyone. While some employees may be used to working from home on occasion, they aren’t used to so many of their colleagues being remote. Along with obvious changes in technology and strategy comes a big cultural shift.

It’s not enough to tell people “this is how you will be working now.” It’s up to leaders to exemplify desired behaviors. For instance, when you can see the person you’re talking to, you are automatically more aware of eye contact and less likely to multitask. Encourage leaders to always turn on their cameras. Everyone will notice and follow suit.

2. Create a meeting experience
If you held a meeting in the office, you may have shown PowerPoint slides, facilitated a conversation, gathered ideas on a flipchart or sketched concepts on a whiteboard. These great in-person meetings created an immersive experience.

More than six months into working differently, companies are getting used to remote meetings, but are nowhere near recreating that in-person experience. Sure, many are still using PowerPoint (“Everyone can see my screen, right?”) and having conversations, but there’s only so much time you can spend staring at your colleagues in a Brady Bunch-style grid. Instead, use all the tools at your disposal to keep it interesting:

  • Virtual whiteboard: Recreate the in-person experience and allow employees to add to a virtual space, move ideas around, group like comments, etc.
  • Breakout rooms: Some applications, like Zoom, allow you to break a larger meeting into smaller groups for more focused discussions.
  • Polls: Platforms like Poll Everywhere and Mentimeter let you conduct a poll or build a word cloud in real time. Since you can access through your phone or a browser, polls are perfect for a hybrid audience.

3. Be flexible with work hours
Some employees may be able to follow a traditional nine-to-five schedule. Others may be juggling their own work, troubleshooting network issues, helping children with remote schooling, preparing lunch for their family—all while keeping up with their inbox.

In fact, 65% of workers say they want schedule flexibility in a virtual office culture, according to a recent survey.

How do you help employees succeed despite the need to keep so many balls in the air? Consider doing away with traditional hours and letting people work asynchronously so different people are available different times of the day. For instance, certain roles don’t require everyone to be present at the same time:

  • A programmer may develop code and pass it on to the next person to test.
  • A writer may create a first draft and pass it onto an editor for approval.
  • An accountant may review financial statements before sending to the boss for review.

4. Collaborate differently
Communication tools are more important than ever before—and new ones are becoming available every day. Just as working styles need to adapt, so do the platforms. There are two different methods for colleagues to collaborate.

  • Asynchronous (at different times): Rather than scheduling a meeting, consider posting a message or even a video to your company intranet. Or post an update on an internal social media platform like Yammer and encourage people to comment. These tools are particularly helpful because they allow employees to view content on their own time while providing the same experience whether you’re in the office or at home.
  • Synchronous (at the same time): Sometimes real-time collaboration is the best approach—like when you have a looming deadline. But you don’t always need to jump on the phone or video call to make that happen. Google Docs and Microsoft Teams are popular tools for working simultaneously on one document.

5. Sit back and relax
Many employees now spend their entire day without moving away from the computer screen. They are missing out on the little social interactions that come with working in an office setting: recapping weekends, sharing stories over a coffee or water break, comparing binge-worthy shows and having lunch with another person.

Break up the monotony by setting up informal meetings—with absolutely no agenda. Just let the conversation flow. Sure, everyone is still looking at a screen, but at least they can be more relaxed. Afterwards, you’ll see a morale boost as people will start to realize just how much they missed that personal interaction.

Want to learn more about remote working communication? Check out our new book, What’s next: 9 ways to reinvent employee communication.

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