Simple ways to engage remote team members

Mar 21 2014 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

One of my least favorite topics to write about is employee engagement. That doesn't mean it's not important, because it is. It also doesn't mean I'm unconcerned about the people who work for and with me, because I am. Really. I just find that the reasons people disengage are numerous and infuriatingly complex. And it's even more critical, infuriating and complex when it comes to working relationships within virtual teams.

Fortunately, not everyone feels this way. My colleague Zane Safrit offers some simple tips to increase engagement in his new e-book, Recognize Them- 52 Ways to Recognize Employees in Ways They Value". While the book doesn't really distinguish between co-located and remote teams, I think there are some tips that apply particularly to working virtually and the relationships necessary to make it work.

Let me point out a few at random, and why they particularly resonate when you're not in the same place at the same time.

Call before their first day. It's never too early to build a good working relationship. When people work remotely, they may not have been interviewed in your office or had a chance to get a sense of what you and your company are all about.

I know that as a manager, onboarding is tough and frequently a nuisance, but as Aristotle and Mary Poppins both said, "well begun is half done". Call before their first day, ask them what they want to know and see how you can help them prepare to hit the ground running.

Celebrate their birthday. Full confession, I am really, really bad at this. There are birthday people and non-birthday people. Another successful trip around the sun doesn't particularly impress me, and it's setting the bar pretty low for success. I tend not to make a big deal out of my own birthday, let alone anyone else's. Like me, you'll have to get over it.

Turns out, people enjoy being recognized. It's also very often a sore point for people who work remotely and don't get to share the cake in the breakroom or the fun, personal conversations that are part of a co-located team's function.

That separation from the home team is actually a bigger deal than you think. Furthermore, a lot of remote workers are contractors, and you may not have their personnel files handy. If you take the time to get this information and recognize them it looks like you've made an effort. That goes a long way.

Give them family time. Very often, remote workers are forced to adapt to "company time" which can make for conference calls or assignments that slop over into what would normally be personal time. While to a lot of managers this is simply a condition of employment, once in a while to let someone catch their kids' ballet recital or take them to practice, or just give their spouse a break, is appreciated way beyond whatever inconvenience it causes. Of course, this presupposes you know enough about them to know they have a family, which is an issue in and of itself. . .

Explain why their accomplishments matter to everyone. One of the very real, and often invisible, barriers to building great teams is that the individual members are treated as individuals. We make sure they are clear on their assignments and expectations, but the team doesn't always know how everyone else contributes to the goal, or what they even do when they're out of eye-and-earshot.

Don't just congratulate people on their work with a quick email, but make sure you put the work in context - how it impacts everyone on the team and how their work has been made better or easier by those contributions. Take particular note of any barriers they had to overcome in order to be successful. Often their teammates don't know how hard they had to work or how smart they had to be.

Ask them what tools they need to "do the right thing right". Very often remote workers are asked to make do with the same tools the folks in the home office have. But their need for information and context is different from other people. They may, in effect, be working with one hand tied behind their back.

When you ask people (especially new team members) what they need in order to be successful, it's often the same thing people have needed for ages but have always relied on work-arounds or physical proximity to get past. Additionally, they may have used tools or techniques in other jobs that the whole team can benefit from. Give them a chance to influence how the team works for the better.

Zane has made these and the 47 other tips sound simple. And they are. Simple, however, isn't always easy. What are you doing to help recognize and engage your team, whether they sit next to you or work on the other side of the world?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.