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7 Strategies to Motivate Your Remote Team

Jason McCann
Jason McCann

In order to get the. most out of employees who are working from home, it is critical to keep them motivated and engaged.

  • Nearly all respondents in a 2020 Buffer survey wanted to work from home at least some of the time and 19% wanted to telecommute more frequently.
  • But working remotely isn't always easy, especially with the isolation, loneliness, and communication challenges associated with coronavirus shelter-in-place measures.
  • The challenges of telecommuting don't mean that productivity and innovation needs to suffer: Research on Hurricane Harvey survivors found that employees returned to pre-disturbance efficiency levels between days 30 and 60 of remote work.
  • These seven tips will help make remote work easier and help you build the team's build engagement and innovative thinking.

The novel coronavirus hasn't disappeared, but the novelty of working from home has. Over the course of a few days, organizations across the globe abandoned their comfort zones and moved to all-remote operations. To their credit, most companies rallied to figure out how to stay open for business. In some cases, the result was a sense of togetherness that temporarily buoyed spirits and united departments.

Yet after the initial shock and newness wore off, the tough reality of telecommuting set in. Remote work isn't necessarily instinctive, even though a majority of American workers have clamored for the opportunity to do the "carpet commute." Be careful what you wish for.

Buffer's 2020 State of Remote Work survey revealed that an extraordinary 98% of respondents wanted to work from home at least some of the time. Nineteen percent of those participants said they wanted to telecommute more often, ostensibly because of advantages like being able to work from anywhere and spending more time with family members.

With statistics like those, you might presume that the vast majority of employees pushed into telework because of COVID-19 quarantine regulations would feel completely at ease. However, that isn't the case. Sure, for the right introverted personalities who thrive on remote work, turning an extra bedroom into a workstation has been a blessing. Nonetheless, extroverts who feed off constant interaction with peers or prefer classic workplace arrangements may find it more difficult.

Let's face it: Working at home isn't always easy or ideal in the best of circumstances. It can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, not to mention a nagging sense of being out of the loop. Under coronavirus shelter-in-place measures, employees can't run to the nearest Starbucks to log on or indulge in a little traveling while staying virtually tethered to headquarters. They’re stuck at home, worried about job security, and maybe experiencing physical discomfort from using ergonomically incorrect furniture for desks and chairs.

Some workers live alone and may feel isolated; others may have children and a partner/spouse and feel overwhelmed or they may be responsible for taking care of an elderly family member. No matter the situation, remote work isn't as fun as many expected it to be.

After Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of the South, researchers from Texas A&M University evaluated the effects of remote work on team productivity. Their findings showed that between days 30 and 60 of telecommuting, employees returned to their pre-disturbance efficiency levels. In other words, employees proved resilient in the face of a sudden upheaval.

Employers are now within that 30- to 60-day window or beyond, which means leaders can boost spirits and maybe reach previously unrealized levels of creative thinking and teamwork with the right strategies. As Nicholas Bloom noted during his TEDx Stanford talk, a two-year study of working-at-home productivity showed a 13% increase among people who telecommuted. If companies can master remote work, they might just wind up poised to disrupt by the time the coronavirus chaos calms down.

My company is among countless businesses trying to keep morale, efficiency, innovation, and hope high amid unanswered questions and major workplace dynamic shifts. By facing the challenges and realities head-on, I've discovered how critical camaraderie is for partially or completely remote teams. Beyond everything else, workers must feel safe and engaged. Otherwise, they'll find it difficult to perform their jobs from home.

Our executives and managers have experimented with several techniques to make remote working easier across the board. Try these tips to weather the current storm and be in a position to bounce back stronger than before.

1. Communicate your expectations, making updates as needed

Employees won't necessarily fall seamlessly into working from home without guidance. Maybe they're not sure how often to check in with supervisors, or perhaps they're reluctant to get in touch with IT out of fear they'll look foolish.

Create and publish a comprehensive work-from-home guide. Give workers real-time access to the document, and notify them when you make updates or clarify sections. For instance, you may have originally asked that employees be at their computers by 8:30 a.m., only to realize that a later start time seems to better suit team members' morning responsibilities.

In addition to providing guidance, communicate often with everyone. Hold a regular Zoom meeting, or start an "Ask Me Anything" live chat. Be authentic and transparent, especially about what you still don't know. By being "exceedingly human" (as the author, business management expert, and consultant Patrick Lencioni says), you'll show empathy and understanding at a time when your crew needs to hear it most.

2. Set working parameters

Employees deserve a healthy balance between the time they spend at work and the time they spend for themselves and their families. However, the coronavirus pandemic has effectively removed home-office barriers. This means people may work practically around the clock, which can inevitably lead to mental exhaustion.

It only makes sense: Many workers feel grateful to have employment at a time when the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment estimates hover near the 15% mark. Therefore, they work themselves nonstop. What they deserve to hear is that it's critical for them to block off some downtime.

You may appreciate being able to contact employees at midnight and receive instant responses. Nevertheless, resist the urge to push employees to their limits. According to a Harvard Business Review piece, leaders must rethink what "high performance" means in telecommuting situations and explain to workers that it's OK to relax. Everyone is running on fumes emotionally, and insisting they sacrifice their well-being to complete a task won't help engagement.

3. Initiate surveys to gauge morale

Instead of guessing whether employees feel comfortable or content, issue surveys from week to week. Using a simple Likert Scale of 1-10 will help evaluate whether the overall mood of your remote workforce is improving, declining, or holding steady.

You don't have to pay for heavy-duty surveying software, either. Google Forms offers great tools for conducting basic surveys. Consider asking employees to rate anything from how they're feeling generally to their perceived productivity levels. After the first couple of surveys, you'll have a baseline understanding of where your people are.

A survey can also be the right place to ask employees if they need anything special such as a printer, second monitor, lighting, or desk. As the employer, you want your team to have access to proper equipment. Now isn't the time to be stingy about ordering someone a comfortable chair or upgraded laptop to be used for remote purposes or presenting key personnel with stipends to buy home office essentials.

4. Encourage everyone to develop a dedicated workspace

The ambiance of a person's working space impacts the quality of their work. Someone who regularly moves from the couch to the bed to the patio may be unable to remain focused on tasks. Carving out a dedicated work area can be tough, particularly for someone who lives with several family members or whose home offers limited unused space. Still, it's important to have a quiet place that's dedicated to working.

Help your employees actively find a place they can call their own by getting to know your performers' working styles and asking whether they feel they're able to do their best now. If you notice that a direct report's performance seems unnaturally low, find out if the workspace could be part of the problem.

If workers aren't confident because of inadequate surroundings, do what you can in terms of recommendations. At the same time, be aware that some residential layouts aren't exactly conducive to ideal setups. Urge everyone to get innovative, even if that means turning a walk-in closet or well-lit basement corner into a cozy work area.

5. Discover, test and implement new technologies together

When your team worked in an office setting, you probably only scratched the surface of the technologies you used (e.g., Microsoft Excel or Google Docs). Most people utilize software in limited capacities. Now is the perfect time to explore ways to make life simpler by digging deeper into the platforms you regularly use.

Begin this process by Googling the "tips and tricks" of all the technology you currently rely upon — from Slack to Salesforce — and encourage employees to follow suit. That way, you can divide and conquer, uncovering ways to become more efficient with familiar tools. Next, ask some team members to explore other technologies. You may even want to invest in free or low-cost trials when possible.

Does your team host regular online meetings? Take a test run with a competitor of the virtual meeting interface you traditionally use, such as trying GoToMeeting instead of Skype. Compare the advantages and downsides of each platform. Who knows? You may find some great technology out there that you wouldn’t have uncovered without the quarantine.

6. Take time for check-ins and chats

Employees don't run into colleagues throughout the day when they're at home. That means they can't let off steam at the watercooler, which can cause a buildup of anxiety and frustration. Is it any wonder, then, that burnout and remote work tend to go hand in hand? As Gallup research noted, isolation under normal circumstances — and these are hardly normal times — can cause effectiveness to drop 21%. Who knows what the percentage is amid a pandemic shut-in?

One way to combat confinement-related stress is via one-to-one check-ins that have nothing to do with assignments, clients, or operations. No time to meet with everyone in your company? No problem: Make time for your direct reports.

Additionally, encourage chitchat by setting up casual Slack channels or allowing time before videoconferencing sessions to encourage idle conversation. You might even want to start "office tour" video sessions where people can show off their virtual stations for co-workers to see. Employees won't necessarily reach out on their own, so give them the green light to stay in touch. Be certain to include yourself in the banter, too. And if your furry friend photo-bombs your Microsoft Teams call, all the better. Life happens.

7. Reward employees

You're over-communicating and staying in touch with everyone. That's a good start, but you’ll want to go the extra mile with occasional surprises. I recently sent my team members coffee mugs as a throwback to our company culture. I miss mingling with people at the coffee station.

Whether you send e-gift cards to people who have gone above and beyond, or you have boxes of healthy snacks delivered to everyone's doors, you'll buoy your staffers' spirits. A million Slack “I appreciate you” messages won't have the same uplifting effects as receiving a little surprise in the mail — or even a little bonus in the paycheck.

The goal is for your culture to retain a sense of uniqueness and strength throughout the ups and downs of sheltering in place. Brainstorm with fellow executives around ways to say thanks, then deploy your ideas.

The past few months have thrown many companies for a loop. Instead of taking a "let’s wait this out" approach to heading up a remote team, use the time wisely to build morale, engagement, and innovative thinking. Leaders who view COVID-19 as a chance to learn and differentiate will set up their workforces for present and future success.

Image Credit: Scyther5/Getty Images
Jason McCann
Jason McCann Member
A lifelong entrepreneur, Jason McCann has over 20 years of experience building and running successful companies. As a founder and the CEO of Vari, Jason’s mission is to help companies reimagine the workspace. Vari started with one innovative product and has grown to be a global leader in workspace innovation with products found in over 130 countries.