You hear about it all the time.
Great companies have cultures employees rave about. Engaged employees are happy employees. So much so that finding and keeping your best talent is often tightly linked to the strength of your organization’s culture.
That’s a lot of pressure to get it right! And when you (suddenly) have remote teams working from every corner of the world, the question of keeping up employee engagement can seem like a miniature crisis.
What’s the best way to engage your remote employees so everyone is happy?
First of all: Culture is not as spontaneous as it seems. For those of you intimately familiar with working behind the scenes to pull off great employee moments, this is not news.
Second: The benefits of working in the same office does make engagement easier… but it’s not actually a guarantee of rave-worthy culture.
Building a remote team culture with strong employee engagement is just like building an office culture with strong employee engagement: you need the right intentions, dedicated effort, and a game plan.
We’re here to help you with all three.
But if you’re looking for a quick fix, a word of caution: inspiring genuine employee engagement isn’t something you do at the surface level. Without a clear and thriving company culture, nine times out of ten, employee engagement will not follow — no matter how many virtual happy hours you throw.
If you find yourself in that situation, don’t give up! You can use this guide to work on both. Just remember that it is a commitment. As our Chief Swag Officer likes to say, “Culture is a decision you make every day.”
No Remote Office Looks the Same
The hidden challenges of remote work
And some of your people may not even be working with a dedicated ‘office’ space.
If you want to promote a culture of strong employee engagement, it helps to start with empathy about their situation. The best way to do this is to open up the channels of communication and ask. Here’s a few scenarios to look out for:
Public enemy number one: crappy internet. If you have an employee dealing with a poor connection, this is likely to not only be a serious source of stress for them but also a barrier to productive workplace collaboration. So check your team has access to a reliable and fast internet connection!
Because remote teams are heavily technology reliant, you can make a big impact just by providing some standardization to an employee’s work setup! Start with the basics. Make sure everyone on the team has at minimum a laptop, working internet connection, and a decent pair of earbuds with a mic for calls.
Help your team get set up with a home office essentials pack. Then send some tips and guidelines on creating the best workspace they can. For example:
- Lighting. Natural, if you can get it. This has the dual-effect of boosting mood and mental wellbeing as well as providing for a healthier look on video calls. Reduce eye-strain with a bright light source off to the side of the monitor (or if you have employees who tend to work at night or in darker rooms, try bias lighting.) Pro tip: avoid monitor setups with your back to the window as incoming sunlight will create glare on the screen.
- Ergonomics. Before health problems develop for your employees, get them thinking about how their work area is hurting or helping their bodies. See this how-to guide from Mayo Clinic about setting up an ergonomic office. Some simple things you can check right now: make sure the top of the computer monitor is at or below eye level, your spine is in a neutral position, and your keyboard and mouse are at elbow-level.
- Contingency Plan. Less obvious, but no less important. A part of a good remote office is having a plan for when things go wrong. For example, if your employee experiences a power outage, that’s generally out of their control — and stressful if they have a deadline or important meeting. Help them establish a standard response ahead of time to minimize the disruption as much as possible.
The value of having this conversation is less about the ideas and more about the conversation itself. Because the reality is your busy employees probably have not stopped to think about it.
And unfortunately, that often translates to a subtle barrier to genuine engagement, whether that’s an inability to fully show up at a virtual event or get important work done during the workday.
SOCIAL DISCONNECTION (HELLO, IS ANYONE OUT THERE?)
Feeling disconnected from others isn’t just a remote work challenge. As social creatures, we need regular interaction with others. That’s how we are built. And depending on your employees’ unique situation, they may be alone, living with a partner or family, or sharing a house with friends.
Your introverts may not need as many different kinds of relationships as your extroverts, but we all need social connection to foster and grow positive relationships at work.
Here’s why this matters: Feeling isolated may silently discourage employees from engaging and worsen the situation 😬
So watch out for language that suggests:
- Frustration around feeling ‘out of the loop’ or ‘unable to find information they need’
- Loneliness and a perception that they are ‘working in a silo’ and ‘have no idea what other people are doing’
- Confusion around ‘company priorities’ and how leadership is responding to current events
Feeling like that doesn’t just suck — it’s also seriously demotivating.
And without redress, those feelings can transform into bigger problems like low productivity and absenteeism.
Other employees will be missing the freedom of bouncing ideas off each other and craving non-verbal positive interactions like high-fives, fist bumps, and even simple waves. Get a sense for where your team is at mentally and then create a space for engagement that fulfills those needs.
You did all the hard work of pulling your talent together; now is the time to get them connected so that 1 + 1 is greater than 2!
COMBATING ZOOM FATIGUE
With the aforementioned social disconnection being a common feeling among remote companies, many teams are seeing a dramatic increase in meetings as compared to when they were in office. What used to be an email has now become a meeting, which can feel draining to the majority of employees.
With meetings being virtual now, there are more visual cues than ever before that can be distracting and overstimulating. In your normal conference rooms, you’re familiar with the settings and the same paint color on the wall with the same succulent that’s been there for months. In a virtual meeting though, you can see who has a fancy in-home office, who has quirky wallpaper, whose dog just entered the room looking for a treat.
With screen fatigue increasing as the months drag on, try to empower managers to make these simple, yet effective changes:
- Require an agenda for all meetings. When the meeting organizer is forced to send out an agenda, they are forced to think about what the purpose of the meeting is. This not only enforces a structure to meetings, but it gives the organizer time to realize that a meeting might not even be necessary!
- Enforce company-wide “no meeting days”. This could be done on a monthly basis with proper planning! Send out company-wide invitations a month in advance so all employees have ample time to plan accordingly.
- Encourage note taking. How many times have you been on a call where a coworker has shown up late for whatever reason, and an extra ten minutes is spent “catching them up” and answering the same questions asked on time? Documenting key points of each meeting can assist in this scenario! Jotting down notes, recording calls, and sending a recap at the end of each meeting can keep the necessary meetings short, sweet, and to the point.
AKA, always on culture.
Don’t get us wrong — we appreciate and love our hardworking hustlers.
But too much of anything is usually a bad thing. And that’s what we’re talking about here.
Arguably even more important for a remote team, remember to keep an eye out for both personal health and professional effectiveness.
For high performers in particular this can be surprisingly difficult. With fewer physical boundaries between areas for work and areas for recovery, shutting off can be a real challenge. Even when it’s for their own good.
Additionally, some employees may perceive an always on culture and will try to be plugged in all the time so as to not be left behind. If this is not the culture you want to cultivate, take steps to be transparent about expectations and other company policies.
For other employees, the struggle lies more in a lack of experience in setting their own routines and schedules.
Don’t be fooled. This is not about taking a stance for work-life balance versus work-life integration. Because when it comes down to it, we all need a way to recharge our batteries, regardless of what that specifically means. The goal is the same: high performance over the long term. And to get that, you need to 1) understand the culture of your company and 2) help your team set the right boundaries to support that culture.
Look out for these symptoms of hustle fever:
- Poor health habits. We are firm believers in working with the practical, so we won’t suggest unrealistic advice like having the entire team committing to daily 30 minute runs or cutting sugar out of their diet. This is good advice, but if they have a sweet tooth, or haven’t moved more than the distance from the office to the refrigerator in a couple months, it will probably not be heeded. And what good is advice that isn’t followed?
Start small. Encourage and reward healthy habits like a regular exercise routine (e.g. desk stretches, 5 minutes walks). If it fits with your culture, your employees may even enjoy sharing recommendations for their favorite healthy snacks. For those interested, a buddy program to keep them accountable may be just what they needed to get started on a healthy habit. Back to the technology point, it’s everywhere, so for the tech junkies, there’s the option to challenge friends to close the rings on their Apple Watches or Fitbits!
- Lack of a schedule. If your company allows your team some flexibility in their schedule, the freedom to operate on their own time can be a great boon. But it can also be a double-edged sword. Particularly if they aren’t accustomed to making (and keeping to) their own schedules.
You don’t need to plan things down to the minute, but not having a schedule can (ironically) make it easier to work too much and burn out. To avoid erring too much on one extreme or another, encourage your team to experiment with various schedules for optimum productivity. Maybe they block out the morning for meetings while their afternoons are for heads-down, focused work. Or maybe they need to take care of the family during the day and can only sit down to work at night. Whatever it is, identifying a regular schedule will give them the breathing room they need to use their time better.
- Inconsistent results. This is for the employees struggling to get into the right mindset each and every day. If their productivity is starting to feel too dependent on how they wake up feeling each morning, try routines. Similar to a schedule, a regular routine helps your brain recognize what it needs to do at the present moment. Morning routines can help you get you started for the day while evening routines can help you shut off work for the night.
The takeaway: Remote work comes with its own set of challenges for everyone, and it will be hard to understand where exactly your employees are coming from without talking to them.
In addition to potential technology troubles, feelings of social isolation, and negative health effects from overworking, your employees may also be struggling with learning everybody’s asynchronous schedules and preferences for communication. There may be time zone issues. Family, friends, and open tabs can serve as distractions. Perhaps there’s confusion, delays, and wasted effort due to poor collaboration and communication. Or maybe there are simply too many meetings taking up the workday.
To increase employee engagement, understand their reality.
Fantastic Culture Is Built With Intention
The magic of belonging and camaraderie
If you need any convincing that a sense of belonging is a huge part of strong company culture, look no further than this Harvard Business Review research article on The Value of Belonging at Work.
According to HBR:
“High belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. […] Employees with higher workplace belonging also showed a 167% increase in their employer promoter score (their willingness to recommend their company to others).”
When employees feel belonging, they are more likely to engage. So it follows that creating a sense of belonging is important to increasing employee engagement. But how do you create a culture of belonging?
Let’s start at the beginning.
What’s Day 1 look like for your new hire? There are very few things in life where timing doesn’t matter — and onboarding isn’t one of them. First impressions are important!
The first day, first week, first month a new employee spends at a company is a critical window for both them and you. While they will be doing their best to get up to speed and making wins, they’ll also be paying careful attention (even if it doesn’t seem like it!) to the unspoken norms and attitudes of the workplace.
In other words, your company culture. How do their coworkers interact? Do they support each other’s wins? What happens when there’s a mistake? How does the team collaborate? Are suggestions for improvement welcomed? Or do only ‘favorites’ get a spot at the table?
If you want to not only talk the talk but also walk the walk, there’s no better time than the beginning to instill the culture your company outlines in its values.
You don’t have to do this alone. In fact, you shouldn’t. Every existing employee at the company is responsible for communicating culture and welcoming a new hire into the fold.
What this means is that you should encourage small talk! Virtual communication channels dedicated to water-cooler type chat are more important than they seem for exactly this reason. Some of our favorites:
- #you-are-awesome: Peers can give shout-outs to peers, managers to direct reports, direct reports to managers, and any other combination. Cross department shout-outs are awesome too.
- #toasts: Employees post major accomplishments to the forum, and colleagues from around the world post selfies toasting them — though they’re usually not drinking water.
- #we-dig-dogs: A space for showing off photos of pets while working from home.
- #exec-ama: Anyone can ask a question and get an answer from the most appropriate member of the executive team.
- #dank-memes — “The black hole in the center of the galaxy where Reddit overflows.”
Over time, your team will discover shared interests and passions to connect over. New hires will also appreciate a mentorship or buddy program to help them integrate more fluidly into the company. For more ideas, check out this onboarding checklist from Glassdoor.
Last, but not least, onboarding swag! New hire welcome kits and onboarding swag packs are one of the most popular use cases with SwagUp. We’ve made it even easier for you with integrations like Rippling. (And more on the way!)
THE DAILY GRIND
Alright, so you made it past the first few weeks with your new hires and they’re settling in nicely. Congratulations! But don’t rest yet — now is not the time to get lax with culture.
Because what your employees experience on the daily is what gives them a better sense of your company’s culture. This is key because some days will be rough. And how your team reacts to failure is just as important as how your team handles its wins (if not more!)
So practicing transparency and strong internal communication can help your team build trust and loyalty to the company. For remote teams, it is especially important to document processes for a single source of truth.
There are also simple ways to make regular activities like getting feedback, taking a survey, and holding meetings more fun. Tip: Don’t be stingy with your reacts on Slack! Keep an eye out for our next blog post detailing the best virtual team building activities you can use at your company.
As a sneak preview, check these ideas out:
- Coffee Break Contents by breakoutIQ
- Polly for Slack
- Kahoot for company culture
- Seshie for virtual team building
- Kaido for team wellbeing
WORK ANNIVERSARIES AND CELEBRATIONS
One of the biggest rookie mistakes? Not taking time to celebrate your wins — no matter how small. As your employees grow with your company, even a brief moment to pause and appreciate how far they and the company have come can be meaningful.
Think larger scale activities like a company retreat or virtual summit. Come up with unique and fun traditions befitting your company culture. These are opportunities for employees to make the kind of connections that keeps employees driven and inspired.
Even if you don’t end up hosting a company retreat, you can still celebrate a year’s worth of results with a company highlight reel. Ask employees to send in photos/videos (and also be on the lookout throughout the year for memorable moments) to help build this out.
There are also more possibilities than you think with virtual events. Perhaps you already send your team to virtual conferences and webinars, but you might be missing out if you aren’t hosting your own!
It’s not only good for adding value to the community around your company but also fun and a source of pride for employees to see their company creating content and interacting with the local talent.
Swag Expert Resource: See how you can create serendipity around the internet with your team!
But if you’re thinking rituals contributing to your company culture have to be big, here’s a few ideas on how you can start small. Whenever you can, show your team that their work has an impact. Maybe it’s a rave review from a client. Or a sincere thank you from a customer.
We know life gets busy, but skipping the chance for more casual affairs and chat can be detrimental to strengthening your company culture. So give everyone a chance to take a break, say on Fridays, or before/after meetings, and talk about non-work related things. And if this inspires work-related breakthroughs, awesome! The idea is to recognize you have a team of humans, not robots.
If you’re doing all these things, swag is the perfect top-off. Swag isn’t a solution to poor culture; it’s an expression of great culture. Use swag to celebrate an employee’s 1 year anniversary, hitting a company milestone, or spreading the word about a new product launch.
With virtual events, swag shops and redeem pages are another way to offer easy access to the company swag employees want whenever they want it. You can even give them credits to get a particularly comfortable pair of sweatpants for their friends and family.
Empower People to Make an Impact
Strategies for engaging high-performing remote teams
In the first section, we went through scenarios that might be going on in your employees’ lives. Remember, the simplest way to understand what’s going is to just ask. Then listen. Open communication channels are key here.
This empathetic approach will help you build the kind of culture you want. If you’ve put in the effort to cultivate a strong company culture, you’ll find it much easier to engage employees, remote or not. We went over what an employee might experience and what you should pay attention to starting with onboarding in section two.
This last part focuses on how you can support your rockstar team to continue killing it at work and fully showing up — whether that’s through their results or in their interactions with others.
You’ve done a lot of work to get here and that deserves applause 👏🏼 Next, it’s time to step back a bit. This might seem counterintuitive. Why do this? Because the most amazing moments tend to happen when you empower people to do the things you would never have thought of.
So how do you set up your team for those moments?
Another part of company culture is reflected in how your team is managed. At SwagUp, we believe great ideas can come from anywhere. Every voice has a seat at the table, no matter whose it is. We do this to encourage innovation and improvement every single day.
For your managers, help them check that their style matches the company’s values. For example, it can be helpful for a remote team to have frequent check-ins. A check-in can be a short video call, a Slack message, or anything in between. The mindset here is making sure things are flowing smoothly. It’s not about breathing down their neck.
When it comes to conversations about goals, get proactive. Set a time for 1-on-1s and commit to giving and receiving genuine feedback. At meetings, encourage participation from everyone present.
According to Gallup, “Managers need to ask each team member to describe the conditions under which they perform best, their concerns about their workflow and their emotional response to the situation.”
MORE FLOW STATE
Sometimes your employees just need space to put their head down and work. Don’t take this as a sign of disengagement — they will probably be more than happy to engage at the next all-hands meeting or happy hour, especially if they can make big strides when they’re focused and being productive.
Help make this happen by learning how your team likes to work and avoiding disruptions that prevent them from reaching peak productivity. When your employees are able to focus on their work, they will also be more likely to enjoy taking breaks with the team.
To minimize disruption while simultaneously boosting engagement, think about scheduling bonding and culture activities ahead of time. For new hires, let them know the company policies and expectations around events, meetings, and breaks.
If you have a #virtual-coffee channel, you can encourage employees to set virtual coffee dates or ice cream breaks at the start of the day for motivation and accountability to get work done before the break. On the flip side, if someone gets stuck, they might find inspiration and help from getting another perspective during the coffee break!
As your employees make new friends with each other and learn about shared interests and passions, it can be fun for everyone (and a good way to welcome new hires) by setting up groups around extracurricular activities. Think social gaming, book clubs, and athletic competitions. Do certain extracurriculars happen to be linked to your company culture? Try an events calendar!
These allow employees to plan (and look forward to) an event with their colleagues. With the appropriate heads up, employees may find it easier to join in and engage whereas events with minimal notice may get less engagement simply because employees have already had other things planned.
Finally, accept suggestions and consider leaving a blank slot on the calendar (or create a virtual channel) for employees to take the lead. If they are especially passionate about something, you may find yourself supporting an employee-led movie night, lunch-and-learn session, or virtual homemade belgian waffle cooking session.
Bottom-line: When people can bring their full selves to their work, they are happier and more engaged. And that makes for a better workplace for everyone.
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