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How to Engage Remote Employees: 7 Proven Strategies

A key issue for businesses is how to maintain or increase remote employee engagement. Here are 7 science-back strategies to increase remote employee engagement.

June 14, 2021

It’s safe to say that remote working is here to stay. What does the shift to remote and hybrid work mean for employee engagement now and in the future?

A recent PwC study found that only 8% of employees surveyed would want to return to the office permanently, while over 55% of employees would like to be remote at least three days a week.

Almost nobody wants to return to the office 100% of the time. (Source)

The good news is a 2018 McKinsey study found that, if certain workplace trends continue in advanced economies, “more than 20 percent of the workforce could work remotely three to five days a week.”

We're on trend in advanced societies to work remotely at least part of the week. (Source)

Moreover, the PwC we mentioned earlier discovered that 83% of employers and 71% of employees viewed the shift to remote work a success.

Shifting to remote work wasn't as detrimental as employers thought it would be. (Source)

A key issue for businesses, however, is how to maintain or increase remote employee engagement, which is the personal dedication and emotional investment employees have for their organizations. Critical to the success of any company, it is not the same as job satisfaction or employee happiness even though it is highly correlated with both.

Understandably one of the most highly cited reasons managers and executives gave for going into an office was to maintain company culture and foster employee engagement. As Dr. Derek Avery, C. T. Bauer Chair of Inclusive Leadership in the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston mentioned to CNBC Make It:

“Engagement is already a challenge when employees are in one place, so it will be even more difficult when they’re geographically dispersed.”

If employee engagement was already an issue pre-pandemic, how can companies that are transitioning to a remote workforce ensure that their employees are engaged?

With the help of some experts, we’ll show you several strategies that can be used to improve employee engagement. But before we do, let’s briefly touch on why your business should actually care about employee engagement.

Employee Engagement Benefits

A 2006 study on the impact and benefits of employee engagement demonstrated that engagement predicts performance, organizational success, and financial performance. According to the study:

“[J]ob characteristics and perceived organizational support are significant predictors of work engagement, and work engagement predicts job satisfaction, organizational commitment, organizational citizenship behavior and intentions to quit and mediates the relationship between the antecedents and the consequences.”

Essentially, what this means is that the more employees feel like an organization values their contributions and cares about their well-being, the more engaged they are. And the more engaged an employee is, the more committed they are to the workplace.

With the rise of remote work, it is critical to understand the benefits of employee engagement, so that managers and executives can better implement best practices to their remote teams.

Some of these benefits include:

Increased Productivity

When employees are more emotionally tied to their work, they find more meaning in the work they do and find it more pleasurable. This ‘bond’ to their work motivates them to immerse themselves in their jobs which is supported by a Gallup meta-analysis that showed work units that were most engaged were 21% more productive than those units that were least engaged.

Unsurprisingly, engagement is tied to higher productivity. (Source)

Lower Employee Turnover Rates

According to a Gallup poll, 73% of disengaged employees look for a new job compared to 37% of employees who are considered actively engaged. Having disengaged employees distracted by job searches is a disastrous recipe for reduced productivity and quality all around.

Better Customer Experiences

A Temkin Group study found that “unengaged employees cannot create engaged customers.”

In fact, companies that are leaders in providing great customer experiences have 1.5 times as many engaged employees. In other words, going above and beyond with customers is not as big of an ask for employees who are invested in the companies they represent.

"Customers can spot sincerity. Team members who believe in a company's vision will naturally translate their passion to others. Those who don't (even subconsciously) won't be able to evangelize customers in the same way. Securing this employee-to-customer engagement starts at the top. One way we do this at JazzHR is through bi-weekly check-ins where company leaders highlight recent wins and upcoming goals. Taking time to engage in this way allows each employee to feel connected to our mission and results.”  - Kelly Peters, Content and Communications Manager, JazzHR

More Employee Brand Ambassadors

Have you ever seen a person proudly wear a shirt or accessory with their company’s logo? That sense of pride is what drives him or her to be a walking billboard for their employer. In fact, according to the same Temkin study, companies with highly engaged employees are more than 4 times as likely to recommend a company’s products or services than those with disengaged employees.

How to Engage Remote Employees: 7 Science-backed Strategies

Meeting remote employees basic needs is only the first step in helping them become truly engaged. (Source)

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that if a person’s basic needs are met, then he or she can focus on growth and development. This same idea can be applied to the workplace for improving employee engagement.

Providing a salary and job security is the bare minimum to satisfy an employee’s basic needs. However, in order to get employees to be fully engaged, you need to move beyond their basic needs.

The following employee engagement ideas will help you fulfill an employee’s psychological and self-fulfillment needs, resulting in a more engaged workforce.  

1. Create a Strong Onboarding Process

Having a strong onboarding process is not only crucial for training, it’s critical to ensuring employee engagement long-term. Nearly 20% of new staff turnover occurs in the first 45 days on the job for new hires. In fact, 69% of employees are likely to stay for at least 3 years if they have a successful onboarding experience.

Onboarding is not the same as orientation. The latter is the basic needs and know-hows employees must understand to start their position. Think back to Maslow’s hierarchy--an orientation simply meets the employee and corporate baseline.

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Onboarding, however, is a process meant to help align the employee with the overall culture, vision, and mission of the organization. In doing so, the employee builds relationships with colleagues, superiors, and organizational stakeholders. Simple things like regular check-ins help to build confidence, skills, and competencies in tandem with the organization’s deadlines, projects, and overall goals.

Building interpersonal connections is not just a nice-to-have moment; it’s crucial for employee well-being and organizational success."- April Jones, Head of Marketing, Delivering Happiness

How mentorship can help: A mentoring program helps mentees feel like part of the team right away as well as speeds up the process of getting ready for their new roles.

Remote workplaces need strong leadership

2. Develop a Strong Culture With Strong Leadership

Remember Michael Scott, the awkward and blundering manager from The Office? Employee engagement was low because he failed to create an environment that met their basic needs to perform their jobs well. The comedy of the show is that, in real work life, this situation is all but common in many organizations.

Michael Scott meme.
Michael Scott wasn't really the role model for driving employee engagement. (Source)

According to a Gallup poll, managers account for 70% variance in employee engagement. In fact, long before the pandemic and the rise of working from home (WFH), Harvard Business Review found that only 24% of senior-level executives found their employees to be highly engaged in the office despite 71% of those executives rating it the most important factor to business success.

Gallup poll showing that 71% of employers rank engagement as very important to organizational success.
Most employers believe engagement to be very important to their company's success. (Source)

Strong managers help to facilitate a culture of accountability and motivation that employees respond well to. In remote work environments, the need is even greater for strong corporate cultures that allow employees to feel a sense of belonging by being connected to a company’s mission and vision. If they understand what’s expected of them both professionally and socially, then they can flourish in a trusted and secure work environment.

“Employees who feel a strong sense of belonging, are connected with the business and believe in its purpose, trust their managers and have access to the tools, training and resources they need to do their job well are wonderfully motivated and incredibly productive. Why? The barriers that prevent them from working effectively and efficiently have been removed.” - Sarah Skerik, Marketing Director, Engagement Multiplier

How mentorship can help: Mentoring programs are a great way to improve leadership skills, ensuring that your organization has managers that can promote positive company culture.

3. Communicate Effectively

Nearly 20% of remote employees feel lonely and disconnected from work due to a lack of communication. The same holds true for too much communication: Employees who are bombarded with emails, texts, Slack communications, Jira tickets, and more start to feel overwhelmed and, as a result, disengage from their work.

The easiest and most effective way to communicate with remote employees is to establish norms and expectations, so as not to isolate or overwhelm them. For example, if remote employees know to expect a morning email from their manager (or not), that expectation helps to provide stability to the workplace.

Biggest struggle of working remotely. A study by Buffer.

Of course, remote work would not be possible without online technology, however you need to be smart about which programs you use and why. Chat programs and virtual meetings software are critical to team building. However, be sure to choose the minimal number of programs you need in order to provide consistency. In other words, there’s no reason to be on Zoom in one meeting and on Hangouts in another.

How mentorship can help: Mentoring programs allow both mentors as well as mentees to work on their communication skills.

4. Build a Knowledge Management System

Creating a knowledge management system--the integrated approach to creating and sharing knowledge--reduces organizational silos, improves knowledge sharing and transfer of tacit knowledge, and improves collaboration.

The simple reason why building this system can help with engaging employees is that employees feel empowered to share knowledge easily and efficiently. Doing so allows employees to more easily see the value that they’re adding to the workplace.

How mentorship can help: Mentoring programs allow mentors to pass on tacit knowledge or “know-how” knowledge that they’ve acquired through their work experience to mentees.

5. Skills Enhancement and Growth Opportunities

When employees are remote, there is an even greater need to engage them with skills training and development opportunities to keep them engaged. Besides improving their abilities, these initiatives demonstrate that employees are valued for their desire to self-actualize on the job.

A reinforced culture of learning will help to provide an important feedback loop between employees and managers. Some ways to achieve this include offering online courses, skill sharing opportunities, and, most critically, mentorships. In fact, of all of these, mentorships are the most effective because they provide the added value of relationship-building to the employee’s growth within the organization.

How mentorship can help: A mentorship can be the first step towards nurturing growth for both the mentor and mentee as guidance and experiences can be shared.

6. Create Incentives and Acknowledgements

An astounding 66% of employees say they would consider quitting their jobs if they felt unappreciated for the work they do. How do you prevent employee churn as a manager? It’s all about the little things.

Incentives and acknowledgements go a long way. Employee of the month programs, project profiling, and simply thanking employees during a virtual session are all effective in boosting morale.

“In addition to managers giving praise and feedback to employees, we also have a #you-are-awesome channel on Slack. In this channel, anyone can offer praise to any other team member. The result is peer to peer recognition, which helps capture a lot of the day to day achievements that a manager might miss. For example, a marketing team member recently gave a shoutout to someone in operations and a client advisor posted about another client advisor.” - Michael Alexis, CEO, TeamBuilding
Win prizes sign at carnival
66% of employees say they would consider quitting their jobs if they felt unappreciated for the work they do.

With any incentive program, it is important to keep a few things in mind:

  • Align incentives in ways that make sense for the deliverables or objectives. For instance, if you want to reach a certain sales benchmark in Q3, incentivize employees by offering higher commissions to top sellers.
  • Reward work consistently. No one wants to receive unfair or unreliable treatment in the workplace. Be sure to communicate when work will be evaluated and what the KPIs are.
  • Reward work regularly. Don’t wait until the end of the year to give out bonuses, corporate gifts, or awards. Smaller, more frequent gestures will be more effective and incentivizing.
  • Promote the program, how to participate, and what to expect. Above all, keep it simple so that employees will stay motivated.

How mentorship can help: Mentors can be a great source for building employee morale and self-esteem as they dish out praise to mentees when a job is well done.

7. Listen to Employees and Provide Feedback

Imagine going to work and not feeling as though there were any opportunities to have input in projects or workflows. When you tried to talk to a manager, he or she never had the time or, if you raised your hand in a meeting, your comments were ‘tabled’ for later. Now imagine being alone, working from your computer at home, having the same experience.

If you want employees to remain interested in and enthusiastic about what they are doing while working remotely, you need to let them know how they are doing, which means providing regular feedback. 
Many managers operate under the assumption that no feedback is good feedback and expect their direct reports to assume the same, but good feedback is the foundation of employee drive and engagement.” - Trevor Larson, CEO, Nectar.

Just as it’s important for managers to provide measured feedback to their employees, it’s just as essential for them to listen and be open to employee ideas, feedback, and suggestions. In fact, according to a Salesforce study, employees that feel heard are 4.6 times more likely to “feel empowered to do their best work.”

"As a manager, it's important to create a psychologically safe space, where employees feel comfortable giving and receiving constructive feedback. Feedback is a two-way street. Create an environment where you can continuously share feedback with your team, and by the same accord, where they feel comfortable sharing it with you. One thing to always keep in mind is that negative feedback should be given in a private and safe space — like your one-on-one meeting — as to not alienate or embarrass your employee. Positive feedback, on the other hand, can and should be shouted from the rooftops!" - Hiba Amin, Senior Marketing Manager, Hypercontext

To create structure around this feedback, you could create an anonymous feedback suggestion thread, schedule weekly one-on-one virtual sessions, or create pulse surveys.

How mentorship can help: One of the key responsibilities of a mentor is to help guide mentees and provide them with constructive feedback that can help them succeed and grow in their role.

Providing mentorship is essential to remote employee engagement
Providing mentorship is essential to remote employee engagement.

The Need for Mentorship

Mentorship is one of the most imperative things managers can do to increase employee engagement for remote employees. According to recent research in Harvard Business Review on the effects of mentorship in remote workplaces, “Mentorship and sponsorship are critical to employee retention and satisfaction — especially for people of color and women, both of whom are more likely than others to report mentoring as very important to their career development.”

Empower remote employees with mentorship. A strong mentorship program emphasizes the importance of culture and community despite physical distance.

For new hires, mentorship fosters their sense of support and social connection to the organization. By helping them build their interpersonal relationships at work, they will feel socially at ease, increase their upskilling, and improve their knowledge building and sharing.

“New remote workers will struggle to understand the company's culture, mainly when it comes to internal communications. Therefore it’s important to assign a mentor that will support the new hire, to guide them on the company's policies and culture.” - Maya Rotenberg, Vice President of Marketing, Stoke Talent

For existing employees, mentorship provides an opportunity for continued skills enhancement and growth opportunities as well as training and development. As Steve Jobs once said, “My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better." Offering opportunities for employees to develop themselves and their careers with a support system in place is one of the best ways to ‘push’ them.

Strengthening Employee Engagement in Remote Workers

Recent PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) research determined that “remote work has been an overwhelming success” and executives are planning to “optimize the hybrid workplace [by] accelerating investments to support virtual collaboration and creativity.”

With that in mind, it is critical to have the proper support for your remote teams beyond just virtual conferencing and communications tools. Creating better, more meaningful ways for employees to virtually connect with managers--and one another--will strengthen a collaborative, creative work environment that benefits everyone. To learn more about introducing a mentoring program into a hybrid workplace see our article, How to Introduce an Employee Mentor Program into a Hybrid Workplace.

Author: Emil Hajric

Bio: Emil Hajric is the founder and CEO of Helpjuice – a powerful knowledge base solution provider.

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