Engaging remote or virtual teams

We discuss how to keep employees engaged, no matter where they work

BLOG ARTICLE | By Debbie Mitchell

Insights > Employee engagement > Engaging remote or virtual teams


BLOG ARTICLE | By Debbie Mitchell | 11th September 2018

Maintaining employee engagement isn't a one-step process.

In our previous articles, we have talked about what engagement is and why it matters, and some of the emerging trends, and have provided a few suggestions about how to engage people in your teams. However, engagement initiatives run the risk of missing a key part of today’s workforce - the remote or virtual worker.

It is estimated that by 2020, half of our workforce will be working remotely1. Let’s start by examining what we mean by remote and virtual - and why we are seeing this trend continuing.

  • Remote working: When workers can function from any location; a home office, a shared workspace or a coffee shop. It suggests that other workers are in a closer community, which can create challenges.
  • Virtual teams: Virtual workers are typically geographically spread, but the nature of the arrangement is that they are required to work effectively as a team.
  • Flexible working: This offers employees the opportunity to be office-based, or remote-based, according to business or personal need. By its nature, this also suggests that when people work could be as flexible as where they work.

We can attribute the rising trend for these flexible approaches to a few factors:

  • Technology enables it. Applications are now so agile that we can communicate, share information, transfer files and collaborate easily, wherever we are.
  • Lifestyles necessitate it. With 1 in 8 people having carer responsibilities2, and more parents in work than ever before, it’s important the employers can meet the flexibility requirements of their employees so they can achieve balance.
  • Overheads benefit from it. The cost of having a designated desk space for everyone is increasing, so organisations can save financially by encouraging remote working.
  • Globalisation requires it. Organisations are merging, acquiring, expanding and collaborating across geographical boundaries, and the pressure on reducing travel and the associated carbon footprint means that virtual working is prevalent.


What does this mean for engagement?

Traditional methods of engagement focus on bringing people together physically in one location - meetings, one to ones and social activities. However, when a workforce is dispersed, these approaches become impractical and ineffective - even counterproductive. If you fail to consider the changing needs of a more agile workforce, you risk actively disengaging those remote workers. While initially, they may become passive, ultimately, they could become disruptive, competitive and negative about your organisation. This will impact not just the employee experience, but potentially your business success.

Let’s remind ourselves about the different types of engagement, how virtual working can influence them, and how people managers can make a difference.

Intellectual engagement - thinking about the job or the organisation, and how to improve it

Virtual or remote workers may find this more challenging. They may be able to self-engage, but opportunities to collaborate on improvements, work across the functions of the organisation etc. could be more difficult, but not impossible. Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Share information using collaboration spaces. Encourage virtual brainstorming, posting comments, ideas and suggestions. And use ‘polling’ technology to seek input from remote workers, allowing them to have input and influence.
  • Share company and team news widely and regularly. Keep people connected to what’s going on through regular communication and encourage curiosity - when people are asking questions, they’re interested.


Affective engagement - feeling positive about the job or the organisation

In a virtual working scenario, it’s important to keep people connected to the organisation and its purpose. Disconnecting from these things can mean people lose interest and motivation and will work below their optimum levels or look for an employer that does provide that connection. You’ll need to:

  • Check in often. This shows you are there to support your team members. Set clear expectations but don’t micromanage - and remember that people may not be working on the same time schedule as you. Be flexible and focus on outcomes.
  • Provide opportunities to learn skills and develop knowledge remotely. You could run and record your own training webinars, or if budget allows, e-learning can provide great accessibility.


Social engagement - the opportunity to interact and collaborate with others

Perhaps hardest to maintain in a virtual environment is social connectivity; finding friendships and meaningful relationships at work, collaborating on work projects or tasks, or just being able to talk about work. Remote working won’t make that easy, but it is important to factor it into working patterns, communication and task allocation. Why not:

  • Allow time for social and professional catch-ups during scheduled meetings. At the start of any meeting we do an informal catch-up, yet when we webinar or teleconference, we typically forget. Make time at the start of the virtual meeting to ask how the weekend was, check-in on family news or hobbies. When asking for team updates, ask for a social or personal highlight of the week as well as work-based ones.
  • Actively encourage the use of instant messaging to enable team members to chat informally and share social news. Set up WhatsApp groups and encourage individual interactions too.

Read about the challenges businesses face when engaging employees in a VUCA world. What can we do to develop and maintain employee engagement in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous working environment?