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Three Principles to Keeping Remote Employees Engaged

Oct 19, 2022 | Employee Engagement, Remote work

Nearly eight years ago, I was hired to help grow and support an outside sales team dispersed throughout 20+ states.  Although it seems so long ago, the same challenges remain today when it comes to supporting remote teams.  An initial assessment of our remote employee experience clearly showed our approach to onboarding and retaining remote employees was no good.  Outside Sales Reps were seasoned sales professionals.  So, learning our 0-6 month turnover exceeded 71%, was horrifying. Corporate credit card abuse ran rampant, an especially uncomfortable piece of information given HR’s reporting to the CFO.  Poor sales and productivity with little to no visible KPI activity, leaving our training team with no insights on how to help.  And a sales team so disengaged that reps would call our parent company’s headquarters with questions, unsure of how to contact HR, IT, or even their direct manager.  It was draining to both our culture and the company’s bottom line.  Our approach, treating remote employees as though they were satellite office employees working from another office rather than alone at home, was highly ineffective.  Clearly, we needed to start from scratch.  We needed to design an entirely new employee experience for our remote, Outside Sales team and it all started with the most basic of questions, “what does the office environment provide to employees that employees working from home are missing?”.  It was only when we asked this question that everything became clear.  Remote employees missed the support of the office, stemming from three main areas: technical, developmental, and emotional.

Supporting remote employees:  Technically

Your first day, when starting in an office, primarily revolves around getting your devices and credentials, and annoying the IT team with your lack of technical knowledge.  As an HR person with a need-to-know-approach to technology, I tend to interact with the IT department a lot on my first day (much to their dismay), requiring quite a bit of help getting setup and access. When you’re remote however, the UPS delivery driver rarely takes the time to get you logged in and squared away.  In 2014, we were sending out three different devices separately, to a new employee’s residence, often without their knowledge.  Devices were frequently lost, left in the rain, and stolen.  And for those newly hired that just happened to be home when equipment was delivered, credentials and helpdesk contact info were often missing or incorrect.  Left without a lifeline or direction, new hires were sometimes reaching out to contract recruiters they’d met early on in the interview process, for help.   All the excitement and anticipation new hires had in that first day and week turned to panic and even regret.  Our lack of planning suggested a lack of caring. We quickly realized that unlike the in-office experience, missing or malfunctioning equipment is simply not an option when onboarding remote employees.  Stepping into any new job is difficult, even in the most supportive environments.  It’s the new hire’s excitement and anticipation that allows them to weather the storm of being new, and eventually learn.  Every company should be laser focused on preserving and protecting the new hire and onboarding experience.  In the case of remote employees, this means tracking, streamlining, and communicating A LOT before a newly hired remote employee even starts.  Minimal deliveries so as not to disrupt them unnecessarily.  Planning around pre-hire vacations and existing work schedules…. planning for and purchasing equipment for accommodations…. scheduling a virtual onboarding session and providing critical phone numbers in equipment deliveries such as IT and HR – this is what makes the remote new hire experience a positive one.  The office new hire experience may be about minimizing the awkwardness of being new, like email announcements, pictures and team introductions.  But to feel confident and welcomed on your first day as a remote worker, it means feeling there are people eagerly planning for your arrival, looking forward to any opportunity to talk with you by phone or virtually.  Just as no one working in an office wants to feel they stick out, no one working remotely wants to feel forgotten.  Although it’s critical to the initial six months to keep remote employees technically supported, we found this connection continues to have a significant effect on remote employees throughout their employment journey.  Keeping them informed of their resources is an ongoing priority because it helps them to feel they are not alone and they are not forgotten.

Supporting remote employees:  Learning & Development

Years ago, I attended a conference where the speaker led an exercise illustrating our dependence on visual instruction.  He had us stand up and began giving us verbal commands, “sit down”, “jump”, raise your left leg”, and so on.  With each verbal instruction, he would perform the action as he said it.  When instructing us to “sit down”, he would sit down.  The exercise continued like this for five or six movements until his seventh verbal command differed from his action.  While instructing us to do one thing, he physically did another.  And what do you think 95% of the room did?  Yep, the vast majority of us copied the action he was doing rather than the action he verbally instructed us to do.  Apparently a common response, we tend to do what we see rather than what we hear.  This exercise captured perfectly the disconnect that can so often jeopardize remote employee experience.  So much of what we learn about our workplace culture, and what we need to do to succeed, is gained by observing and experiencing office interactions.  Whether good or bad, behaviors spread when observed.  When someone who consistently stays late gets promoted, we understand working late is key to getting ahead.  When we observe leaders undermining one another, we recognize loyalty exists only within each individual department.  If an employee leaves a meeting with HR and is neither crying nor fired – subconsciously we begin to trust that HR is in fact, a resource.  We learn how to get things done and how to get ahead mostly by observing the environment and interactions around us.  So, while it’s still possible to observe behaviors in the occasional virtual meeting and by reading an email exchange, it pales in comparison to the office environment experience where employees are observing interactions and behaviors all day, every day.  Without understanding the unique dynamics and intricacies within the company, remote employees are at a grave disadvantage when it comes to promotions and recognition, because observing and interacting is how we learn.  This means frequent and intentional interactions with other employees is critical for any company with even one remote employee.  Leaders holding weekly 15-minute check-ins with remote employees, reflecting on the previous week’s accomplishments and the upcoming week’s priorities – aligning weekly priorities to longer-term team and company goals.  Introductions to other team members from other departments are essential to any employee’s success.  For remote employees however, this is not something that is likely to happen organically as it can in an office setting.  Remote employees left without this support will operate in a silo, unaware of challenges or opportunities outside of their own role.  A company failing to engage its employees can never fully realize the benefits of the talent from within, leaving remote employees to jeopardize their own career paths and companies to fall short of their true potential.  Leaders of remote teams fostering remote employee introductions throughout the company is critical to remote worker’s ability to cultivate relationships, and ultimately their development.

Supporting remote employees:  Emotionally

My mouth has never said anything that my face didn’t say first.  Stressed, sad, or happy, often those around me recognize how I feel before I do, because it’s written all over my face.  This “gift” while making me to the world’s worst poker player, has helped me to communicate to my bosses and team members how I feel, albeit unintentionally.  But, I’m not alone in this.  It’s estimated that as much as 93% of communication is nonverbal.  This dependence on nonverbal communication combined with findings from a 5-year study revealing only 10-15% of the population is self-aware suggests the vast majority of employees either can’t recognize or can’t communicate when they’re struggling.  A terrifying realization for anyone aiming to support the emotional needs of remote workers and teams! How are we to know how to support employees if they’re not even sure they need support?!  When we’re around someone 40+ hours per week, we get a sense of when someone’s vibe or behavior changes.  But when remote, there are no nonverbal cues.  Dispersed teams cannot see that a coworker was crying during his break, or that she is slumping in his chair in defeat, skipping lunches, or leaving the office late.  We’re left to trust remote employees will tell us when something is wrong, despite the statistics.  This leaves us with two options in emotionally supporting the needs of remote workers – 1) hire only psychic remote employees that have a sixth sense of what others are feeling and need, or 2) implement tools to reveal employee sentiment and processes to address it.  As a person raised in a new-age home where concepts like karma and manifesting rule, please know I’m not being entirely facetious here when I mention hiring psychic leaders and teams.  I am curious about your hiring process though.  For most workplaces, the better choice is to implement tools and processes.  Since introducing in 2020, we’ve learned self-awareness is more of a habit than a skill.  Giving employees pause individually to consider “how am I feeling” each day is a huge step toward self-awareness.  Without this pause, we humans tend to approach the day very reactively.  We’ve all had the experience where we wake up in a bad mood only to have one thing after the other go wrong, blaming our bad mood on the events of the day.  More often than not, the opposite tends to be true.  It’s our bad mood causing the bad day.  When we’re cranky, we tend to focus on the things that frustrate us.  We’re short-tempered and bothered by people and things that ordinarily wouldn’t bother us so much.  By having remote employees rate how they’re feeling on a scale of 0-10 at the start of each day, as users do, employees gain awareness into how they’re feeling.  Equipped with a better understanding of how they’re feeling, employees can then be intentional about their behaviors, tailoring their approach to the day accordingly.  And it turns out, self-awareness, as a habit, is contagious, because it normalizes vulnerability.  It’s no longer weird to call someone just to check-in.  When we launched the daily team communications feature in 2021 which compiles and analyzes responses of the team, communicating back to the team how to support one another, we saw an even greater positive shift in remote team connection.   In just eight weeks, 90% of remote employees reported feeling more connected with each other and their leaders.  80% reported feeling more self-aware.  Emotional support for remote employees can only happen where individual employees have adopted the habit of self-awareness.

The shift from an office environment to a virtual remote environment, like most any change, is uncomfortable (at best).  Whether this level of discomfort is enough to avoid this change altogether is for each company and team to make.  What I can say though is that by creating a better and more intentional virtual environment, we too created a better and more intentional office environment.  Our Inside Sales team also benefited from our work to improve the office experience – because it forced us to examine how their environment impacts their experience.  Upon starting with the company, I would’ve said it was the fun and open-office concept, the commissions, and ping-pong table that the Inside Sales team loved the most.  While true, the inside sales team did appreciate these things, it was what they represented that they actually loved.  The open office concept technically made everyone accessible.  The executive team, HR, IT, managers…. everyone was just a stroll away.    The commissions reflected their development, the professional growth of fairly Junior Insides Sales reps flourishing with coaching and training.  And it was the ping-pong table that allowed friendships and camaraderie to develop, often the best games starting when one employee would hear another struggling on the phone and ask her to take a ping-pong break and shake it off.  As the business changed over the years, we understood what could be modified and what had to be preserved so as not to lose what made our workplace culture special.  Whether in an office environment or remote one, everyone wants to feel connected to the business and its purpose and to each other.  This can only happen when we take the time to ask, “what does the office environment provide to employees that employees working from home are missing?”.  You’ll be amazed at what you discover.