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Great Management Requires Teamwork: Keeping Remote Teams Engaged is a Shared Problem

An ebb and flow of engagement is typical for all teams, but fixing it virtually is harder. We naturally feel less connected to and engaged with people we aren’t sitting next to all day.

Recently I’ve heard two different stories that revealed just how far we have to go in building a hybrid or remote work plan that works for everyone. The first was a seasoned manager in a professional services firm, getting feedback from a more junior employee who was feeling burnt out from working at home, alone, in a new city. She felt her training had been held back by not getting enough face time. The manager was sympathetic and happy to increase the in-person training. BUT they both agreed, even if this manager were to go in and sit with her every day, there would still be no other learning by osmosis or camaraderie that would help her acclimate to her new town.

The second example was a mid-level executive at a tech firm. About half the people she works with have been at the company for a while, from start-up to IPO to mature company. They have a rapport and camaraderie that makes work seem fun for them, and it’s not limited by team or geography. This woman noted that newer employees, like herself, don’t seem to have this camaraderie. Her own manager is also new and doesn’t seem to have the ability to coalesce their team with other teams, despite management’s lip service to building a thriving remote culture. This situation doubly negative for engagement, to feel left out and yet perceive that others are feeling engaged at work.

Both of these situations reminded me how hard remote culture is. It’s not a one-time band-aid, but an entirely new way of working with and communicating with colleagues to allow everyone to feel the humanity of working together.

There’s definitely no cure-all for lack of engagement, but the solution often lies with an engaged management team eager to foster excitement and energy in their organization. Singular managers often can’t make this happen on their own because a lot of this camaraderie comes from cross-functional socializing and projects. Senior leadership needs to believe in and build for team culture.

So what can a manager do? Here are five tips for getting your team engaged again.

Take ownership: If you’re feeling this disengagement, acknowledge it and tell the team you’re looking to fix it. People respect transparent leaders, both about how they see the situation and their efforts to improve it. It might be time for a survey or a feedback session to understand where the disengagement is coming from. The key next step? Explain how you’re going to act on this information and then do it.

Thoughtful praise: This is the easiest to implement! What’s great about everyone on your team? Take some time to write down your praise, make it concrete and colorful, and spend an hour with each person discussing what they’re great at and how they can do more of that. In Glassdoor’s Employee Appreciation Survey, 53% of people said feeling more appreciation from their boss would help them stay longer at their company.

Introduce novelty: Maybe it’s a new meeting format. Maybe it’s a do-at-home pasta-making class. Or perhaps an opportunity to overhaul a process that drags down the team’s bandwidth. Anything to shake it up a bit. But also let them know that you’re shaking it up because you care about the team’s engagement, and having them feel interested and excited about their work is your priority. And don’t fear your ideas bombing. While doing really wonderful new things is good, ideas that sink give people a chance to grumble together, another tried and true work bonding activity.

Don’t forget a treat: There’s nothing wrong with a little delight! This is the time to send some fun swag, a bottle of wine, or a delivery gift card for a remote team dinner. Bonus points if it leads to camaraderie and laughs, though a simple gift can also go a long way. But remember that cash bonuses generally don’t work. Studies show they don’t generally improve morale or retention. Branded swag, if it’s actually useful and wanted, can further cement the idea that the recipients are a part of something, that they belong.

Meet in person: Given the current situation, this might be tough, but an old-fashioned, in-person team session does wonders for reminding everyone who they are working with and why they like being on this team. Again, any opportunity to make the group bigger leads to a larger sense of cohesion and increases everyone's ability to get functional projects done more effectively.

Make their contributions meaningful: As a manager, you’ve got to ask yourself the hard questions. Am I making my team’s work meaningful enough? If my ideas always float to the top during brainstorming sessions or my ideas drive 1:1 meetings, employees may not feel agency in their work. Everyone wants to feel they are in control. Giving your team the space to design parts of their role can make work more meaningful and increase a feeling of agency.

Starting with your own team is the foundation of creating an engaging culture. Taking these ideas and disseminating them across the organization can lead to the kind of large scale results that drive retention and boost morale. Beyond sharing best practices, finding ways to extend engagement efforts across teams will pay dividends in fostering loose connections. Ideally, you’d have your manager’s buy-in, but even grassroots efforts to coalesce different groups will create a wider feeling of an engaged business. Great management in the twenty-first century now demands both driving engagement and being able to scale the right techniques throughout an organization.

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