Your company is based in Florida. The best person for the job is Kentucky. No problem!

Your organization is growing. You need more staff, but you have no space. No problem!

Your organization culture prompts leaders to promote work-life balance. No problem!

Getting all these people to work cohesively as a well-oiled machine when they work remotely? Problem!

Technology has redefined work in the 21st century. Virtual meetings, document transfers and cloud-based solutions are all a few keyboard strokes away. Fueled by these technological advancements, organizations are creating opportunities for employees to work from their homes or other off-site locations. The reasons for arranging for remote work vary and include geographic expansion of the workforce and customers, dwindling headquarters office space, workers who seek a break from daily commutes, and employee demands for more flexible work environments.

Employers that make the jump to remote work report a range of positive outcomes. However, there is a trade-off. The instant virtual connections that people can establish nearly anywhere around the world have come at the price of less human connection.

A good portion of traditional workplace relationships are built through shared experiences, daily interactions and impromptu water cooler conversations. Being part of the daily traffic pattern of an office facilitates both formal and informal information flow. When working remotely, these opportunities become more constrained. The ability to differentiate performance may be more difficult for remote workers, because there are limited opportunities to interact with leaders, co-workers and stakeholders. The little glowing box that allows remote workers to live and work virtually anywhere they choose also has the potential of locking them away from rich face-to-face interactions, opportunities and updates.

Research conducted in 2017 by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield of VitalSmarts suggested that remote workers are:

  • More likely than on-site employees to believe that co-workers are disparaging them behind their backs.
  • Less likely to feel “in the loop” with project progress and changes.
  • More likely to have a perception that their colleagues don’t fight for their priorities.

Leaders of remote teams must, therefore, do things a bit differently to connect, motivate and guide their employees. Here are six best practices to engage and connect your remote teams. (Surprise! They all relate to how we communicate.)

1. Communicate Frequently

To stave off the tendency for remote workers to feel that they are “less than” their on-site colleagues, leaders of remote workers have to overcompensate when it comes to communicating with remote workers. There should be frequent opportunities for virtual collaboration using online tools.

These opportunities should not be limited to the typical weekly team “check-in” meeting (which is critical). They should also include the formal and informal problem-solving sessions and project management meetings that typically occur throughout the week in an on-site setting.

Make sure your work spaces and conference rooms enable videoconferencing, and invite remote workers to project meetings. Even if the meetings are impromptu with limited advance notice, a remote worker will appreciate the last-minute invite — and will feel more engaged with the daily rhythm of an organization.

2. Communicate Individually

Use cameras on individual calls with remote workers whenever possible. There is no substitute for face-to-face communication (even when done via teleconferencing). Use screen-sharing whenever there are documents to collaboratively review and revise.

There has been an ongoing debate about the percentage of communication is accomplished through visual or verbal cues. In the late 1960s, researchers Albert Mehrabian and Susan Ferris famously suggested that about 7% of all communication is verbal and the remaining 93% is non-verbal. Subsequent studies have challenged those percentages as well as how the researchers’ work has been applied, but all researchers conclude that a significant percentage of communication is conveyed through means other than words, including voice tone, eye contact and body language. Make sure to use modern communication tools to capture as much of each person’s meaning and message as possible.

3. Foster Communication

Create opportunities for department or division leaders who work closely with your team to address your remote employees through periodic progress updates. Similarly, ask your corporate leaders to participate in video conference calls to share strategic developments and answer questions. In this way, you will increase your remote workers’ engagement and improve connections between on-site and remote workers.

4. Huddle Up!

Consider both scheduled and optional “huddles” that occur at the start of the day as a check-in regarding the day’s priorities. In these huddles, remote team members can participate with each other and with their on-site counterparts. Offer times to have a shared “lunch” throughout the month with the team leader, a guest from another division and any remote employee who would like to join in. This approach can create those organic conversations that on-site workers have every day.

5. Empower Your Remote Team

Encourage your remote team to take turns developing the agenda and facilitating the meeting, putting them in your position and increasing their appreciation of the challenges of working across technology to compensate for the lack of daily interaction.

6. Allow Time for Mastery

Finally, when working toward performance goals, consider providing time for remote workers to master a skill, identify or lead their own projects, or work on initiatives they are passionate about. In his 2009 book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink debunked several longstanding beliefs about what motivates employees and found the three elements most associated with a motivated workforce were purpose, autonomy and mastery.

As the leader of a remote team, you can facilitate all three of these motivational factors. Allow team members to spend some of their work time mastering a skill or competency. Give them opportunities to identify and lead their own projects, and encourage them to take on initiatives they are passionate about. Even if the work isn’t central to their job function, these employees will give more to the work they are required to complete, remotely or otherwise.

Remote work can be a win-win for the employer and the employee, but the experience needs to be carefully cultivated and nurtured to minimize the downside of remote work. Following these recommendations will help your remote employees feel connected with their team and organization while enjoying flexibility in their personal lives.

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