With working from home as the new norm, how can leaders get stellar performance from remote teams? It’s simpler than you think.
Almost two years ago, the pandemic closed our office doors and thrust us unexpectedly into fully remote teams. Since then, many of us have not only adjusted to working from home, we’ve learned to enjoy its benefits, including flexible work hours, more time with family, and less time commuting. What we originally thought would be a temporary arrangement has proved that work from home is here to stay.
While working at home has its benefits, it also creates siloed working conditions for individuals. Team members who are less engaged with others also tend to have lower productivity and higher turnover rates. These negative effects can cascade across the organization— when one person detaches or leaves, others follow suit. It’s imperative that leaders work to counteract the potential pitfalls of working from home.
Team morale is a passion of mine, so I’ve worked hard the last two years to establish and maintain personal connections across members of my remote team.
When the pandemic hit, I was a newly anointed project leader who was on the hook to deliver one of the most critical projects of the year. Despite being fully remote since the onset of the project, my team has smashed our aggressive goals. It is also one of the most supportive, and cohesive teams I’ve ever worked with. I couldn’t be more proud.
So what’s our secret?
The most motivated and productive people I know feel appreciated, supported, and a part of a greater whole. Those are feelings you can cultivate for your team members regardless of whether you work together in-person or virtually.
As a leader, you can motivate your remote teams simply by making personal connections a top priority in your daily work.
You can cultivate a supportive and social environment by creating opportunities for others to connect. You can make people feel appreciated by recognizing professional and personal milestones.
Not sure how to start? If you are leading a remote team that seems disengaged, I’ve compiled a list of seven tactics you can apply today to motivate your team. These are actions I take regularly with positive results.
#1: Ask how people are doing personally
I read an intriguing article in Harvard Business Review titled “The Surprising Power of Simply Asking Coworkers How They’re Doing” by Karyn Twaronite. As you may have suspected from the title, the author recommends that leaders reach out to individuals to ask them how they are doing more often. This basic act can have dramatic effects. Twaronite writes:
“We found that 39% of respondents feel the greatest sense of belonging when their colleagues check in with them, both personally and professionally. This was true across genders and age groups, with checking in being the most popular tactic for establishing a sense of belonging across all generations. By reaching out and acknowledging their employees on a personal level, companies and leaders can significantly enhance the employee experience by making their people feel valued and connected.”
At work, I use every opportunity to ask people how they are doing personally. If we have a few extra minutes before a Zoom meeting starts, I’ll chat about how everyone’s week is going. If I have a direct Slack thread with an individual, I’ll ask how they are holding up. In virtual one-on-one meetings with my direct reports, we always spend time catching up personally.
Simply asking how people are doing and allowing them to share from their personal lives is one of the best ways I’ve found to make meaningful connections. And it is those types of connections that make people motivated at work.
#2 Make your remote meetings interactive
According to Atlassian, the software company that makes the popular project collaboration tool JIRA, the average employee spends sixty-two hours per month in meetings.
Because meetings are such a big part of work-life, they also directly affect employee morale. A study published by MIT Sloan reports:
“The single most powerful factor in job satisfaction was how one feels about the effectiveness of the meetings he or she attends; negative feelings were exacerbated as the amount of time spent in meetings increased. Employees who attend a rash of bad meetings are stressed, dissatisfied with their jobs and more predisposed to leave.”
You can improve morale by putting forth the effort to hold interactive and productive meetings. Use these tips to boost engagement at your next meeting:
- Turn on your camera. Anyone who has been on a video conference with a person whose camera is off knows it is nearly impossible to build rapport with a black box. Having your camera on and encouraging others to do the same is essential in creating emotional connections with your attendees.
- Set the tone for the meeting to make it more dynamic. Meeting attendees will absorb and reflect back the energy that leaders bring to the meeting. If you are quiet and reserved, your attendees will be reserved as well. In contrast, if they see you smiling and cracking jokes, your attendees’ moods will be lightened, and they will be more engaged.
- Make the meeting worthwhile for all attendees. When you schedule a meeting, make sure every invited attendee has a role to play, that they are given the chance to contribute meaningfully, and that you capture decisions and next steps from the discussion.
Taking these steps will not only move your project forward, it will make your meeting attendees happier overall.
#3 Use virtual team collaboration spaces
One of the best inventions for remote teams has been virtual collaboration tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams. Similar to the chat rooms of the 1990’s, these tools have become immensely popular in the last decade because of their ability to allow teams to have online group conversations with ease.
If your team doesn’t have a virtual space, seek out a tool to use and introduce one to them. If your team already uses a tool, make active use of it by engaging team members in conversations within your virtual space daily. Doing so not only improves interactions with those you are chatting directly, it also makes those interactions visible to others who can virtually “overhear” the discussions.
In addition to using virtual team spaces for work topics, you can create spaces for social topics. Having social team spaces gives coworkers permission to talk about personal topics they might otherwise avoid. It allows them to connect on common interests with others they work with, even when they are not physically co-located.
At Edmunds, where I work, some of the most popular channels in Slack are social:
- #edmoms – A community for new moms to get advice about family life.
- #books – A space for bookworms to discuss books and share learning.
- #food – A place to share food porn and favorite recipes
If you don’t know what interests your team, ask them. If you’re still unsure, you can even create a more casual channel like #watercooler for random topics. Once a topic picks up steam, create a separate space for folks to continue the discussion.
#4 Run remote-friendly retrospectives
Retrospectives are special meetings that are used by Agile project managers to solicit formal feedback from a team about what is working well and what is not. When done correctly, retrospectives give each team member a voice to improve the way the team operates. They also provide a forum to obtain agreement across all of the stakeholders on the team when a process is changed. As a result, retrospectives make remote team members feel a greater sense of ownership; they feel their feedback is being heard and that it can influence the direction of the team.
If you don’t already have retrospectives scheduled, try putting some time on the calendar with your remote teams monthly for a retrospective.
While retrospectives are a standard practice in software teams, not all teams do them regularly. When your teams are remote however, it is even more important that you have periodic health checks like these.
In traditional agile teams, retrospectives are often conducted using Post-it notes. However, for remote teams, you can use a shared document (such as a Google Doc) to collect feedback and it works just as well. It simply requires someone to help organize the information a little more succinctly before sharing it.
If you have a relatively quiet team, try using a hybrid retrospective where you solicit feedback in a survey prior to your meeting. Then during the meeting, prompt your team to discuss their answers to the following four questions:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go well?
- What should we change?
- Did a team member go above and beyond last month? Thank them here!
For those who are familiar with retrospectives, you’ll notice I snuck a fourth question into the standard set. I highly recommend including one question that prompts for praise.
Every month when my team conducts our retrospective, the accolades section is the longest and most uplifting part of our discussion. We end on a positive note, feeling appreciated and connected with our team members.
#5 Connect daily work to business outcomes
Every coworker I know wants to do a good job at work; They want their work to not only be be appreciated, but to also have an impact on positive outcomes for the company at-large.
Unfortunately, most individuals are very task oriented. And when they are focused on a particular task, it is hard to understand how their work connects to a larger goal. When people are working remotely, it is even harder to make that connection.
As a leader, you can bridge the gap by giving regular business updates and calling out achievements with specificity. For example, on my team, we give a monthly business update in order to transparently share the progress we are making toward our goals. During these meetings, we’ll walk through key features that moved the needle. While we are sharing business metrics, we also call out the names of the individuals who contributed to that work.
In The Power of Moments, authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath help us understand why these types of gestures matter. They said:
“But for groups, defining moments arise when we create shared meaning—highlighting the mission that binds us together and supersedes our differences. We are made to feel united.”
Pointing out how individual contributions support a larger goal will propagate that sense of shared purpose, and make your team feel united even when they are working remotely.
#6 Have one-on-one conversations
When I became a manager years ago, I didn’t fully understand the responsibility that was being bestowed on me. I thought that my main obligation to my team members was to make sure they executed well. In fact, a manager’s role is and can be so much more.
Managers can be confidants, coaches, or supervisors. The best ones are typically a combination of all three. They listen with empathy, coach their teammates and provide the support structure for their team members to excel. Ultimately, they care about the people who they are leading.
Julie Zhuo, the former VP of design at Facebook, writes in The Making of a Manager:
“What caring does mean, however, is doing your best to help your report be successful and fulfilled in her work. It means taking the time to learn what she cares about. It means understanding that we are not separate people at work and at home– sometimes the personal blends into the professional, and that’s okay.”
To learn about your people, not just their work parts but their whole parts, you need to spend time with them. I know a lot of managers who do not have one-on-one conversations with their team members. That’s a missed opportunity. I strongly recommend that people managers and project leaders alike take the time to connect one-on-one often.
Talking one-on-one gives you the opportunity to discuss topics in private, when people can open up and be vulnerable with just you. It’s during those conversations when people are most apt to honestly share their concerns and woes. Not only does that build a stronger connection between you and your remote team members, it also helps you identify risks that you may need to manage in order to deliver successfully.
One-on-one conversations can be either ad-hoc or scheduled. If you are a people manager, schedule a recurring sync-up with your direct reports to catch up. Even if you don’t have planned agenda items, creating space on your calendar to give your full attention to an individual will make them feel cared for and connected to you.
If you are a leader to remote workers, instead of sending questions solely via Slack or email, reach out to have quick sync-ups with your team members. Don’t feel the need to have a scheduled time to talk.
To engage a remote team member on the fly, simply send a chat message and ask “Got a few minutes to chat?” Then, when they say yes, jump on a video call, turn on your camera, and ask them how they are doing before you cover your work topic. This simple technique will open their virtual door to many meaningful conversations.
#7 Recognize professional and personal milestones
Recently, one of the technical leads I’ve worked with at Edmunds, said to me “You know those Kudoboards you send out for people? Thank you for doing that. It makes a big difference, bigger than you know.”
I’ve been an avid user of a service called Kudoboard to create virtual group cards for some time now. But it wasn’t until the pandemic started that I took the plunge to pay for an unlimited plan. I knew I’d be creating virtual group cards often for both personal and professional milestones for my remote teams.
As an example, during the pandemic, I made it a mission to make sure we never forget a birthday. Each time I found out about a birthday, I’d create a card, send it for teammates to sign, and then arrange for a birthday song— My teammates would descend on an existing meeting to surprise the birthday boy or girl for five minutes to sing.
To be clear, the singing was never good. But like Karaoke, it was so bad sometimes that it was so good. What could be better than a bunch of people, singing out of tune and out of sync, intentionally embarrassing themselves to wish you happy birthday?
I didn’t stop at birthdays. I used my organizational prowess as a project leader to recognize all kinds of milestones.
This year, sprinkled among the birthdays, I’ve coordinated four virtual baby showers, organized several gifts to offer condolences to those who have mourned loved ones, and held virtual potlucks to celebrate project-related achievements. Each time has been special, and has given everyone the opportunity to spend time face to face (albeit virtually) to support a coworker at an important time in their lives.
Each recognized milestone has a positive impact on the way that my team members feel about work. These events show that we care about our people beyond their individual contributions; we care about them as important members of our work-family and work-community.
Not sure what to organize? When you are keeping your eyes open for opportunities to celebrate and support individuals, they come often. Just take the time to notice and I’m sure you’ll be inspired.
In the end, working with remote teams is really not much different than working with in-person teams.
In order to stay motivated at work, people need to feel heard, appreciated, and feel connected to a larger community. As a leader, you have the ability to create a culture that fulfills those needs and inherently motivates your team, regardless of whether they work together in person or remotely.
You may have to adjust your approach slightly to make your efforts remote-friendly, but it will be worth it. Remote workers can be just as productive as in-person workers, if not more so, when they are motivated.
To motivate your remote team, try the following ideas:
- Ask people how they are doing personally
- Make your remote meetings interactive
- Use virtual team collaboration spaces
- Run remote-friendly retrospectives
- Connect daily work to business outcomes
- Have one-on-one conversations
- Recognize personal and professional milestones
It’s not just one activity that makes a team motivated, but the compilation of many actions that create a cohesive culture.
Make these actions a priority. You’ll be amazed at how much more you and your remote team will enjoy working together— and accomplish together— no matter where you are all located.
Do you have an effective ritual or activity that you do with your remote teams? Please share your experiences with me. I’m always seeking new ideas to engage my teams!
Want more strategies to build cohesive teams? Pre-order my book GLUE on Amazon.com today.