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How to motivate remote employees: 5 keys to success

Motivating a remote team is not the same as motivating workers in person. Here's a look at how managers should adapt and the tools they can use to do so.

For a lot of managers, a pre-pandemic employee motivation toolkit included a quick chat in the hall, the in-person warmth of a smile following critique, an impromptu meeting by the coffee machine to boost flagging spirits. But the widespread move to remote work calls for rethinking old approaches.

More than three-quarters of HR leaders -- 77% -- believe the shift toward remote work will continue after the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs, according to a recent survey by think tank The Conference Board.

That's especially true since remote work appears to boost productivity for a number of companies.

But even before social-distancing and shelter-in-place orders forced a wide range of employees to work from home, businesses both large and small were incorporating remote-work arrangements into their operations.

Take the example of Digital Brand Expressions.

After Hurricane Sandy disrupted much of the East Coast in 2012, Niki Fielding, president of Digital Brand Expressions, a digital marketing agency in Princeton, N.J., decided to have her employees work from home two days a week. When the pandemic struck, her five-person staff and 10 contractors were able to seamlessly keep the business going.

"We were used to working with people closely, but remotely, all along," Fielding said.

For Digital Brand Expressions, the move to a work-from-home full-time approach is an extension of what the company was already doing, but the realization that something was missing took a while, she said.

That something was the human touch.

"Those verbal interchanges, the joking around [was missing]," Fielding said.

As a business owner, her challenge was to help her employees -- including two new hires -- feel a part of the culture.

That's a challenge many managers are facing. To that end, here are five ways to motivate remote workers.

1. Use tech to foster connection

Technology has been critical in connecting workers to one another and to managers during the shift to working from home.

"Engagement is really never about [just] the tools -- it's about the behaviors and communication of the leader," said Kevin Kruse, CEO of LEADx, a technology company based in Philadelphia. "Tools are just different ways to facilitate that."

Enabling team members to see each other while they interact can be an important aspect of keeping them engaged. A number of video-communications tools are available to help, including Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype and Google Meet.

"We don't use anything special to maintain high engagement, just Zoom and our internal messaging," Kruse said.

Digital Brand Expressions uses Skype, Zoom and GoToMeeting interchangeably, but prefers GoToMeeting for screen sharing, Fielding said.

The staff at MMS Education, an education-management firm in Langhorne, Pa., primarily relies on Microsoft Teams to stay in touch with one another, said CIO Pierce Baugh.

However, in determining a communication strategy, leaders should focus on the general technology they need rather than a specific product, Baugh said.

"What it's all about is just having a quick check, quick call, share a screen," he said. "It doesn't matter whether it's Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype or another platform."

Organizations should look for tools that are simple to use and scalable, Baugh said.

"Everybody is a click away from everybody else [at MMS]," he said.

The tools are flexible, so employees can begin a conversation on email, easily move to the telephone, then invite additional colleagues into a conference call, if necessary, he said.

2. Proactively communicate

Proactively communicating with workers -- and encouraging workers to communicate among themselves -- is fundamental to making everyone feel connected.

You shouldn't be interrupting people on Skype with long things that belong in emails or that we need to document.
Niki FieldingPresident of Digital Brand Expressions

"When you sign on in the morning [at Digital Brand Expressions], you send an email so everybody knows you're on and working," Fielding said.

To facilitate questions or quick touches -- asking about a deadline, for example, or confirming the name of a contact -- Fielding and her staff keep Skype open all day.

"We try to use the mindset that if it's something you would have just tossed out in the office, use Skype for that," she said. "But you shouldn't be interrupting people on Skype with long things that belong in emails or that we need to document."

At LEADx, Kruse created "a [simple] communication cadence" to ensure regular contact among his team.

"We literally just schedule recurring calendar events," he said. Every Monday, team members hold one-on-one conversations, as well as participate in a company-wide review, for example.

3. Prioritize team building and engagement

When the workforce is dispersed, building and maintaining a strong team requires managers to take a highly proactive approach. Fortunately, managers can use many of the collaboration tools to keep employees in sync.

At Digital Brand Expressions, staff members meet more often than they did before COVID-19, using Zoom or GoToMeeting, Fielding said. That reinforces their feeling of working together. When teams are in an office, there's a certain flow to their work and conversations. When they work from different locations, they're forced to schedule more conversations to make sure information is exchanged and questions are answered. Encouraging one-on-one or one-to-several conversations maintains the interaction that's necessary for a well-knit team.

Fielding also allows time for social interaction during her meetings, whereas in the past, a meeting would jump into the business topic at hand.

"Now, we're asking, what are you going to do this weekend? What did you watch yesterday?" she said.

While the approach takes away some work time, it puts back some of the personal interaction that might have been left behind at the office, she said.

Personal interaction is the heart of team building, which itself is critical for motivating remote workers.

"The informal touch … is the most important thing for team building," said Baugh. "Team building is about enthusiasm and excitement -- that's energy, and that's what gets your stuff over the goal line," he said.

Managers must be clear about their and the company's vision, and be sure each staff member understands their role and how it affects their colleagues in both the day-to-day and long terms.

"I'll say, 'Your role is X -- you're going to write this part [of the software] and … they're going to do the database and this other person's building a website,'" Baugh said. "We're all working together."

Kruse also emphasizes communications as the key to team building. In addition to organizing structured events, such as a monthly book club, he encourages employees to share items such as family photos and vacation pictures on the company's collaboration platform, Basecamp. He's also introduced time for socializing into the workday routine.

"We literally start our weekly team meeting by asking, 'What was the best part of your weekend?' or 'What's something good going on?'" he said. "This gives us a way to learn about each other's personal interests, stay up-to-date on their family and gets everyone in a positive mood for the meeting."

4. Set realistic goals and assess employee performance

Communication and engagement contribute to performance on both the team and individual level.

Because of that, managers should consider success by answering two questions, Baugh said: Are you succeeding in business, and are you succeeding personally?

Each question is important because one aspect of engagement won't succeed without the other, Baugh said. While today's remote-work environment makes the manager's job more challenging, video platforms allow them to observe each employee's mood and level of enthusiasm, he said.

"On a one-on-one call, you'll get a better feel about whether an employee's frustrated or if they've got anxiety over something," he said.

Managers have a number of options when it comes to measuring a team's progress -- such as Agile tools, Scrum tools or project management tools.

"You have to keep it personal," Baugh said.

Even if new tools are used to communicate, managers can continue to rely on tried-and-true processes to establish goals and measure performance. LEADx, for example, tracks objectives and key results (OKRs) on a regular basis, Kruse said.

Fielding sets and reviews 90-day goals with each member of her staff, as she did before. However, she discovered remote technology injected additional time into the process.

In one instance, connecting a staffer to an online tutorial for a new tool didn't provide them with a chance to ask questions, she said. If they'd been in the office, she and the employee would have been able to check in and bridge the information gap more quickly. A detailed discussion filled the information gap, but took time.

"I didn't anticipate that," Fielding said.

5. Share how to build a successful workspace

To the extent possible, employees need consistency to thrive.

Whether they're at home or in the office, employees need a space that allows them to be productive, Baugh said.

"The most important thing is to have a dedicated spot," said Baugh. "You're going to go there every day and when you leave nothing changes, everything is where you left it."

In picking their spot, people should consider how they'll make it comfortable in terms of ergonomics – for example, their good chair -- as well as light and temperature, Baugh said.

If possible, employees should avoid working where there are distractions.

"They should create a distraction-free area in their house to work from, and [have] an ergonomically sound desk and chair and, of course, strong bandwidth for videoconferencing," Kruse said.

Although it's not possible for everyone, the best situation is to work from a separate office, Fielding said.

"[Ideally] it's not your spare bedroom, it's not a playroom, it's just the office," she said.

For her home office, Fielding has replicated her layout at DBE's physical space.

"It's the same setup, it's the same stapler, [but] it just makes it easier for me to transition," she said.

The important thing is to lay the groundwork for focus.

Whatever the situation at home, however -- whether people are in a separate office or working at the kitchen table -- they should plan for those times when they have to "put the blinders on," Baugh said.

"That might mean putting on headphones or whatever it's going to take to give you that really high focus time that you need to bang something out," he said.

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