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Engaging remote teams is tough, and a lot of organizations are struggling with it right now.
The quick fix is a Google search, right? You will find thousands of ideas on hundreds of lists; some of which may work, and many of which will be totally neutral.
Even worse, some of these hocus-pocus engagement techniques may actually be causing harm.
I’m here to share what is actually working. This post is informed by 7+ years leading a remote team, and running thousands of engaging events for employees at Apple, Amazon, Google, the US Air Force, and many others.
Let’s get into it!
The Top 5 Engagement Techniques for Virtual Teams
Nobody has ever been surprised that our business, teambuilding.com, runs team-building activities. It’s like a rain boots company called Rain Boots 🙂
However, many people are surprised to learn that we have always been a fully remote company; we don’t have an office anywhere, and most of what you see was built on 11″ laptops.
We are a scrappy, bootstrapped business, with a small and insanely dedicated team. We learned how to engage remote teams on tight margins and a shoestring budget. The amount of money you need to spend on 99% of engagement is zero. You do have to deeply respect your people and put in the work.
Here are the top five ways you can skyrocket your engagement.
1. Lead From the Front Lines
An axiom, sometimes attributed to Sun Tzu, is that the most successful leaders lead from the front lines. I generally agree with the encompassed ideas, for example, that leading by example instead of force is a great way to achieve the behavior and results you are after. In an office, you might be able to step back and rely on close face-to-face relationships with your team. Remotely, you don’t have the luxury and you absolutely need to join the front.
There are two main ways to do this:
- Do the same type of work that you ask of your team members. If they write articles, you write articles. If they make sales calls, you make sales calls. Not only will this effort connect you with the employee experience, but it will also show your team that the work they do is valuable and therefore valued. This recognition is at the very core of employee engagement.
- Connect with your individual team members one-on-one. You can connect via Donut calls, private messages, and even old-school phone calls; the cave dwellers of the 1980s built solid relationships with nothing more than a spiral cord phone. It’s not about the tools, but tools can help. There is a scaling effect here, where it becomes both more difficult and more important to have these individual connections the larger your team becomes.
2. Show Employee Recognition, Constantly
“Great job on that report, Chris” can bring tears of joy to even the most stoic of team members. Your words as a leader, and even more so their frequency and authenticity will have a massive impact on your team’s engagement. Basically, knowing that what we do matters, matters.
Here is how to give the right kind of recognition with remote workers:
#you-are-awesome. My favorite channel on Slack is one called #you-are-awesome; it’s a running list of praise for team members, ranging from the very small to the immensely large. For example, here are some of the recent messages:
It’s not really about the examples, but consider these points: many of the messages are peer-level or cross-department. When #you-are-awesome started, the first messages were by me and our leadership team.
Over time, the entire team has embraced the channel as a place to share praise, which creates a culture of recognition. The massive benefit of this approach is that peers often see contributions that you as a leader do not.
3. Give Motivational Speeches
Like Mel Gibson in Braveheart and President Bill Pullman in Independence Day, I am best known for fighting off the tyranny of extra-territorial invaders. Just kidding, but we do have something in common: motivational speeches.
Below was me giving a motivational remote work speech from LaGuardia airport’s international terminal.
When you get the chance during a team meeting, share some words of wisdom and put some passion behind it. For example, you can use the opportunity to share what is happening from the bird’s eye view of operations or double down on why your mission matters.
Here are some best practices for motivational speeches:
- Improv it. Unless you are a practiced speech orator, just wing it; making notes will result in something that sounds stilted. The key isn’t to have the perfect words, but words that sound authentic.
- Keep it short-ish. Five minutes is too long, and one minute is too short. Somewhere in-between is great.
- Start big, go small. “Here is what is happening in the world, and in the market, and in our company, and with individual team members, and here is what Carly did that was awesome.”
- Say what you mean and mean what you say. This one may be from Sesame Street and/or Mrs. Ciger in my small-town Canada kindergarten. Your team will and should hold you to your word, so make sure it’s worth something.
4. Be Fast and Decisive
In 2020, instability and fear are a reality for many people, which likely includes your teammates. While you can’t change the market on your own, you can provide a strong buffer through quick and decisive leadership.
For example, one of our businesses tanked in March. We run live events at museums, and with museums closed and no group events, revenue went from $250,000 per month to zero. We wanted to avoid making the very difficult decision to initiate layoffs, and that would have been a mistake; every signal was that COVID was going to be here for more than a few weeks.
We did do layoffs, so our team could access unemployment benefits and we also created an emergency fund to support them in the interim. This decision was a blow to everyone’s stability, but it was better than the “wait and see” approach that many businesses take; because for the entire “wait and see” period, your employees are worrying about their jobs.
And by the way, while you are humming and hawing over important decisions, the market will make the decision for you, which is bad for everyone.
5. Stand For Something
If your business only exists to make money, and you are not the Royal Mint, then your engagement will be directly tied to compensation. Kind of weak… (find out more about fair compensation here)
Instead, with remote teams, your organization needs to stand for something. Fight child slavery, make the internet more secure, build sustainable products, retire planned obsolesce. Whatever you stand for — if it is something worth believing in then your people will believe in it.
At our company, we’ve encoded our beliefs in core values. My favorite is Level 10 Integrity, which informs every decision we make big and small. For example, a few years ago we wanted to launch a themed Harry Potter experience under the radar (obviously not Level 10). Instead, we contacted J.K Rowling and her agent said no. So, we called our experience the “The Completely Unofficial and Definitely Unlicensed Boy Wizard Tour” and it was a hit, in part because of the creative name.
Level 10 Integrity is one example of standing for something that your people can get behind, which will take your remote team to levels of engagement that money never could. This engagement seriously boosts productivity too.
Side note from my soapbox: The last few months are one of the lowest integrity business climates I have ever seen. Many businesses, desperate to reinvent themselves, are taking shortcuts that they won’t be proud of in the long term. Short term profits are important, but your legacy will last forever.
All You Need to Keep a Remote Team Engaged
That’s it. Five high-level ideas on how to actually engage remote employees right now.
When you have this foundation in place, I recommend planning some virtual team building activities for your team. As I’ve mentioned, not all remote employee engagement has to be top-down; it comes at a peer level too.
Invest in time and space for your people to connect with each other and build meaningful relationships. It makes a world of difference.