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How to Improve Employee Engagement and Team Performance When Everyone is Remote

Article #3 in a series.

Since mid-March, a revolution has unfolded in the workplace, with millions of jobs moving from the office to the home. This has enormous implications for employers. My third article in the series examines how working remotely can negatively impact employee engagement and team performance, and offers practical steps to addressing this challenge.

Highly engaged employees and high performing teams derive their high engagement and high performance from four drivers: Leadership, Fellowship, Self-Actualization and a Support Structure.

The specific questions to examine under these four drivers are noted below.

These drivers of employee engagement and team performance are difficult enough to optimize in normal times. The challenges can be insurmountable when everyone is working remote during a pandemic. Human beings are social creatures who instinctively seek to build deep personal relationships, and most naturally do so in person. At the same time, many employees are stressed and overwhelmed as they adjust to working from home, and grapple with the health, social and economic consequences of the pandemic.

Fortunately, there are concrete steps managers and project leads can take during these unprecedented times to overcome these challenges.

1. Measure output, not hours

Focus on your employees’ productivity and effectiveness – their output – not how many hours they worked or which hours they worked or how quickly they responded to an email. Your employees should not feel they have to be online all the time to compensate for not being in the office. Email/chat overload will lead to burnout.

In order to measure output, you will need a robust and reliable system for measuring productivity, as discussed in my second article in the series. My Smartworks app is one such system that is easy to implement and use.

2. Make more time for your employees

People management is more challenging in this environment and will take more of your time. Increase the time you spend on training, coaching, mentoring, motivating, developing, offering feedback, checking in & listening. This may require shuffling your responsibilities and calendar.

3. Solicit feedback more frequently and in multiple ways

Employee surveys should be sent at least quarterly during these exceptional times; conduct a 360-degree survey from time to time to get a more complete picture.

Arrange more frequent staff meetings and one-on-ones. For larger teams, schedule skip-levels and virtual roundtables. Solicit input from employees who don’t speak up.

Schedule “open chat” hours using a chat application like Slack, whereby anyone can initiate discussion on any topic, and commit to participating.

4. Communicate with intention, compassion and sincerity

Follow the relationship hierarchy:

Face to Face





High stakes interactions should take place as high up on the hierarchy as possible. Compensate for the deficiencies of virtual meetings by avoiding multi-tasking and making extra effort to read social cues from tone and body language.

In times of high stress, it’s natural for individuals to feel their self-preservation is paramount. When survival instinct takes over, consideration of others can take a back seat, leading to a breakdown in civility and team cohesion. Get ahead of this by providing space for your employees to vent their frustrations, grief and loss. Show you care about their well-being by listening with compassion; offer whatever resources and assistance your organization has made available for employees in distress. This is not a time for managers to be stoic or unapproachable. Share more about yourself and what you’re going through than you might otherwise – it shows you are human, fosters connection, and creates a safe space for your employees to open up.

5. Restructure workshops

A ‘lift & shift’ of your all-day brainstorming session to an all-day zoom session is a recipe for stifled creativity and burnout. Instead, break up the session into manageable modules. For example, start with a 50-minute video call to present objectives, charter, agenda and key data points; then move immediately to small breakouts of 2-3 where people can do research, analysis, ideation; then a long break before read-outs; then resume the next day with discussion and debate. While this will inevitably take longer, you will be rewarded with far richer output and a more energized team.

Consider different technology solutions that can make virtual workshops more engaging and productive, such as Mural.

6. Make presentations crisp and swift

The only thing more painful than watching a nervous presenter clumsily going through a long PowerPoint is watching from a 13” screen. There has never been a better time to remind presenters how to avoid “death by PowerPoint”, for example by sharing this humorous video by Don McMillan.

Consider mandating a structure for presentations, such as Amazon’s 6-page memo, or something like the following:

Executive summary – 1 slide

Details – 2-4 slides

Benefits & risks – 1 slide

Timing, budget, resource needs – 1 slide

Next steps – 1 slide

Appendix (reference only): up to 5 slides

To speed up meetings, presentations should be circulated 24 hours ahead of time, with the expectation that everyone in the meeting has read it.

Presenters can be given the option of pre-recording their presentations. This has two benefits: They can rehearse and edit their way to a crisp and swift presentation; and it forces all questions to come at the end, which speeds up the meeting.

7. Keep an “issues list” open to all project team members

Post an issues list for your project that anyone on the team can add to. This provides another mechanism for team members to bring up risks or concerns, and fosters an environment of transparency and candor.

8. Manage & facilitate meetings for the Zoom era

At the start of the meeting, ask participants to close out all other windows, especially email, and set their phones to airplane mode. Encourage them to hide their self-view, as watching oneself on the screen contributes to video fatigue. Suggest note-taking with actual pen and paper as that will increase attention and decrease multi-tasking.

Disciplined time-keeping is essential. Each meeting needs an agenda, with time allotted for every topic. Ideally each topic or presentation is not more than 20 minutes. Shorten 60-minute meetings to 50 minutes, and schedule breaks for longer meetings.

For workshops and brainstorming meetings, obtain real-time feedback at the end of the meeting by asking everyone to share one positive and one delta.

Use a roles & responsibilities chart to minimize the number of attendees; e.g. RACI (Responsible-Accountable-Consulted-Informed): Invite every R, A and C, and send the material to the I’s in lieu of attending.

Let attendees know they can occasionally give their eyes a break from the screen by turning off video, in order to move and stretch. Bluetooth headphones make this easy.

9. Encourage bonding activities

There are many ways to bring remote employees together -- everything from virtual ice-breakers to virtual games to virtual happy hours and birthday celebrations. While not as effective as in-person activities, they can be fun and engaging. There are dozens of articles out there with suggestions for virtual team bonding, such as this one in Medium by Lida Elias.

10. Make memorable moments

Think back to your most memorable moments at work. They probably involved an important milestone, such your first day on the job, a promotion, a big client win, a big bonus, completion of a team project, a company acquisition. When these important moments happen, they lift us up, they imprint lasting memories, they live on in stories told and re-told. They shape our professional decisions, such as which career direction to take. They are monumentally important to our feeling of self-worth, belonging, and success… and they almost always happen in person!

Look for creative ways to reproduce positive memorable moments. Be selective and prioritize, and tie it into a milestone event. Any effort to create a memorable moment will be appreciated. Examples include a gift basket to an employee’s home to celebrate their promotion; a hand-written note from the CEO to every member of the team following completion of an important project; wine-of-the-month club for the top sales performer; a new hire welcome package with a gift or letter from each team member.

In summary, while there are obstacles to employee engagement and team performance in the current environment, those obstacles can be largely overcome. It takes time, planning and imagination. Most of all, it takes a resetting of priorities, attentiveness and empathy on the part of managers, HR generalists and project team leads. That said, when the team is global, and includes third party providers, the challenges take on an added dimension. In my last article in this series I take a hard look at the pros and cons of setting up global teams and outsourcing to third party providers during the uncertainties of a pandemic when most everyone is remote and travel is very limited.

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