Remote work and hybrid work are surely here to stay, and they offer plenty of perks. But when your team is rarely together, it can be a challenge to create engagement and inspire motivation.
Engagement is critical for business, because it drives effort, performance and retention. But engagement is also important for people. Mental health challenges have risen along with more remote work, and people report they are feeling more social isolation, depression and anxiety in the last couple years. We crave human connection, and feeling engaged with our work and our colleagues is a fundamental way we meet this need.
As a leader, you can ensure distance doesn’t become detrimental, even when your team is remote, by staying accessible, empowering your team, giving feedback, keeping the focus on the future and creating shared experiences.
A primary way people experience engagement is through feeling connected to you as the leader. In one Oracle study of nearly 5,000 international employees, when leaders were more accessible, people reported they felt more confident in leaders and they performed better. Another scientific analysis found when leaders were more responsive, their behavior generated motivation because people felt leaders were paying attention and could be trusted.
Check in with people regularly, ask questions about how they are doing and offer support. Respond efficiently to emails, IMs or phone calls and hold regular one-on-one meetings—virtual or face-to-face—so people know they can count on times when they can provide you with updates and obtain guidance.
Freedom to do good work
You can engage your team members significantly by empowering them and trusting them to do good work. Know your team members well so you can—as much as possible—align what they love to do with what you’re asking them to do. There won’t always be perfect match, but as much as possible, give people responsibilities that match their passions and interests.
Also, be clear with people about the responsibilities they own and then trust them to accomplish their tasks as they wish. You can set guardrails—for example spending more than a certain amount of money or key topics that require your input or decision-making—but within those boundaries, set people free. By not delving too deeply in the details, you’ll communicate how you value people’s judgment and give them the freedom to be creative and engaged about how they complete their tasks.
Also engage team members together in meaningful work. It is a myth that the best bonding comes through social activities. In reality, people tend to bond because they work together on projects that matter. These typically have an emotional component. It’s the tough project where the team was fearful they wouldn’t make the deadline and the sense of accomplishment and relief when they did. Or the time the team struggled to solve a problem, feeling frustrated or worried. Or the sense of elation when the team’s mutual effort resulted in landing the big win. The combination of a clear goal, mutual effort and shared experience—the highs and the lows—all contribute toward memories and belonging. Whether virtual or face to face, by rolling up sleeves together, team members get to know each other and have the opportunity to tap into each other’s skills and learn together. Tacking tough challenges or solving thorny problems creates long-lasting connections between people and these, in turn, tend to keep people engaged and motivated.
Feedback is also a powerful way to engage team members. Be sure you are aware of the content of the work employees are contributing and avoid empty platitudes. Instead, be specific about what worked well about someone’s performance and demonstrate gratitude for a job well done. Also strive to focus on what a team member has done that is particular to their skills—so each person feels valued for their unique contribution.
In addition, provide corrective feedback. Sometimes leaders shy away from holding people accountable or giving tough critiques, but people want to know the quality of their work matters and appreciate a leader who pays enough attention to suggest an alternate approach or provide coaching.
You can also engage your team in reflection about their performance as a group, and again you can do this either virtually or face-to-face. Taking time to intentionally consider the group’s efforts can connect the team, improve performance and engage people. Understanding what’s gone wrong and why are important ways to improve and do better next time—and being vulnerable and sharing missteps are powerful ways that team members can come together. Employees learn more about each other, learn about the kind of help others need and learn how they can contribute most meaningfully.
Schedule time for team members to reflect on their performance based on project milestones and discuss and capture lessons learned. Or ask people to share their perspectives at the beginning of a weekly meeting, or to share a take-away idea at the close of a session. Even quick interludes reinforce the benefits of reflection and contribute toward engagement and deeper team relationships as people get a view into others’ thoughts.
Another way to engage people is to focus them on the future. While it is under-appreciated, it is also one of the most powerful ways to foster motivation. For individual employees, you can ask what they hope for, and seek to learn more about their career goals. Then listen and determine how you can support their efforts.
For a team, you can set aside time for the group to envision their future and imagine their ideal. If you’re face-to-face, great, and if you’re virtual, you can use technology tools that help you develop and capture ideas together. Have the team consider their customers (internal or external) and the value they deliver. Imagine the perfect state as specifically as possible so the vision is palpable and shared. Then have the team give thought to how they might get there. This focuses the team on what’s ahead, but also empowers members to consider the actions they can take today in order to make the perfect state more likely.
In addition to a longer visioning session, you can do mini moments of future focus. Start meetings by asking people about their hopes for the week or for the day, or by asking people what they’re looking forward to. You can ask them to share one “forward-focus idea” for the short term and one for the long term. Sharing aspirations can motivate a team and galvanize them toward something better.
Another way to engage people is to provide opportunities for shared experiences and the creation of mutual memories. Teams tend to bond more powerfully through task than through social endeavors, but non-task pursuits can also be positive for teams. Stay attuned to how many social events the team appreciates. For some teams, a weekly happy hour (virtual or otherwise) can be a great outlet, but for other team members, less is more. Take a structured approach to social events in order to increase the chances people will get to know people with whom they work less frequently. Speed networking, a team trivia contest and the like can relieve the pressure to mingle and provide more effective opportunities to get to know others in the extended network.
Distance can be detrimental to engagement and effectiveness, but it doesn’t have to be. By intentionally building relationships with your team members, and by connecting them with meaningful work and each other, you’ll ensure people are motivated and more likely to stick with you and your organization.
Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work-life, happiness, and fulfillment. She works for Steelcase, and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.