The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated remote work from a trend slowly gaining popularity to common practice for most businesses around the globe, redefining and revolutionizing the workplace along the way. The shift to virtual collaboration has been critical in allowing teams to work, communicate and maintain relationships, but it’s also presented challenges in engaging and supporting employees.
In most cases, the move to work from home was sudden and occurred without any transition, creating challenges for both employees and employers. Beyond the digital and logistical challenges associated with remote work, there are also social and emotional implications. Daily interactions with coworkers during in-person meetings, coffee breaks and team lunches aren’t possible when working remotely, which can result in employees feeling disconnected and isolated. Employers have a responsibility to support their workforce through programming, communication, guidelines and activities to ensure employees continue to feel engaged in the organization’s vision and goals.
Since remote work will likely continue in the future, it will take fresh approaches to engage employees and establish a thriving virtual workplace culture. This is not only important for organizations to promote productivity and performance but also to retain and attract talented employees. During a recent survey of Alberta Blue Cross® team members, we received an employee engagement score of 88 per cent—our highest score yet. Although they miss their coworkers, our team members have felt supported during the pandemic and enjoy the flexibility of working from home. We’ve also received an increasing number of applications from candidates interested in remote roles.
The pros and cons of virtual work and collaboration
While virtual work has many benefits, it also produces challenges that employers should keep in mind. It’s important for leaders to understand the individual needs of employees and be able to adjust their planning and support based on those needs.
Pros to virtual collaboration for employees and employers
- Saves time and money on commute and travel.
- Offers more flexibility and better work-life balance.
- Many find productivity increases.
- Very effective for status updates and co-creation of deliverables within a team, project or department.
- Easier to share and reuse knowledge.
- Decisions can be made quicker, allowing work to get done faster.
- Can make it easier to multitask.
- Can enable more diverse conversations that bring together an array of viewpoints.
- Reduces sick days and absenteeism since employees only take leave when necessary and don’t have to worry about getting others sick at the office.
- Lowers expenses for employers due to reduced need for office space, materials and equipment.
- Increases recruitment talent pool and can increase retention rates.
Cons to virtual collaboration for employees and employers
- Loss of unstructured and spontaneous face-to-face interactions.
- Increases difficulty for managing change, team building and comradery.
- More distractions at home, such as chores, pets, family and roommates, social media and TV.
- Not everyone has an appropriate living environment or set up to work from home.
- Increases security challenges for businesses that handle sensitive information and data.
- Increases challenges with managing employees remotely.
- Increases the risk for virtual fatigue—a phenomenon commonly known as ’Zoom fatigue’.
- Employees may interpret expectations different than if they were in person.
- Too many overlapping or disconnected apps or platforms can result in duplicated work or missed tasks.
- Innovation and problem solving can require more time and focus.
- Some employees may struggle to unplug from work while at home, which can result in a negative work-life balance.
- Can impact an employee’s sense of belonging and connection, resulting in feelings of isolation.
- While easier to multitask, multitasking can be a sign of too many virtual meetings, unnecessary involvement in projects, overwhelming workload or lack of clear ground rules.
Tips to engaging employees virtually
The entire organization benefits when leadership and management prioritize employee engagement and teamwork, regardless of employees’ locations. Remote workers who are engaged and able to collaborate well with their team are as efficient and productive—if not more so—at home as they are in the office.
There are many ways to keep remote employees excited and engaged, such as making virtual collaboration more efficient, promoting wellness and celebrating your team members. We pulled together a list of team collaboration and employee engagement tips to help organizations maintain their workplace culture and help their employees be part of the team, even virtually.
Establish policies, guidelines and training
Clarity is critical for employees to be productive and helps them feel they’re part of the organizational culture—clearly outline when, where and how to collaborate virtually.
Examples of what to include in remote work and virtual collaboration guidelines are listed below.
- Remote work policy. A work policy that covers all styles of work, both on and off site, helps employees understand what’s expected of them. For example, the work policy at Alberta Blue Cross® includes guidelines for equipment use, privacy and security, hours of work and availability, sick time and family care while working remotely.
- How to navigate virtual collaboration options. Outline all the collaboration options and tools available, including training materials and examples of situations where each works best. This should also include guidelines for document-based collaboration, as well as instructions on where and how to post questions and request expertise.
- Criteria for virtual meetings, including expectations for participation, attentiveness, turning on video and agendas. Agendas help keep meetings focused and on time. They also allow the opportunity for every person attending the meeting to speak, which can be more challenging in the virtual setting. It’s generally best practice to share agendas ahead of time, so consider creating a template for all employees to use. The use of video is helpful to facilitate connection and collaboration, minimize feelings of isolation and loneliness, observe facial expressions and body language and clearly show who’s engaged and focused during a virtual meeting. While everyone should strive to use their webcam for virtual meetings, consider solutions to help employees avoid ‘Zoom fatigue’.
- Boundaries for virtual collaboration. Although flexibility is a major perk to working from home, it’s still important to set hours for when meetings and collaboration will and will not occur. For example, meetings should only be scheduled during normal business hours—avoid scheduling meetings over the lunch hour. It’s also helpful to limit the number or frequency of virtual meetings. Setting boundaries for virtual collaboration can support employees to not be “always-on” and pulled away from core responsibilities, which can lead to burnout.
- Allow time for uninterrupted work. Allowing employees to block off time to disconnect and perform uninterrupted work enables their ability to complete complex, focused tasks in a virtual environment.
Be proactive and use planned communication through managers or a central team to help employees collaborate more effectively, with less frustration and confusion. The use of team advocates or “super users” is a great way to reinforce virtual collaboration guidelines and help employees understand how and when to use the tools available to them.
Keep the lines of communication open
Miscommunication and feeling disconnected from the team are common challenges for remote workers, especially those who work non-traditional hours or live in a different time zone. To avoid this and help employees be more productive, it’s important employees feel they can talk to their managers, ask questions and voice concerns. Don’t wait for an employee to speak up—they might never, or it may be too late when they do.
- Set up virtual check-ins. Managers can be proactive by scheduling regular and frequent check-ins with their employees. Try asking simple questions, like “How can I support you?” or “What do you need from me to help you with your work?”.
- Make sure your virtual door is always open. Managers should make themselves available for one-on-one meetings, and really listen and act when an employee confides in them.
- Communicate to all employees regularly. Periodic virtual, in-person or hybrid company-wide meetings are crucial to keep everyone on the same page, understand organizational goals and objectives and reinforce core values. Newsletters, emails and intranets can be used to communicate with employees on a more frequent basis.
Remember that transparency and honesty are key to cultivating strong employee engagement, in or out of the office. Personal, short, direct and honest communication is crucial to build strong virtual relationships.
Foster personal connections
Engagement is not simply checking in on employees but fostering personal connection. Humans crave connection—especially now—and we want to share what’s happening in our lives, funny moments, jokes and build relationships with colleagues.
Organizations can create a culture of connectedness by recognizing that employees are more than workers—they’re people with unique backgrounds, interests, ideas, loved ones and celebrations, and they have bad days like everyone else. Remote employees feel more engaged and committed to their role and organization when they know they’re thought of as more than just an employee.
Managers should take the lead in creating a space where employees feel safe being their authentic selves and sharing information about their lives should they wish to do so. Take some time at the start of a meeting to have casual conversation. Ask employees about their weekend plans or recent vacation or how their kids or pets are doing. Not only is this a great way to ease tension but it allows team members to understand what’s happening in one another’s personal lives, celebrate milestones and offer support.
It’s important employers recognize the strengths, limitations and interests of their employees to better connect with them, assign them to projects that align with their interests and reward them based on their passions.
Make health and wellness a priority.
An employee who’s feeling unhealthy, physically or mentally, will have difficulty performing at their highest level, or at all. Supporting employee health and wellness shows an organization cares about its employees’ overall well-being and increases engagement.
- If one doesn’t already exist, consider implementing a wellness program that supports both employee health and organizational goals. Learn how to build an employee wellness program from the ground up.
- Look for ways to make healthy habits easier to practice—allow a longer midday break for workouts or let employees end their day earlier to enjoy the sunshine.
- Create an incentive for employees to get outside, exercise, cook a healthy meal, drink more water or establish some other healthy habit.
- Hold virtual wellness challenges, such as 30 days of yoga or meditation, daily walks for a month or 10,000 steps a day for one week. This is also a great way to bring employees together and encourage connections.
- Ensure the workplace is a safe and inclusive environment that supports employee mental health. Provide mental health training for leadership and management teams and resources for both managers and employees. Consider including Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) benefits in employee group benefits plans. An EFAP provides confidential counselling services for employees and their dependents through an independent, professional counselling agency. Our Alberta Blue Cross® individual health plans also include access to personalized health and wellness tools, resources and support through the Individual Assistance Program.
Create time and space for fun
To keep remote employees engaged and excited to be part of the team, add some fun into virtual team communication and collaboration routines. This encourages group collaboration and gives employees the opportunity to experiment with different communication and collaboration tools.
Below are some ideas to try.
- Schedule casual, non-work-related calls or chats using tools like Google Hangouts, Slack and Trello.
- Host interactive virtual classes, workshops, games and events, such as cooking or mixology classes, terrarium building, trivia games, scavenger hunts, Tik Tok challenges, comedy or magic shows, themed yoga, costume parties, raffle nights with prizes and Netflix watch parties. The key is to not copy what other companies are doing but co-create activities with employees to build a virtual culture that they’re excited about.
- Gamify your teamwork. Encouraging team-based competitions and rewards for everyday activities can be an effective employee engagement strategy that builds collaboration and cooperation. Game-based performance management systems can also help standardize performance metrics and evaluation criteria, which can be particularly important for remote employees who may feel like they’re missing out on vital promotion opportunities by not being physically present at the office.
Make sure employees feel valued
Employees should be recognized and appreciated for their hard work, even virtually. Breakroom cakes and work anniversary lunches may not be an option right now, but employers can still find small ways, like the examples below, to celebrate their employees and show them they care.
- Send a virtual card or mail a handwritten card to celebrate personal milestones and acknowledge losses.
- Send virtual gift cards for employees’ birthdays.
- Schedule a team call to recognize a team member who went above and beyond on an assignment or project.
- Encourage peer-to-peer feedback, which also helps to foster collaboration, connection and shared learning between employees. Consider implementing a rewards or recognition program to make peer-to-peer feedback more motivational and successful.
- Send fun and thoughtful care packages or gifts to boost employee happiness and morale. Lots of companies provide options you can select from online and have delivered right to employees’ doorsteps.
- Bonuses, raises and promotions are still important to recognize and retain talented and loyal employees.
Showing recognition and appreciation through these types of gestures or with a simple thank you or a genuine compliment goes a long way and can make a massive impact on employee engagement. When employees feel valued, they’re more inclined to go above and beyond in their roles.
Measure virtual success
It can be difficult to define and measure employee engagement for remote teams. To set employees up for success, employers must first define clear and measurable goals for remote work. It’s important to be crystal clear about employees’ duties and responsibilities.
There are various ways to measure employee engagement, including the following:
- Ask employees about their work and engagement levels. This can be done directly in one-on-one or team meetings or anonymously through employee surveys.
- Monitor employee progress on assignments and address any performance concerns as soon as possible.
- Factor in peer-to-peer feedback.
Continue to research virtual collaboration needs and trends—there is an abundance of information online. Furthermore, collecting feedback from employees will allow employers to adjust engagement strategies to ensure they work best for their teams.
Sources and additional resources
- Your Role as a Leader in Building Team Resilience
- Helping Employees Stay Focused During Times of Change and Uncertainty
- How to Keep Remote Workers Engaged in a Virtual Team
- 5 Creative Ways to Keep Remote Workers Engaged and Excited
- 13 Activities to Engage Remote Employees Today
- Remote Work: 20 Ways to Engage and Connect with Your Remote Employees
- APQC – Virtual Collaboration: Rules of the Road