A common worry for employers is that their remote employees might drift off, distance themselves from the rest of the team and destroy company culture. It's often a major reason why remote work is limited to a few "work from home" days instead of having fully remote employees. At times, this worry can turn out to be true, but what can a company do to prevent it from happening?
The search to engage and re-engage remote employees often turns into an ugly play of forced presence techniques, but it doesn't have to be. Learning from fully remote teams and their engagement techniques, here's what you can do to keep employees engaged, active and contributing to company culture.
Company culture benefits from remote-first
The main reason why businesses experience unengaged employees is that they are not being made part of the main workflows. If a company acts with remote workers as second-class citizens, it's easy to feel like a contractor or third-party and not fully participate in other team activities.
More often than not, missing out on key workflows also means that remote employees don't even have a chance to participate in team activities, because they are in-person. The solution for this is called remote-first.
Remote-first describes a set of principles that make a working environment to be equal for remote and in-house workers. For example, it includes that most communication should be done asynchronously so that people can read or listen to it on their own time. Furthermore, it includes best practices about meeting etiquette, office rules, employee distribution and communication flows.
Obviously, remote-first doesn't have a fixed handbook, but implementing these best practices can lead to remote employees being on the same level as their in-office counterparts. Despite common belief, remote-first is also not about having the majority of a company remote – Basecamp, for example, was keeping a Chicago office for many years where a big part of the team was working from every day. In remote-first fashion, it had "library rules" though, aiming to create a productive workspace and keeping decisions, discussions and conversations online.
Engaging remote employees through hangout calls
Face-to-face time is one thing that many remote employees miss and yet, the only time many of them get it is during meetings with their peers. No wonder is it hard to make any kind of personal connection with them and get acquainted.
It's important to create an opportunity for casual hangout calls without an agenda, in the same way that they would happen in-person during a break or an after-work gathering. Some teams call these "breakout calls" or "hangouts", but both describe a 1-hour no-agenda session in a very small group (usually 3 or 4 people), happening maybe once per month.
While usually optional, these are great opportunities for new team members to get to know their new peers, but also for long-standing coworkers to get to know each other a little more or talking about stuff outside of work.
Planning company retreats
The team retreat is usually one of the most anticipated dates of the year and rightfully so: A successful team retreat can bring your team closer together and synchronize the in-office and remote groups to run closer to other for a while.
As time goes on, people can get out of sync with each other and working together becomes a chore: Messages may get misunderstood and there might be tensions in the time that solely rely on misunderstandings. Spending a week or two in-person helps to reset that clock, can often help to fix tensions and get everyone on the same line again.
When it comes to setting these trips up, there needs to be a lot of planning, time and money involved. Buffer, for example, is spending over $5,000 per person for the retreat and planning starts well before 6 months in advance, to make sure everything is going to work out well.
Promoting engagement in online communication
Hangout calls happen maybe once per month and a company retreat once or twice per year at max – so how can you keep up the engagement on a day-to-day basis?
The solution to that is to create an online communication space that allows for feelings, fun and out-of-work communication. Way too much, the online communication tool is seen as work-only, but what really drives engagement is to have your social spaces online as well.
While tools try to bring in new senses of normality and presence, you can also bend your existing tools like Slack to work better for online socialization:
- Enable GIFs and custom emojis
- Have separate spaces for watercoolers, discussing sports events, interest groups & co
- Publicly share and cheer on successes
- Organize streaming, gaming and watching events for people to participate
Online doesn't need to be an odd and dull place. Just like the office, it can be a thriving place for socialization, discussions and interest groups.