Out of Office: Keeping your team engaged while they work remotely

In this first part of our “Out of Office” series on engaging your team while social distancing, we look at collaboration. Check out the other parts in the series: Collaborate and Connect.

Remote work is nothing new. However, the current COVID-19 threat is forcing thousands of normally onsite workers homebound, disrupting the core cultures of countless organizations.

For small businesses and nonprofits in particular, especially those who don’t have a formal remote work policy, this can be a challenge. Work gets disrupted, customers get sidelined, and tightknit teams stop communicating.

Whether it’s a virus or another crisis like a fire or natural disaster, businesses have to be prepared for the unexpected. Having a plan to keep employees engaged, collaborative, and connected—to each other and to the organization—is essential for not only weathering the crisis, but also recovering quickly once it has passed.

To build your remote engagement plan focus on three pillars: Engage, Collaborate, and Connect.

Let’s start with engagement:

The plan.

Be open. Be positive. Be prepared.

  • Talk to your team, face-to-face if possible, about how this is going to work.
  • Make sure you’ve thought about what questions they might ask and have answers at the ready.
  • If they ask something you weren’t expecting, tell them you will get an answer and do so in a timely manner.
The channels.

When a workplace goes virtual, real-time answers and in-person social cues limited which can lead to misunderstandings and conflict.

  • Avoid confusion by identifying your communications channels beforehand, matching the message style to the medium and ensuring the entire team uses each channel appropriately. (When unsure, many people fall instinctively to their preferred method of communication, which leads to confusion and loss of productivity.)
  • Distribute a list of everyone’s contact information, including phone numbers, email addresses, and instant messaging handles.
  • If the message is:
    • Complex or personal, use videoconferencing tools such as Zoom or Facetime so body language, tone, and inflection can be seen and heard clearly.
    • Urgent, use the phone as well as shared notes program such as Evernote or a project management tool such as Zoho, Basecamp or Trello to document conversations.
    • Non-urgent, use with email or a project management tool for updates and collaboration.
    • Casual or quick, use an instant messaging service such as Slack.
The schedule.

How much and how often your team communicates also matters.

  • Provide regular updates. Hold daily, all-team touch base via video or phone conferencing. This is designed to keep everyone updated on workloads, deadlines, and potential issues while maintaining consistency and connection within the team.
  • Respond promptly. Setting up and expectation of promptness in communications responses reduces the likelihood of roadblocks and frustrations. The more specific you set the expectation (i.e. within 2 hours for team emails or within 30 minutes for a phone call), the clearer the structure is for your team.
  • Require clear “office hours.” Remote work is inherently more flexible, which is fine. However, to ensure productivity and engagement between team members doesn’t suffer, having employees set clear availability schedules and sharing them with the entire team is key. This allows for easier setting of meetings and availability for questions beforehand, so your team maintains trust and goodwill.

Keep the kudos coming.

  • Praise and shout-outs are easy to do in an office setting. When an office goes remote, these recognitions for achievements can fall to the wayside.

Leaders should make sure this doesn’t happen by staying in frequent communication with your team, collecting these achievements, and sharing in all-staff video or phone conference calls or via all-team emails.