How to Engage Remote Employees: 6 Ways to Get Virtual Teams Excited About Work

October 30, 2023 | New Workplace Leadership | 8 min read

Team leaders can better engage remote employees by creating a culture of communication, offering learning opportunities, and applying a few other best practices.

What Is Remote Employee Engagement?

Employee engagement is an employee’s level of investment in and enthusiasm for their job. Remote employee engagement specifically refers to the investment and enthusiasm of those who work from home or some other location outside a central office.

Engagement is more than just motivation, although engaged employees are often more motivated. Motivation is the drive to do something. Engagement is bigger and broader. It’s the sense of meaningful commitment a person feels toward their work; it’s the emotional fulfillment they receive from a job well done.

When employees are engaged, businesses benefit. According to Gallup, the most engaged teams are 23 percent more profitable and 18 percent more productive than their least engaged counterparts. They also experience 81 percent less absenteeism and 64 percent fewer safety incidents.

Remote work has its benefits, too. It’s a top factor in attracting and retaining talent, and remote workers are often more productive than employees who are in the office full-time.

Theoretically, then, engaged remote employees could be some of the highest-performing workers around.

However, engaging employees is notoriously tricky. The latest numbers show that only 23 percent of workers worldwide are engaged. And engaging remote employees can be especially challenging.

Yet those organizations that figure out how to engage remote employees stand to reap significant rewards. Let’s explore what makes remote employee engagement difficult — and what leaders can do about it.

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Why Engaging Remote Employees Can Be Tough

Remote work has an interesting, almost contradictory, effect on employee engagement. According to Gallup, employees enjoy the biggest engagement boost from remote work when they’re virtual for 3-4 days per week. But if employees work remotely five days a week, engagement can start to slip.

One possible reason for this: isolation. Remote work grants employees a certain amount of freedom, which can help explain the engagement bump. But, too much independence may backfire, undermining the sense of belonging that is key in promoting engagement.

The real question, then, isn’t how to engage remote employees. It’s how to keep remote employees engaged — how to prevent autonomy from curdling into loneliness.

6 Ways to Engage Remote Employees

Leaders and managers have tremendous power when it comes to employee engagement. In fact, individual managers account for as much as 70 percent of the difference in engagement levels between teams.

What can leaders and managers do to keep remote employees engaged? They can try the following best practices:

  1. Set clear expectations for remote workers
  2. Build a culture of communication
  3. Provide learning opportunities
  4. Recognize remote employees
  5. Use video chat for work and fun
  6. Ask employees what they need

Let’s take a look at each practice in depth.

1. Set clear expectations for remote workers

Lack of clarity around one’s role is a top driver of burnout and disengagement, and remote employees may struggle with this more than their in-office counterparts.

Working outside the office, remote employees often have fewer points of contact with their peers and leaders. As a result, remote employees are more likely to feel disconnected from their organization’s mission and purpose than their collocated peers. Moreover, it’s harder for remote employees to parse those unspoken cultural rules, like how people communicate or spend their break time.

Leaders of remote teams can’t expect their employees to pick all of this up on their own. Instead, they need to be direct and explicit about setting expectations. This includes both expectations for the employee’s role, such as timelines and deliverables, and for how that role fits into the company’s overall strategy. When employees know how they’re contributing to organizational goals, they’re often more engaged because they understand the true purpose of what they’re doing.

Leaders also need to model behavioral norms. This is especially true when it comes to things like typical working hours and quitting times. It can be hard for home-based workers to fully disconnect, which is a risk factor for burnout. Leaders can set the tone for a healthy, engaging remote work environment by logging off every night and only sending work-related messages during work hours.

Finally, leaders should set remote work compliance expectations. Codes of ethics, data privacy regulations, and similar mandates don’t disappear when employees work outside the office.

2. Build a culture of communication

Autonomy is part of what makes remote work so desirable, but it can be a double-edged sword. As discussed earlier, too much autonomy can make employees feel isolated from their peers and disconnected from the organization.

By creating a culture of communication, organizations can support remote employee autonomy while fostering the connections that help drive engagement.

A culture of communication doesn’t mean micromanaging everything workers do or scheduling endless meetings. Rather, it means normalizing the idea that employees should keep one another — and their managers — updated on their work. There are multiple ways to do this. You might set up team-specific communication channels, like in Teams or Slack, or hold morning stand-ups where everyone briefly shares what they’re doing that day.

When people know what their colleagues are up to, they can collaborate more effectively. Importantly, they also feel like they’re part of a real team, not an atomized individual plugging away on a to-do list all alone.

As a leader, you can support a culture of communication by staying accessible yourself. Institute an open-door policy so people can come to you for help or a friendly chat whenever needed. Share updates on your own work and any insights you can offer into broader organizational happenings. If employees see you prioritizing open communication, they’ll follow suit.

3. Provide learning opportunities

Research has long supported the idea that learning opportunities can be an effective tool to promote employee engagement. In one survey, 71 percent of respondents said training increases their job satisfaction, and 61 percent said upskilling opportunities influence their decision to stay at a job.

Thanks to advances in digital learning, it’s easy to deliver robust learning experiences to remote employees.

Learning opportunities with a social component, like digital coaching or virtual instructor-led training, can be particularly potent options for engaging employees that work remotely. Not only do these learning opportunities help employees build valuable technical and leadership skills, but they may also alleviate some of the isolation remote workers can experience.

4. Use video chat for work and fun

People who have friends at work tend to be more productive and more satisfied with their jobs, but remote work can make it harder to socialize with coworkers. The common communication channels — instant messaging, email — don’t have the same personal warmth as the casual face-to-face chats one could have in the office.

And while popping by someone’s desk to say “hi” is generally a welcome diversion for everyone involved, it can feel downright weird to send someone a message on Teams simply to shoot the breeze.

Video chats can make interpersonal interactions between remote colleagues feel less awkward, which makes it easier to build the social connections that keep your remote employees engaged. Consider using video platforms whenever you can for meetings and encourage people to keep their cameras on.

To support socialization, leaders can try setting aside time at the start or end of each meeting for personal chats, creating video conference rooms where people can eat lunch together, and hosting trivia contests or other purely social activities over video.

5. Recognize employee accomplishments

According to one study, employees who feel recognized by their managers are 40 percent more engaged than employees who don’t. However, it can be easy to miss opportunities to recognize employees when you’re not in the same place.

And when we do recognize remote employees, it can be underwhelming. A “nice job” Slack message doesn’t feel as fulfilling as a handshake from the boss in front of the whole team.

But remote recognition can still be impactful — it just requires a bit more intention. Managers should be vigilant when looking for opportunities to praise team members, and recognition should happen in public channels or video calls for maximum effect. Tangible rewards, like monetary bonuses or points that can be redeemed for prizes, can also make remote recognition more motivating.

Encourage employees to recognize each other, too. Peer-to-peer recognition can be almost as powerful as manager recognition.

6. Ask employees what they need

Finally, if you’re not sure how to motivate remote employees, just ask them!

Different people need different things to feel engaged at work. Some team members may want more socializing on video chats, while others may wish for more learning opportunities. Some may need the occasional pep talk.

Instead of trying to guess how to engage employees in a remote environment, set aside time to ask during regular check-ins. In addition to discussing work, ask how your team members feel and what you can do to support them.

As a bonus, inviting employees to share their input helps them feel recognized and contributes to the culture of communication. In other words, asking for employee feedback can offer an engagement boost all on its own.

The Key to Engaging Your Remote Employees? Intention.

Readers have probably noticed a not-so-subtle theme developing throughout the best practices listed above. The secret for how to motivate remote employees is to be intentional about it.

In the office, when everyone works together in close quarters, things like social connection, communication, and recognition often happen organically. In remote environments, however, these crucial components of employee engagement can slip through the cracks.

By intentionally translating these things to virtual environments, leaders of remote teams can keep their people as engaged and energized as their colleagues in the office — if not more so.

To help employees thrive in remote work arrangements, check out these remote working courses from Skillsoft. All workers, remote or otherwise, are more engaged when they have the tools and knowledge they need to succeed in their roles.