How can You Motivate Your Remote Teams?

No team lunches and bonding over (not-so) friendly paintball sessions here

Almost everyone’s going remote. Be it to follow regulations or for health concerns, office workers now know that their work is decoupled from the physical office—the ones that adapted will find it difficult to return. In the past, it sounded like a dream; doing your day job at home sounds nothing short of a scam. Today, we know it to be possible.

What’s next? Some may go back to the office permanently (IBM and Yahoo did that once). Others are embracing a semi-distributed approach (Facebook is one of them). A select few are gearing up for a fully-distributed working style, following the footsteps of companies like Basecamp, Buffer, and Reedsy.

Regardless of the approach, remote teams still suffer from poor engagement. A virtually immeasurable metric, it is what keeps employees motivated to do the work, almost without regard for anything else. Now that we’re out of the workplace, the opportunities for team motivation and engagement seems to be scarce as hen’s teeth. Are you going to have a team lunch by asking everyone to eat together while on a Zoom call? Are you going to replace a paintball session with a game of Fortnite?

Motivating a remote team is simple to understand, but challenging to execute. There are three paradigms:

Economic Pressure

Layoffs are accelerated, and they are ballooning in numbers. Rent is due. There are new costs to think about. Economic pressure can weigh an employee down, and the last thing you’d want is for your employee is to feel a semblance of security (unless you’re really planning to lay him/her off).

  • Allay their worries even if they are not voicing it out. It feels like an eternal limbo for employees who’ve seen their colleagues pack up and leave; employees will think “are we next?” Even the best of employees will also get laid off if necessary, and the coronavirus pandemic has sent many company financial statements into a sea of blood-red.

  • Review the salary policies and compensation packages. Now that you’re out of the office, does the company need that many square feet? What about all the other expenses related to the office upkeep? How much money is saved? Do some mathematics, and you’ll quickly find a few extra hundreds to distribute to everyone equally. You may even want to adopt remote-specific policies such as variable pay policies.

  • Be honest with your team. It’s not easy to tell your team that the company isn’t doing well, but it’s very much expected. Rather than leave them hanging and desiring for an answer, tell them the truth and what comes next.

Emotional Pressure

Adaptation is inherently tricky. We have to adjust mentally, and that affects our work performance (also known as change fatigue). Not everyone has the ideal workplace environment at home either (e.g. children to take care of, sickly elderly). Take the two stressors together and put them in your team member, you get sub-par performance.

  • Be compassionate and empathetic. Talk to your team members individually. Deliberately block time out in your calendar to spend time understanding how you can make work smoother for them (e.g. they might feel that you are micromanaging them).

  • Understand that change can be difficult. Companies have to cross hurdles to adapt to remote work—employees are the same. The best leaders know how they can help employees leap through those hurdles even faster.

Company Culture

A simplistic view: if the salary brings in the employee, the culture is what keeps them in the company. Without a physical office, your team can’t really see a manifestation of the company culture—it’s all up to your processes and the way you operate digitally.

  • Be radically transparent. At least, to the degree that your company allows you to be. Buffer’s radical transparency made them one of the best remote companies to work at.

  • Look towards flexibility. Remote work has allowed an era of workplace presenteeism to end, but it doesn’t mean that remote work is free of it. You don’t have to be online to be “working”—case in point: asynchronous operations.

  • Find the right technology. Democratize knowledge. Find ways to schedule meetings without having even to text each other. Using the right technology can help make remote work a lot more seamless.

By understanding these three paradigms, you can broadly see the stressors that can affect your team’s job performance. Without a physical workspace, it’s often believed that the company culture and employee engagement will diminish. That’s not the case; it's an opportunity for a company to leverage the inherent benefits of remote work.