Virtual teams: How to sustain motivation and engagement

Written by Karen Triola, PHR, Senior OD Consultant
Previously published by PSI Talent Management or Cubiks, prior to becoming Talogy.

As more of us settle well into working remotely indefinitely, I‘m hearing a concern from my coaching clients: “How do I continue to motivate and engage my team in a virtual environment?” 

It’s a great question. 

When you are not physically present with your teams for long periods of time, you don’t have as many informal opportunities to answer questions and share information – and that can have consequences. It means you have to be more intentional about finding ways to get to know your people, what makes them tick, and how you can lead them through this challenging time.   

In my conversations with different leaders, some organizations are adapting to remote work for the first time, and their employees may be navigating the very real challenges that come with working from home for the first time, such as fewer opportunities for face-to-face interactions, feelings of isolation, experiencing video fatigue, and dealing with increased distractions at home.  For these reasons, employee engagement is more important than ever. 

As a leader, it is your role to provide your team with the conditions to be successful. In this new environment, think about what success looks like now. How do you want your team members to describe your leadership during this time? Additionally, help your team define the new culture. What would they need to do differently or better to align themselves to the new culture? What support or resources do they need to be successful? 

Keep in mind that how the team achieved their goals in the past may look very different now. It isn’t a one size fits all. You will continually need to adapt your style based on the needs of your team members. How does a sales rep find creative ways to reach out to brokers when he or she takes pride and gains energy from building relationships through face-to-face meetings? How does technology organization go from globally supporting virtual clients to providing their own teams with the technology required to work remotely? 

Here are three key things you can do as a leader to help keep your employees engaged and motivated: 

1. Reduce the fear

Proactively reach out to each employee to find out about their world. Conduct regular check-ins. Ask questions like:

  • How is your morning routine going now that you don’t have to go into work?
  • What is your workspace setup – does it help you get things done during the day?
  • Do you need anything to help improve that for you?

Help each person leverage their personality strengths in the new environment. What will help them? What will get in their way? If they are someone who is naturally introverted, they may find that working remotely will enable them to focus on the work at hand, but you might need to encourage them to find ways to stay connected with the rest of the team and other colleagues at work. Most organizations I support are finding success using a platform that supports video conferencing so that there are more face-to-face meeting opportunities with their employees. Ask your employees how they prefer to best communicate during this time.  

2. Communicate messages in a variety of ways 

Establish open lines of communication.  Help each employee know where and when they can get information. Openness and transparency goes a long way in strengthening their commitment to the organization. Find informal ways of communicating with each other. Continue to find creative ways to provide updates to your teams and create opportunities for two-way dialogue where employees can ask questions, express concerns, share best practices, and get advice from others. It can also be a time when the team focuses on catching up with each other, so build in an ice breaker into a virtual meeting and have each employee share a success story.  

One company I work with has a member of their leadership team share information and address questions during a weekly video conference. Other leaders share the value of using instant messaging. This approach makes communication less formal when employees need a quick question answered or if you, as the leader, want to reach out and share some information. Finding alternate ways to communicate is the key to success. 

3. Help create a new norm together 

Check in on your employees and ask for feedback. Experiment by asking what is working well and why, and what could be done differently or better. Keep in mind that circumstances are continually changing, and it is important to create a feedback loop so that you and your employees are on the same page. Be flexible about how each employee is getting their work done. This challenging time has enabled us to learn more about our employees than in the past. We hear dogs barking every now and then, doorbells ringing from a delivery, and possibly kids in the background. Our home life and work life have very much blended together. It was always there before, but now we really have the chance to see it and experience our employees holistically.   

Based on what we learn and know about them, it is up to us as leaders to trust our employees to get the work done. Share time frames and goals with your employees so that they are clear on what part they play in achieving the goal. Then, be sure that they stay kind to themselves. It is more challenging than ever to separate and balance work and home. Talk about the best way to do that for each of your employees. What is the policy for sending emails late at night or on weekends? How are you recognizing and rewarding employees? Many companies are finding success in implementing virtual happy hours. The first five to ten minutes can be spent celebrating or recognizing a recent success, while the remainder of the time is spent on a game the team can play to focus on well-being and socializing with colleagues. 

Although you are facing many challenges during this difficult time as a leader, you have an opportunity to continue building relationships and developing a team that’s stronger than ever before.   

Leading remote teams: new trends and challenges for managers

Remote work is expected to continue to rise even after the recent pandemic subsides.

Three out of four CEOs recently surveyed indicated they will not bring all employees back on site (Gartner, 2020). With this shift, managers will need to understand how to work remotely themselves, as well as how to lead a team with less structure, fewer opportunities to communicate, and collaboration enabled by technology.

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