Face to face interaction is the collaboration gold standard, which is why leaders are struggling in this new remote work era. They want concrete advice on how to keep remote workers engaged, not platitudes, and theory.
How do we compensate for body language, and how to encourage natural creative cross-pollination? How important is this stuff anyway?
Vicki Brackett is a remote-work superstar, and because of her incredible advice a year ago, I invited her to come back on my show.
She’s the author of The Leadership Toolbox, which was just updated in June, and has extensive research on remote management backed by decades of experience.
Because she’s been managing remote teams since 2000, I asked her when in-person collaboration isn’t an option, what are we to do?
How do we replicate creative cross-pollination remotely?
When considering how to keep remote workers engaged, one challenge is replicating unexpected office run-ins that inspire new ideas and reveal problems team members may not otherwise be aware of. It’s for this very reason Steve Jobs famously centralized bathrooms at Pixar’s headquarters in 1986. But how do we replicate creative cross-pollination remotely?
Brackett explains one method is inviting people to join your virtual brainstorming meetings from departments you may not normally interact with. It’s also important to pick up the phone and ask opinions from people that aren’t in your department.
People want to feel important, so asking someone from accounting about marketing plans, or asking operations about engineering challenges are always well received. Leaders may also set up what Brackett calls “triage meetings” including front-line employees into the mix, absorbing their valuable perspective.
How virtual happy hours and video collaborations can backfire.
In theory, virtual hangouts or happy hours intend for employees to open up and relax a bit. In practice, however, they pose a concern: employees know they can be monitored.
“There’s a lot of technology that can help you keep an eye on your employees, and I think that nullifies any kind of trust inside a company,” Brackett explained to me. “You’ve gotta trust your employees, but that has to be built into your culture—that starts at the top.”
Be honest with yourself for just a second. Are you really going to open up and share ideas if you know big brother is always watching? Nope. When we’re being watched, we self-edit.
If you want to better grasp how to keep remote workers engaged, feel free to encourage virtual happy hours, perhaps sending out gift boxes and food to your team, but don’t be hard and fast about the platform.
How to replace body language and emotional intelligence remotely.
The furrowed brow, look of concern, and casual nods of approval aren’t readily available remotely, even on video. But because this nonverbal communication is valuable, how do we supplement it? By watching the chats of your team.
Paying extra close attention to chat conversations and email correspondence is extremely important. Following up properly—even more so.
“If Mary, for example, is always very chatty and always helping everybody, and suddenly she goes quiet—there’s something going on with Mary.” Brackett told me. There are other clues to look for too. A generally positive person turning negative is a red flag, as is a punctual employee who begins to join calls late.
Remotely managing people requires being perceptive of patterns that we typically leave to our reading of body language. When you do pick up something, act quickly. “That’s when an employee or the leader needs to pick up the phone and say ‘Mary how are you today?'” explained Brackett. “Nothing’s like picking up the phone and connecting with a human being and connecting by voice.”
Texting has it’s place, but Brackett’s comments on picking up the phone is backed by brand new research from The University of Texas at Austin. The voice itself, even without visual cues from a webcam is integral at forming tighter bonds between folks. Phone calls are key to maintaining staff positivity and how to keep remote workers engaged.
Engaging remote workers requires cranking up our listening skills to look for patterns. “It’s a skill that has to be learned, and it has to be practiced. And I think it becomes natural,” Brackett told me. “My employees have told me year after year, that they feel their emotional intelligence is getting better. And it’s just become natural to them because they practice it over and over.”
What’s most fascinating about training yourself to look for remote clues, is that it turns you into a better listener when talking face to face. You become an emotionally intelligent savant, capable of picking up on the most subtle aspects of communication. “When they get face to face [time] at a quarterly meeting they really can hone in on people because their emotional intelligence is charged.”
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How To Get Promotions Remotely
Another concern is the act of getting promoted, and getting noticed at work. “No one can see you come in early and leave late,” Brackett says, creating a problem, especially for those folks that show up early just for optics-sake. (You’re not fooling anyone.)
As my previous guest, Kathy Caprino pointed out, face time with the CEO or VP can be the difference between a promotion or being completely overlooked. Brackett has three ideas:
- Department heads, Directors or VPs must start promoting other people, talking up ideas, contributions, or accomplishments. It’s vital they make a conscious effort and promote hard work to the right people.
- Leadership MUST champion for employees. It’s their responsibility to point out great people on their team, or crediting where great ideas come from, but also helping them rise through the ranks.
- Individuals must champion themselves. Employees can go the extra mile by putting an article in chat, writing some great reports, or simply posting resources that help others. Introverts may find themselves on an even playing field in this regard.
When employees begin promoting ideas and posting resources. The effect on your organization is substantial Brackett explains, “Once you start this inside your organization, it doesn’t matter if you’re entry-level or a leader, people start duplicating your actions and it literally can change the culture.”
How to keep remote workers engaged by avoiding virtual shock.
When behavior starts changing, speech becomes slower, or people get agitated, you may be dealing with virtual shock. While some do well as hermits, most people need to be social to some degree.
When Brackett started working remotely in 2000, she noticed her own odd behavior at grocery stores. She was so socially starved, she was chatting up people in the grocery store, completely losing track of time. The realization came when she asked a woman in the produce aisle how long they had been talking. 45 minutes!
“I was so starved for people, I was in the grocery store talking to people.” Brackett said. “That’s what made me understand virtual shock. It’ when a people person, or anyone really, needs human beings and isn’t getting it.”
One big idea in how to keep remote workers engaged is to make sure they plan times to connect with people and get out. Surprisingly, this doesn’t just happen. It’s about being deliberate in leading teams’ social plug-in efforts.
Remotely keeping your team engaged is about increasing trust, reaching out to support eachother, and increasing your awareness of your team’s patterns. It takes intentionality, awareness, and wanting the best for your team.