Face to face interaction is the gold standard when it comes to collaboration, which is why leaders are struggling with this new remote work era. We want concrete advice on how to keep remote workers engaged, not platitudes and theory.
Vicki Brackett is the remote-work superstar and recently came 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 compensate for body language, and how to encourage natural creative cross-pollination?
How do we replicate creative cross-pollination remotely?
One difficult challenge when considering how to keep remote workers engaged is replicating unexpected office run-ins that inspire new ideas and reveal problems that 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 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. It’s also important to set up what Brackett calls triage meetings, including front line employees into the mix to get perspective.
Be careful on how you use virtual meetings however to engage remote workers, sometimes they can backfire.
How virtual happy hours and video collaborations can backfire.
In theory, virtual hangouts or happy hours get employees to open up and relax a bit. In practice, however, they pose a concern because employees know they can be monitored.
“Because 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? Probably not. When we’re being watched, we self-edit.
If you want to better grasp how to keep remote workers engaged, go ahead, and encourage virtual happy hours and digital hangouts, perhaps send 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. Because this nonverbal communication is valuable, watching the chats of your team is extremely important, and 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. Sometimes someone who’s typically positive turns negative. Perhaps someone who is normally early is joining a few minutes late.
Remotely managing people requires being perceptive of patterns that we typically leave to body language. And 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.”
Brackett’s experience on the power of human voice 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. Just like Brackett pointed out over and over in our interview, phone calls are key to a positive staff and how to keep remote workers engaged.
When engaging remote workers we need to crank up our listening skills and 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. “Then when the get face to face 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.
As my previous guest, Kathy Caprino pointed out, face time with the CEO or department head can mean 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 you start promoting ideas, and posting resources. The effect on your organization is substantial Brackett explains, “Once you start this inside your organization, doesn’t matter if your 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 people’s behavior starts changing, and speech becomes slower, or people get agitated, you may be dealing with virtual shock. Sure, there are some people that do well as hermits, but most people need to be around people at least to some degree.
When Brackett started working remotely in 2000, she noticed she was taking a LOT of time going to grocery stores. It was an odd pattern and finally, she started to realize what was happening. 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’ 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.
At the end of the day, 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.