Remote work has definite advantages for productivity, flexibility, and big savings for companies of all types. But after many months of working remotely, employees may be struggling to stay motivated and engaged.
Team leaders need to find ways to reliably motivate employees without leaning into micromanagement, which often has the opposite effect.
These thoughts from current CEOs and business leaders will provide some needed guidance and insight on motivating remote teams in a way that brings out their best work.
Catch Up and Check In
Employees aren’t motivated by catchphrases or acronyms, but by feeling like they have a specific purpose within the company and relating to other members of the team.
Managers can do their part by simply being more directly engaged with workers and checking in more frequently than usual. Even a thoughtful email or 2-minute chat can go a long way to inspire someone when their motivation might be running low.
“We like to set our expectations every week and check in frequently to see if those expectations are being met,” said Jing Gao, CEO of Fly by Jing. “However, checking in with employees daily is a must. If they are unable to meet those expectations, we want to know so we can come to a mutual agreement about the workload. We never want to overwork anyone or push anyone past their limits, especially while everyone is having a difficult time getting through the year.”
Even the most gifted and determined team leaders can’t read minds, so this is the time to improve employee communication and make sure everyone is on the same page.
Patience vs. Pressure
Leadership is a balancing act between tough love, real talk, professional conduct, and compassion. Managers that can find the right mix of all these factors have a big advantage in the era of remote work, where constant communication is vital.
If a team leader is unsure whether they need to talk more with employees, the answer is almost always yes, especially if motivation is an issue. Just by feeling more involved and engaged day to day, most workers will naturally put in great work and thrive.
“There really isn’t any ‘big secret’ to managing a team remotely,” said Chris Vaughn, CEO of Saucey. “The only way to make it work is to have an extremely open and available line of communication to all employees. It takes a certain level of motivation and dedication to keep your daily tasks going from home, and when your employees feel like they are faltering, you need to make it known that it’s okay to come to you to express their concerns and work out a solution.”
There may be moments when employees need a heart-to-heart or a genuine pep talk. Managers shouldn’t hesitate to go the extra mile if it means the difference between a good or bad outcome for the entire team.
Keep Things Visual
The same screens, spreadsheets, and workflows every day – working remotely can be a grind for everyone, and managers owe it to their teams to spice things up for a motivation boost.
There are some great visual technologies available at the moment, many of which are free and easy to use. A bit of flair and showmanship can go a long way for employees working hard at every level.
“To avoid any burnout or boredom when it comes to working remotely, we’ve found that communicating visually as much as you can manage helps boost the mood of our employees,” said John Berry, CEO of Berry Law. “Remote work can get dull and repetitive without that in-person connection, so we like to do frequent video calls and create fun presentations.”
Some managers use GIFS, Emoticons, and other meme-like interjections to brighten up daily conversations, but it’s all situation dependent. Always best to read the (virtual) room and make the appropriate contributions based on best judgment. Use team-building meetings via Zoom or Microsoft Teams to increase the interaction within your team. Interesting virtual team building activities could be virtual icebreakers, storytelling, or virtual quizzes.
Celebrate Small Victories
Not every day is going to bring an exciting announcement or breakthrough for the company. To put an exclamation point smaller achievements, managers can step up and celebrate these wins with employees more frequently.
Recognition is a big part of motivation for all workers, and enthusiasm is contagious even when shared in a virtual space. Hitting a deadline or receiving positive customer feedback may not be most monumental accomplishment of all time, but recognizing worker contributions counts for a lot.
“We are a company that puts a huge spotlight on mental health, so we do our best to not only translate that into our customer service, but also into how we interact with our employees,” Olamide Olowe, CEO of Topicals. “While they are all working remote, we have done our best to do ‘check-ins’ often to make sure everyone is coping well and is able to handle their day-to-day responsibilities. We have also made it a priority to celebrate our team’s successes often. Motivation stems from feeling a sense of accomplishment from the work you’re doing, so we like to reinforce that. The challenges have really all been solvable to an extent— no solution to remote work will completely equate to working in-office, but communicating with your team and taking advice from your employees can go a long way in working out the best ways to go about it.”
Managers that fall short on positive reinforcement may find their employees working with less focus and motivation than before. In the remote work world, everyone needs a bit more recognition than usual, so better to air on the side of more generosity.
Health Comes First
After months of remote work, it’s easy to fall back into old habits like laziness or stress. It’s not just employees feeling it – managers and leaders are people too. The important part is to be honest and humane about dealing with these situations and finding a path forward.
If an employee is struggling with health or problems in their personal lives, they shouldn’t feel like they have to push through the pain. It’s almost always better to take a break when necessary and come back stronger than before.
“When getting my employees to muster up the motivation to be productive at work every day, I try to remind them that, at the end of the day, it’s a job,” said Jim Beard, COO of BoxGenie. “Your mental and physical health should always come first. Never strain yourself for work. I like to encourage my employees to come to me with any concerns if they are feeling burnt out while working remotely. I want to ensure that they are aware that if they need to take a break, they are welcome to do so.”
This can also be a key to keeping great employees on board at a time when job opportunities are not limited by geography. Managers who show understanding and flexibility may not have to go searching for new team members as often.
Keep Everyone Looped In
One-on-one check-in meetings are great to get on the same page with individual team members, but the broader vision of a department or company can be lost in the era of remote work if managers don’t make an effort to coordinate.
“Best practices for recognizing your remote workforce would include sending a check-in and round-up at least once a week,” said Benjamin Smith, CEO of Disco. “Whether that be through email or other communication services, employers and managers should open a conversation weekly so everyone still feels in the loop and on top of the goals.”
What does it matter that Team A knows what’s going on with Team B on the other side of the organization? There may not be practical benefits, but it does create sense of unity that can motivate departments and individuals with healthy competition and comradery.
Opportunities to Engage
While some employees need a breather and a vacation to regain their motivation, others are better off with a change of pace or a new approach to the daily grind. Managers may want to talk about next steps and opportunities with employees looking to do more.
Many workers lose motivation because their routine feels played-out and mundane. Those that seem comfortable with remote work should be encouraged to step up to the plate for bigger challenges if they are in the right position.
“Employers appreciate a ‘can-do’ attitude,” said Assaf Kostiner, Founder of Paint Your Life. “Offering yourself to be of service in any way wherever and whenever possible will distinguish you as a reliable person they can give more responsibility to and an employee they can trust as an integral team member. The ability to take on more responsibility and produce efficiently is a vital tool to have in the workplace.”
Opening up this dialogue with employees could reveal some interesting discoveries and shed light on the future of motivated people looking to advance within the organization.
Put Trust in People
Micromanagement is the ultimate demotivator, even if the intentions are good. Every manager has learned this lesson the hard way, and in the realm of remote work, it takes some extra self-discipline to back off and let employees do their thing.
The reality of remote work is that everyone is in a different place geographically, mentally, and from an organizational standpoint, this takes some trust in the individuals to make it all work.
“An easy mistake during this remote workforce time period is micromanaging your team,” said Daniel Shapiro, CEO of Fourlaps. “As much as it may be nerve-wracking to not see your team working, allowing them to be autonomous lets them know you trust them and believe them to be capable. Employees do not want to feel their managers breathing down their necks and tracking each and every move while at home because this creates an air of stress which will only decrease productivity.”
The best way to avoid micromanagement is to offer the chance to communicate with frequent updates but demand little in return. When deadlines or meetings roll around, however, those high standards and expectations should be applied as normal.
Talk Schedules and Metrics
Everyone is deserving of some more flexibility in a time like this, and as long as managers can figure out a workable system to track timing and schedules, it should have no negative impact on motivation or productivity.
The same metrics, quotas, and deliverables should be expected, just maybe not on the typical 9-to-5 schedule at 40 hours a week. People are dealing with big life changes that need to be accounted for and communicated ahead of time to make everything work.
“Fortunately, we’ve always had a culture of measuring outcomes and that hasn’t changed due to COVID,” said Rishi Kulkarni, CEO of Revv. “This also allowed us to work around the challenges that COVID brought as employees could give attention to loved ones without compromising their performance or efficiency. We’ve encouraged our employees to use their calendars to maximum effect, clearly mark times they are not available, and be disciplined about it. The only change we’ve pushed is more communication on our chat channels so that people don’t feel isolated, and that’s become the lifeline for the company.”
It’s a departure for the norm that takes some time to get used to, but many companies have found their groove with more flexible schedules and the ability to juggle workflows in unusual circumstances. Practice makes perfect.
Take Time to Teach
There will be some employees that immediately get with the program on remote work, while others need more guidance to figure it out. Managers have to deal with people in different generations, time zones, ability levels, and other factors that make this shift difficult.
Education is the answer, and managers should encourage adaptable employees to help out team members who need a bit more assistance getting up to speed.
“Remote work has been a learning curve,” Nik Sharma, CEO of Sharma Brands. “In transitioning to a fully digital lifestyle required the regular workday to incorporate more educational avenues. Setting aside time for the team to get properly acclimated to the remote working environment helped us remain a well-oiled machine.”
With the introduction of a new technology or platform, it’s smarter to roll out the implementation slowly and explain everything at a reasonable pace. This will save a lot of headaches and hassle down the road and keep everyone in the loop.
Find a Unique Approach
Too many companies are taking a copy/paste approach to remote work that simply might not be a great fit for their team. Every team is a different size, uses unique workflows, has distinct challenges, and people always have personal preferences that can’t be anticipated.
Rather than forcing everyone to adhere to the same set of tools, managers should offer up different configurations and options from which workers can pick and choose. Allow time for experimentation and adaptation – it’s worth the extra time upfront.
“There’s no right or wrong answer to remote working. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ solution,” said Jeff Goodwin, Sr. Director of Marketing and Ecommerce and Orgain. “Many people, teams and functions prefer the flexibility of remote work and are often just as efficient (if not more so) when working off-site. The challenge for managers is to make sure everyone stays connected and motivated so the organizational culture and human connections within the business continue to thrive.”
Remote work is still brand new to so many companies that this is the time to take risks and try new things, so long as it doesn’t interfere with work quality or distract from the core mission. A superior tech setup will end up being a wise investment of time and cash.
Rather than making every employee follow a strict schedule and enforcing traditional office rules, successful managers are more focused on the bigger picture of staying productive and keeping workers motivated.
People work in different ways and need to balance their personal lives in a time when connection is essential. If there’s a slight dip in daily productivity, this shouldn’t be cause for alarm, since an employee may come back with twice the output the next day.
“Instead of trying to force yourself to be productive when you’re not, or to relax when your mind’s whirling, just go with the flow,” said Terry Traut, CEO of Unlockit. “Don’t feel guilty for that time you got up at 3:00 a.m. to document a brilliant thought. Likewise, don’t feel guilty for that morning walk in the woods. You’ll find yourself more productive and happier.”
There will be a bigger shift toward unorthodox remote work lifestyles in the future, and high-skilled employees will seek work environments that give them that extra flexibility.
Employees Speak Up
Great communication is never a one-way street, and managers can’t do all the talking, all the time. Employees should have a platform that allows them to express their visions and clarify what they need to take the next steps forward in their projects or goals.
Some employees are more reserved or shy, of course, so no pressure. Still, they should have the chance to speak up at any time if the situation calls for it.
“Working remotely has been all about over-communication,” Brent Sanders, CEO of Wicksly. “We’ve structured our days to have specific check-ins and have transitioned to a daily standup model where each member has an opportunity to share what they did yesterday, what they are doing today and if they are blocked by anything and request help. This has helped us remain close as well as focused.”
These types of meetings don’t need to follow any particular structure or pattern, but it helps if leaders move things in a productive direction and everyone stays on course.
Throw in a Few Perks
A lot of companies built themselves on reputations as being fun and funky places to work where sharp minds gather and enjoy an experimental space for creativity and productivity. These workplace perks don’t have to be thrown out the window in the era of remote work.
Well-placed incentives and thank-you’s can be powerful tools for motivation, and if budgets allow, managers can earn a lot of points during a heavy workweek when the pressure is on.
Come up with creative, spontaneous ways to motivate your team and show that you appreciate their hard work – especially during these challenging times,” said Travis Killian, CEO of Everlasting Comfort. “If they’re working remotely, send them all gift cards to have lunch on you – during a fun Zoom call. Halt a grueling task to have an impromptu brainstorming session, and then reward those who come up with creative ideas with incentives. “
Working remotely tends to keep everyone in their own bubble, but these small gestures can add an awesome social infusion to any team – very valuable.
Transparent and Clear
Some managers believe that excluding details about a task or project is the right move when explaining things to remote workers. It’s not meant as deception, but the idea that people work better when they aren’t overloaded with information.
The truth is that employees appreciate to be kept in the loop no matter what, even if they don’t pay attention to every word mentioned in the memo or on the meeting call.
It’s a matter of respect, and it helps workers feel like they’re a part of something bigger when they see the full picture of what’s going on.
“One thing that can dramatically lower team morale is when your remote employees feel as if they’re consistently left in the dark,” said Jordan Dwayen, CEO of 6 Ice. “No one likes to be working on a project where they only understand a portion of the objectives. This is why transparency is imperative when keeping up motivation and building an inclusive business environment.”
With that said, there is no risk in overcommunicating on even the smallest tasks. Unlikely employees may even step up and offer an unconsidered solution that saves the day.
Stay Up on Tech
The tidal wave of remote work software can be overwhelming, but it navigating it can be an experience that brings teams together and helps managers make more sense of their roles.
In the office, managers rely on passing comments and irregular interactions, but everything in the digital world is tracked, measured, and repeatable in a predictable way. This allows leaders to stay up on their tasks and lead by example on every front.
“Remote employee motivation can most effectively be backed with supplying the right tools that each team member needs to perform at their very best,” said Timmy Yanchun, Co-Founder of LTHR Shaving. “Being prepared and feeling self-assured can be the most powerful motivator on the planet. Stay on the same page with your team, and ensure that they reach out whenever a tool or app would make their jobs easier.”
Not ever idea will be a home run, but that’s part of the experience. Remote work is still in its infancy and now is the time to figure out solutions that work for every type of team.
Sprinkle in Some Fun
Fun is in short supply these days, and everyone needs to enjoy themselves a bit to recharge those motivation levels. Managers don’t have to put on a whole song and dance, but there are ways to break up the monotony with online events, games, or social gatherings.
Work tends to be the last thing on the minds of employees at the end of the day, but for those with extra time and a good attitude, these activities can be a nice change of pace.
“Improving remote motivation is often based on finding beneficial ways to show your appreciation to your team for a job well done, and encouraging them to continue that level of productivity – even when working from home,” said Rachel Jones, Head of PR of Hope Health Supply. “When current situations improve, consider team-building events that can range from an escape room to a weekend retreat. Or, for a little competition and adventure, divide your department into teams and solve a mystery or ‘hunt a killer.’ Get creative, have fun with it and watch your motivation (and productivity) skyrocket.”
It will be interesting to see what types of team-building events and activities take place for companies in the future that lean heavily on remote work. This will be a factor in employee satisfaction and motivation, so it’s something to watch.
When in Doubt, Reach Out
There’s a way to communicate with employees that makes them feel respected, recognized, and motivated. The problem is that technique is different for each member of the team, and managers need to keep close track of everyone’s unique style and preferences.
Reaching out is a great first step, but it only takes full effect if feedback is encouraged and incorporated. Ramping up communication might be a challenge at first for remote teams, but it will soon feel second nature and the benefits compound over time.
“My approach of keeping my employees motivated is to talk less and listen more!” said Tyler Forte, CEO & Co-Founder of Felix Homes. “From personal experience, most issues with employee engagement stem from poor communication. Whether it’s a result of not having a communication channel set up or the trust that the message the employee is trying to communicate will be acknowledged and heard. To get down to the core of these issues, managers need to be proactive with checking in. Working together on solutions and goal setting is a great way to connect and get on the same page.”
Companies that execute on these remote work tips may even see motivation and productivity reach new heights, so it’s worth taking more seriously.