As someone who’s been working from home for three years now, I can unequivocally say that it’s fantastic. Aside from the obvious benefits of no commute, no awkward elevator chat, and getting to hang out with my dog all day long, working remotely also allows me to schedule my day as I see fit— a real game changer for an insomniac like myself.
But with the good, always comes a bit of bad. And in the case of remote work, this just so happens to be isolation. As sad as it sounds, the majority of social interacting we do as adults, we do in the workplace. And by removing ourselves from that environment, we’re mostly cutting ourselves off from one of the central access points to the outside world.
For remote employees, this dearth of daily social interaction can sometimes leave us feeling isolated, anxious, and bogged down by negative thought patterns—a toxic combination that also carries consequences for employers in the way of productivity and turnover.
Put simply, feeling isolated when working from home isn’t just an individual issue, it’s a team issue. And as such, the responsibility to combat this problem falls mostly to those at the top. For managers of remote employees, here are four strategies on how to do precisely that:
Don’t Just Encourage Employees To Get Out Of The House. Force Them.
On any given day, I can come up with a million and one and excuses for why it’s easier for me to simply stay in and work from home all day, as opposed to getting out and going to a cafe. It’s raining outside; it’s snowing, I have a big deadline, my fridge is packed full of delicious leftovers, World War Three might break out, etcetera.
Unless remote workers have an excellent reason to leave the house, the chance of them doing so is exceptionally slim. This is a terrible habit to form. Failing to get of the house on a regular basis quickly leads to cabin fever which quickly leads to depression and anxiety.
This is where we working-from-home-folk need our bosses to step in. We need you to incentivize us to get up and out of the house. And this you can do in a variety of ways:
Step challenge: One of the best ways to force employees to get out and about is with a little healthy competition. Have the members of your team track and report the number of steps they take each day on their Fitbit or smartphone’s built-in pedometer to see who can rack up the most miles over the course of a week, month, or quarter. These challenges are also a great way to encourage onsite and offsite employee bonding.
Coffee shop vouchers: If your company can afford it, why not shout your remote employees a free coffee once a week or fortnight at Starbucks or their local coffee shop? This little freebie is sure to boost morale but, more importantly, will help force your virtual workers to shake up their environment every so often.
Encourage meetups: If two or more of your remote employees live in the same area, encourage them to get together every once in awhile for a work session. This could be done at one of the employee’s homes, a coffee shop or if your company can afford it, a co-working space.
Networking and industry events: Employers are forever sending in-house employees along to conferences, training courses, and other industry events. So why should it be any different for remote employees? If anything, it’s virtual employees who stand to gain more from these activities as, in addition to providing them with professional growth opportunities, they also give them a reason to great get dressed up and out from behind their laptop.
Break Away From Email
We all love email. It’s efficient, comfortable, and everyone knows how to use it. At the same time, email can be stilted and impersonal, making it difficult to connect with colleagues on a more human level. It’s for this reason that teams—especially virtual teams—should never rely solely on email as there modus operandi of communication.
If you haven’t already, transition your team onto Slack, Trello, or one of the many other project management solutions. Like email, these platforms get the job done fast. But what’s more, they do it in a way that stimulates more collaboration and real-time interaction among staff.
Teams should also be integrating video conferencing into their workflows as much as possible. There’s loads of interactive software out there to facilitate these exchanges—you’re bound to find one that works for your company’s culture and budget.
Lastly, if your virtual team works in the same timezone, try schedule calls in the morning. This helps remote employees dial into work-mode first thing in the morning and helps them remain more engaged throughout the rest of the day.
And if you don’t have any reason to meet? Then schedule one! All virtual teams should be meeting online at least once a week. Here at Distant Job, we find that daily, 15-minute video calls work great for us!
Let There Be Banter
Repeat after me: all work and no play makes my virtual employees miserable and disengaged. Workplace banter in essential for fostering connections between team members and this applies just as much in the virtual world as it does in the real one.
Team leaders, it’s up to you to lead by example in this department. Learn to be open with staff about your life outside of work and where appropriate, ask them about theirs too. Also, allow meetings to organically trail off onto random subjects that enable your workers to bond over shared interests and playful banter.
Use your EQ
Finally, all managers should be keeping tabs on their virtual employees to make sure they’re coping with the mental burden of working alone from home. Every few months, check in with the members of your team to see how they’re going and ask if there’s anything they need. Even if they consistently respond by saying that everything's okay, this is still a significant exercise to carry out as it helps foster an environment in which employees will feel comfortable speaking up should a problem arise.
Another thing managers should pay particular attention to is the respective home lives of each of their remote employees. By finding out which members of your team have spouses or roommates and which ones live alone, it helps inform which individuals might need to be supported that little bit more than others.
The reality is that for managers, keeping on top of both your employee needs and your company needs is no easy task. And if times are busy and one of them needs to hit the back burner, it’s almost always the former. That’s why strategies such as the ones discussed above (along with those explored in this post) are so important—once you have them integrated into your day-to-day workflow, you can get back to focusing on the real job at hand.