Once upon a time, employees sat around tables in a conference room swapping stories before business meetings began. They stopped by one another’s desks to ask questions or catch up on weekend plans. They passed by bulletin boards in breakrooms covered with inspirational quotes, important announcements, and employee awards.

Now, well…those magical days of in-person interaction are long gone for many of us. We’re logging onto virtual platforms to conduct meetings. We may go for an entire day or more without visually seeing any colleagues. We may also struggle to keep up with company news or feel connected to our teams.

It’s a strange dichotomy, yet it’s one that many employees continue to experience first-hand in the wake of the COVID-19 and its effect on workplaces nationwide. Forty-four percent of U.S. employees now work from home five days or more per week. Compare that with the 17% who worked from home that frequently pre-COVID-19. 

While the perks of remote work are clear, connecting with employees from home comes with its fair share of challenges. So finding ways to bring teams together and create community from afar is one of the most critical things any manager can do to enhance employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention during times of uncertainty.

Here are eight tips for how to keep remote workers connected:

1. Use messaging apps. 

We all know that there are plenty of times when the phone, video calls, or email just don’t jive with busy workflows. Thankfully, messaging apps save the day. Slack, for example, lets employees brainstorm, collaborate, communicate, and share files in a transparent way. Google Hangouts handles everything from large business meetings to individual and group chats. There are plenty of other messaging apps available, all of which accomplish the goals of improving communication, engaging employees, and strengthening team relationships.

2. Socialize virtually with each other. 

Employees may not see each other in person regularly, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get together for some good conversation and laughs virtually. Consider hosting a virtual happy hour, for example, where everyone has their favorite drink and snack handy. You could even play games such as charades or trivia, or you could hire entertainment such as a comedian or singer. Themed-virtual parties are also fun. Everyone dresses up and decorates their conversation space according to the theme. The idea is to engage everyone and relieve some of the stresses of everyday life we all experience during the pandemic. Remember: Connecting with remote teams doesn’t need to be all business and no fun.

“Someone will think of a random question to get the conversation going, and every time, I’ve learned something new about someone. Sample questions have included: “What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done,” “What’s your most prized possession?” and “What are you reading or watching right now?” At first it felt forced, but the team looks forward to it now because it’s a respite in the middle of the week.”

— Allison Joseph, VP of Employee Digital Experience, Fidelity Investments

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3. Shower employees with appreciation. 

Sometimes a good ole’ ‘job well done’ or ‘thanks for going the extra mile’ can make a big difference in terms of connecting with remote employees. Consider sending a quick email or even a thank you card in the mail to show appreciation. Gifts are also nice if your budget permits. Looking for ideas? How about wireless charging stations, cord organizers, Bluetooth speakers, personalized tote bags, or gift cards? Be creative, and have fun with it.

“It’s all about Slack emojis. No, really. It’s a super easy, organic way to give feedback to people, especially as an executive of the company. If a manager posts something that one of their team members did, add an emoji and a “Hey, awesome job.” I think that goes miles and miles and miles—not only with that employee, but with everybody else who can see your level of engagement.”

—Sam Pessin, Chief Executive Officer, Remote Year

4. Foster physical and emotional well-being. 

Sometimes connecting with remote employees means simply listening to them when they need to talk. That was true before COVID-19, and it’s even more important now. Maybe your employee knows someone who has COVID-19 or is struggling with anxiety and depression, for example. Maybe they are experiencing difficulties working from home. Encourage employees to call you or video chat with you when concerns arise—even if there isn’t a scheduled meeting on the calendar. 

“We moved away from an employee satisfaction survey to a simple, daily email that says, “How was your day?” Not, “How was your workday?” or “What struggles did you face in your work?” But, really, “How was your day?” We’ve been trying to push ourselves to make sure that people are feeling supported and feeling like they have the space to talk.”

— Tom Vranas, Vice President of Innovation and Culture, Everywhere Wireless

5. Remind employees of the resources available to them.

We may think employees know about the many benefits and perks your company offers—but the data tells us otherwise. In fact, a recent study revealed that 51% of employees only visit their benefits portal 1-3 times per year. That’s it. 

So in a time when physical, mental, and financial health are top-of-mind, we need to remind employees about the resources that are available to them, and help them make more informed healthcare decisions—during open enrollment and throughout the year.

Consider sending a daily email or Slack message with words of encouragement or a positive quote. Likewise, if your company offers telemedicine and EAP resources, help spread the word about using them. Or offer pointers on how to adapt home offices to be more comfortable and ergonomically correct. You could also launch an employee engagement survey to see what resonates with employees and how you can help. 

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Here’s what it boils down to: Remote employees need to know that you’re there for them and that you care even when they don’t see you every day.

6. Encourage regular team check-ins. 

Connecting with remote teams is all about keeping everyone on the same page. Consider daily standup meetings or virtual team huddles where remote employees can ask questions, share project updates, and can identify ways to help each other. 

Again, these check-ins are about a lot more than work. Don’t forget to ask employees how they’re doing as a whole person, too. 

“Everyone on the team goes around and describes how they’re doing based on red (poorly), yellow (meh), or green (good). And the objective is to answer as a human being, not as an employee, for example: “I’m yellow today. My kids kept me up all night, and I’m super exhausted. So I’m trying to get to green but I’m pretty yellow.”

— Steph Yiu, Head of Customer Success, WordPress VIP

7. Find fun ways to break up the monotony. 

For many remote employees, there’s often a blur between work and home routines, creating a monotony that can be hard to break. However, managers can be creative with how they address this challenge. For example, create theme days such as ‘weird sweater day’ or ‘hat day.’ Or go on a strange scavenger hunt by asking employees to find the weirdest item in their refrigerator. Sharing a few laughs can go a long way in terms of connecting with remote employees.

8. Conduct stay interviews. 

We all know about exit interviews. A “stay” interview is the opposite. It can help you gauge why folks are excited to come to work every day, and where there are growth opportunities. In a volatile labor market, stay interviews could help with retention, too.

“It’s the opposite of an exit interview. It’s where you’re learning about your people and the skills they’re looking to develop. Because when I learn that, I can support my team in building those skills.”

—Aaron Levy, Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Raise the Bar

When managers make connecting with remote employees a priority, they not only strengthen the team overall; they also enhance employee retention. ‘Remote’ work doesn’t need to be synonymous with ‘disconnected’ work. If anything, it’s just the opposite. Remote work can be highly productive work where employees feel empowered, engaged, and more satisfied. Learning how to keep a remote team connected may take a bit of effort and creativity, but it’s well worth it in the end.

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