Imagine two university rowing teams competing in a race for the national championship. The head of Team One tells his charges they need to give all they’ve got, or they’ll be seen as losers. The Team Two leader, meanwhile, tells his team that they row not just to win, but to honor all those who have rowed their university to victory in the past and to further burnish the reputation of their prestigious institution, boosting their own profile in the process.
Which team will win?
If any single indicator determines an employee’s impact on an organization, it’s engagement. Study after study has shown that engaged employees not only strengthen workplace culture, but also boost retention, productivity, collaboration, and profits. Yet for the first time in a decade, employee engagement is falling, with barely a third of US workers reporting as engaged in a recent poll.
This is likely because so many of today’s managers and executives had little experience with remote work — and tended to avoid it — before the pandemic forced them to start wrangling a mostly virtual staff. Now remote is here to stay, and it’s time for traditionalists to accept that reality and begin to embrace the tools and methods that sharply increase remote engagement.
At Virtira, we’ve found the surest route to engagement, particularly with remote teams, is a multi-platform communications strategy that stresses the organization’s purpose and goals. This establishes a North Star for managers and team leads, guiding their setting of objectives and targets and encouraging collaboration while allowing team members to take ownership in their work and the broader mission.
Along with the sense of alignment, team members are at their most productive when managers involve them in the decision-making process, and they feel ownership in the result.
Effective managers will earn buy-in from team members by giving them a say in how the work will be accomplished. Managers must avoid being prescriptive and instead, convey where the finish line is and work with the team member to discover the path to cross it. The manager must use coaching techniques to set time and effort expectations and reach an understanding how the new work fits with existing, sometimes competing priorities.
For the remote team member, this flexibility keeps them engaged and productive through long periods of working on their own. This provides a sense of ownership, rather than a feeling of obedience, which generates a greater feeling of work satisfaction and ultimately increased engagement.
Virtual workers who are uncertain of their responsibilities, their role in the company or their next targets can easily begin to feel helpless when they face a roadblock, or even when they complete their to-do list and wonder what to do next. Clarity on objectives and mission eliminates much of that uncertainty and tends to create a self-reliant team.
In addition, because they’re out of sight, remote workers often fear their efforts will never lead to advancement. This is not unreasonable, as studies have shown that promotions are less likely for those who work outside the office.
Even so, managers can help close this gap by working with team members to set milestones and lay out a path for career advancement. This helps remote employees feel more appreciated and shows the organization is looking out for their best interests by aligning their skills and goals with corporate objectives.
The final element of this more empowering, engagement-friendly approach is collecting quarterly feedback via anonymous surveys, sharing the results with the team, and jointly developing relevant reforms. At least one or two of the survey questions should be open-ended, allowing staffers to express their views in their own words.
Again, this encourages ownership and a sense that their opinions and concerns are valuable, particularly if these issues are later discussed in group meetings. And if any reforms or improvements are implemented, they should be clearly linked to the feedback so team members see the impact of their input.
As for the big race, Team One jumped out to a sizable lead as its team worked itself into an angry lather, but Team Two rallied at the end as its rowers showed their commitment and their engagement in the broader mission.
This article was first published as an Author Post on Forbes.com