Your staff used to have impromptu conversations around the water cooler or coffee machine. A few of them would have lunch together or hit happy hour. Whether they talked about work or their new puppy, they built stronger relationships both with each other and the organization.

Or, to use the current term, they were engaged.

When they’re working from home and the lunch bunch is one person, how do you keep everyone engaged and motivated? And what are the signs that engagement and motivation are slipping?

Here are some best practices for fostering teamwork when the team isn’t together in an office.

How to Identify Lack of Engagement

The warning signs that an employee’s motivation is slipping are the same whether the employee is in an office or working remotely. Managers should watch for these changes in behavior:

  • Decrease in productivity, missing deadlines, careless mistakes
  • Not showing initiative, such as volunteering to take on new tasks or responsibilities
  • Consistently complaining, criticizing, or being negative
  • Withdrawing from team meetings and activities
  • Reduced productivity or reduced quality of work

Organizations will sometimes rationalize that an employee who seems less engaged is still meeting their work commitments, so why does it matter whether they’re engaged or not? That’s a trap that in the long run will harm the organization.
Employees who are engaged are more productive. Employees who feel good about where they are working and what they are doing feel more successful. They work harder and smarter. They are more committed to their role in the organization. They feel that their work matters.

Engaged employees are involved and invested in their roles and are therefore less likely to leave their job. Sometimes the best employees aren’t engaged — and the organization may risk losing them. Keeping them engaged is absolutely essential in reducing the risk of losing them. Turnover is directly affected by this.

Finally, engaged employees enhance company culture. They are easier to be around, easier to work with, and they generally foster a more positive working environment.

Replicating the Office Atmosphere

Coffee breaks in the office tend to be spontaneous: one employee swings by another’s desk to chat. Managers can implement virtual coffee breaks: 15- to 20-minute video calls when employees can come together for small talk over a cup of coffee. These can be scheduled at predictable times, such as once a week, and invite random co-workers to meet. Managers should establish rules during these, such as no phone use, no checking messages, etc.

Similarly, managers can organize virtual water coolers over Zoom/Google Meet, or in a Slack channel. Managers can make this fun by encouraging employees to share fun and non-work-related information, such photos or videos of pets or children. Discussion groups on books, movies, or other shared interests can also work well.

Other office events translate to the virtual environment, such as trivia nights, dressing to match a theme as a costume contest, and events where employees share recipes from their backgrounds or ethnicities.

Best Practices for Meetings and Check-Ins

Start and end the week with a brief meeting that is part work and part fun. On Monday morning, virtually gather for a brief (no more than 30 minutes) meeting where people share what they did over the weekend before talking about the work week ahead. Have an End of the Week happy hour on Friday afternoons where managers acknowledge the work employees did during the week.

During the work week, consistent communication among the team and between manager and employee is crucial. Managers should conduct brief, regular check-ins to ensure the team feels connected and is part of a wider community. These check-ins should vary between serious, work-related content and light-hearted conversation. Too often, virtual communication meetings are too serious, which doesn’t help engagement at all.

There is no hard and fast rule on frequency, as every team and every individual has varying needs. In some cases, less is more, and in others, more is beneficial. Some employees may benefit from a five-minute chat about the day ahead every morning, especially for new or junior staff, while others work best with a meeting once every week or two.

Employees should also know that they’ll have the opportunity to discuss their questions and concerns, as well as highlight their wins, with their manager.

When in doubt, managers should discuss how frequently each employee wants to meet. That doesn’t mean employees can dictate the schedule. Some employees may need more support or coaching than they might think or want, and high-performing employees should feel they are trusted enough to do their jobs without micromanagement. But all team members should know they can connect with their manager in a meaningful and productive way when they want.

Again, meetings should have rules, such as show up on time, no use of phones, don’t do other work and only pay partial attention. On the other hand, managers should make sure that meetings have a purpose and an agenda, and not waste time.

Most importantly, managers and organizations should be sensitive to, and aware of, what remote employees are doing and feeling.

The Lindenberger Group has helped organizations in virtually every industry help build and maintain high-performing, engaged workforces. For more information or to discuss your HR needs, please contact us at 609-730-1049 or send us an email.