From the Trenches: Five Tips for Engaging Remote Workers

 In Motivating Employees

Amy Hart

From the Trenches: Five Tips for Engaging Remote Workers

Engaging remote workers…What Difference Does it Make? Gallup’s reported numbers on employee engagement have remained flat for several years now – less than 1 in 3 employees are engaged, costing some $450 to $550 billion a year in lost productivity. Various things affect employee engagement and retention, including telecommuting – now a permanent part of workplace culture affecting some 63 million Americans. According to Global Workplace Analytics, one third of American workers will work remotely this year. 

Remote workers affect companies across the board – from the multi-billion dollar global giants to small companies of less than ten. Remotes offer unique challenges that need to be addressed in order to maximize employee productivity. What do those having first-hand experience in various industries have to say about meeting those challenges…what are  common best practices?

In a non-scientific experiment, I interviewed a collection of experts* – people who have successfully worked in the trenches with remote workers in various industries- about their best practices for engaging remote workers.  The industries represented include real estate investments and management, energy, engineering, manufacturing, retail, publishing, insurance, financial services, education, and a not-for-profit organization.  This article represents their collective best practices and top five tips.


Tip One: Leaders Must Make the Extra Effort

Two essential characteristics identified for successful remote workers are: 1) they are self-starters and 2) they take initiative.  However, that does NOT mean leaders don’t need to make an extra effort to build these relationships and offer support.  “Out of sight, out of mind” applies.  Organization Development leader Nannette Daugherty has been on both sides of that equation – first, as part of a remote office and then as a leader managing remotes in a global company.  “Remotes may assume that people are connecting every day,” she says. While that is probably not happening, it can be helpful, Daugherty points out, to provide some informal connection time. For example, create a budget for having occasional virtual lunches.  She also states that leaders have to make a conscious effort to ask “Who  needs to know this?” Post a sticky note that says “Remember Remotes.”  Set periodic reminders on your computer – whatever it takes to keep remote employees top of mind.

“One of the most difficult parts about managing remote workers is simply remembering to loop them in.”  -Dustin Grosse, COO of Clear Slide

Tip Two: Regularly Schedule Meetings or Check Ins

The second tip voiced in the interviews is to have regularly scheduled virtual meetings or phone/text check-ins.  Interviewees emphasized the importance of meeting in person at least once a year if at all possible, especially at the beginning of the team or project being established.


Regular check-ins are a crucial way of keeping remotes feeling a part of the team. Make yourself available as a resource, and give/get regular feedback and updates.  It’s also an important way to establish accountability, and can keep remotes from feeling as isolated.  These touch points need not be lengthy or “meeting just to have meetings”, but rather become a habit of regular communication to stay in touch, on track, and up to date.

In large organizations, some employees work with team members who are not only remote, but also have different priorities and bosses. How to best manage this?  An effective strategy used by HR leader Heather Curran was to establish well- organized regular status meetings with her remote content experts.  The monthly status meetings proved to be an excellent way of keeping things from falling through the cracks. Having regularly blocked off time for status reports supported remote team members in working through their assignments without getting as distracted.  Curran worked hard to make it easy for content experts to deliver what she needed on time.  She sent pre-established agendas and provided guidance and support.  Following each meeting, she debriefed key points and action items with due dates via email, and sent out a list of commitments a week prior to the next meeting.   Finally, Curran established a meeting schedule at the beginning of a project, which helped ensure better attendance.

Tip Three: Put a Face To It!

All of those interviewed stressed the importance of being able to see who you are talking to.  It helps you build rapport, get to know people, read body language and understand more about each other’s communication styles.  How to see remotes?  Use “virtual in person” – seeing someone face to face on a webinar for example.  Of the three main communication methods used in business, “virtual in person” is the least used, at 10 to 15% of the time.  Yet according to Yael Zofi in   A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams, “virtual in person” has 55% of the impact vs. 38% of the impact for voice (teleconference)  and  7% for email.


So what’s it take to put a virtual face to a voice? Many platforms like Skype and GoToMeeting are easy to learn and free/inexpensive.  The technology has improved dramatically and is much more reliable than even a year ago.   For older computers without cameras, you can purchase good webcams for less than $50.  I do a lot of business by virtual meetings and webinars, and I’ve noticed resistance from some because they think it’s harder than it really is.  Practice a little, mute the lines if it gets hard to hear, and get over seeing yourself on the screen.  Wear a decent shirt (no one can see anything else anyway!) and you’re set!

At the very least, put a face to it with photos!  Put photos in directories, on your Intranet, in Google for Work, social media, or even an intro slide for a virtual meeting/webinar.

Tip Four: Recognition and Celebrations – Include Remotes!

Who likes to be forgotten?  No One!  What message does it send to your remote workers if you forget to include them in office celebrations or the announcement of who won top office honors this year?


“You Don’t Matter.”

Susan Kennedy, an HR leader with experience in engineering, nonprofit, and manufacturing sectors, stresses inclusivity.  For example, when local employees were given Christmas hams and turkeys, Kennedy sent gift cards to the remote employees for local stores where they could purchase their gifts.  She asks questions like “How do you like to be rewarded and recognized?”  She recognizes internal winners on the company’s Face Book page.  Kennedy suggests using employee surveys as an information tool and asking remotes to be a part of project teams to address the surveys.  Have a   celebration and recognition budget and share it with remote employees too.  Little things matter!

Tip Five: Focus on Building Strong Relationships

Like all people, remote workers want to be appreciated and considered.  One common issue with remotes is coordinating global meeting times.   Business Intelligence expert John Lucas, PhD had 125 employees on four different continents reporting to him at one time.  His best advice about global time differences is “Share the pain.”  Move meeting times around so no one group is always inconvenienced.  Lucas stresses remembering that remotes are human beings, and challenges leaders to look for ways to support them emotionally, particularly during times of great change.


Make the time to build the relationship.  All interviewees talked about going out of their way to take advantage of opportunities to get to know remote employees, such as at company conferences or sales meetings.   They find out what they like and what’s important to them, ask about their preferred methods of communication.  They look for ways to build rapport and inclusivity.  And when possible, they bring them in or visit at least annually.

Engaging Remote Workers…What Difference Does it Make? Experiment with these tips.  You have a lot to gain!

* Special thanks to all the leaders who contributed to this article through interviews:Lisa Schwaller (IT Project Management); Susan Kennedy (Human Resources (“HR”), Manufacturing);  Kristen Peikert (HR, Publishing); Karen Starz (Communications);Brian Keefer (President/ Insurance Company);  John Lucas, PhD (Business Intelligence & Marketing); Dana Patkowski (Sales & Training in Education), Heather Curran (HR Global Real Estate/Investments); Nannette Daugherty (Organization Development (“OD”) Engineering, Oil and Gas Support Services); Ashley Western(COO/small business owner); Teresa Saldivar (HR/OD  Energy–); and Mark Flamendorf (Learning & Development/Insurance).