Tips for Rewarding, Recognizing and Engaging Your Remote Team

Last Updated Feb 19, 2011 10:08 AM EST

Employee engagement is at an all-time low, which sounds like something for HR to worry about, but it means managers are at risk for lower productivity, higher turnover and spending more time putting out fires. When that team is scattered all over the place, it's even harder to keep your team focused and engaged. What are some of the things we need to be thinking about?

Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick are the authors of "The Orange Revolution- How One Great Team Can Transform an Entire Organization." Using research from some of the best companies in the world, they have identified some tips for managers of remote teams.

During a recent interview on The Cranky Middle Manager Podcast, the perpetually upbeat authors answered some questions specific to managing remote teams:

What are the challenges of trying to build teams remotely and why does it matter that we get it right?
First, remember that managing remote employees is not a recent phenomenon. Leaders have been trying to inspire and provide direction to remote followers since ancient times. Genghis Khan quite effectively led a team spread across thousands of miles, and he did it without telephones, the Internet, or even a Facebook page (imagine!). We have less excuses than past generations to do this right, and many more tools at our disposal.

Now, with that said, we work with enough companies to know the challenges. First, remote employees feel isolated, undervalued and out of touch with what matters most at Corporate. Remote leaders feel their employees on the fringes don't listen to them, don't follow directions, and have too much latitude in how they deal with clients or in the hours they work. But for managers who get this right there are tremendous benefits for both sides: retaining and getting the most out of talented employees who work in diverse parts of the country or world.

What are some proven ways of recognizing employees when they only know each other virtually?
How long does it take for a manager to connect with a remote employee who has done something wrong? About a minute. How long does it take for that manager to connect with a remote employee who has done something right? Maybe never. The most important way for a manager to begin the process of recognizing great work is to shoulder the burden.

Great managers send handwritten notes to employees, they recognize their people via Social Media, they bring remote people together often and when they do they present tangible awards to those who have done above-and-beyond work. These managers also ensure teammates have online ways to send thanks to each other--ecards for instance--and also provide each person with a stack of simple recognition notes and other inexpensive awards to send to each other.

What is the same or different about remote teams versus co-located teams?
Remote teams are similar to other teams in that they can provide tremendous value if we engage them appropriately. The sad truth is, however, that remote employees can do more harm than good to the company's reputation if they are not living the company's values. Thus, it takes much more training and conscious effort to help remote workers understand and live your values every day.

Can you share a couple of unique, real-life approaches you've seen work?
A few great things we've seen to get remote teams to feel more like a team (and if we remember, the places we heard them): 1) A virtual bulletin board online where remote employees can chat, post cartoons or pictures, and stay in touch. 2) A happiest remote employee of the week award (Budget Rent A Car), where employees nominate co-wokers and vote on the winners every Friday. 3) Bring the entire team together for training, and invite their families to come along (Pella). 4) Guess the Oscar winners for a prize (KPMG). 5) Play work bingo together online by filling in a square each time a team member completes a task.

In the Orange Revolution, the authors make a very simple point: great teams care, and great leaders care about their teams by making the effort to keep them in touch with the organization and each other.

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