How can leaders keep their teams engaged while working remotely?

Organisations globally have addressed the immediate need to safeguard their employee’s physical health during the COVID-19 pandemic. They stepped up to enable their teams to work from home and continue operations during this global crisis.

Leaders are concerned about how to keep their teams feeling motivated and engaged while remote work continues. Global studies suggest that the COVID-19 crises has led to an increase in the number of people reporting stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. Workers are distressed by the threat the virus poses to their health and the health of loved ones, they are physically distanced from family and peers, and they face uncertainty around their futures as well as potential dread around other socio-political circumstances. Whether because of stigma, the pressure to perform, or other reasons, workers may be reluctant to admit that they are struggling.

At SRI Executive we have cleared the recent hurdles of moving our teams fully remote as well. However, we have long engaged and motivated our global team, some of whom have worked remotely for years. As leaders continue to take steps to create a productive remote work environment for their teams, we are sharing a few steps they can take.


Continue to support physical and mental wellbeing

After addressing the immediate threat to their staff’s physical safety, leaders can monitor their employee’s evolving needs and support their wellbeing. Employee wellbeing and engagement are reciprocal. However, there is evidence that with blurred boundaries between work and home life, people are working longer hours. They are also spending more hours sitting. This leaves them at greater risk of burnout, mental illness, and even heightens their risk of noncommunicable illness.

Leaders can support their teams by ensuring they know where to access local resources, advice and support for their mental health. Consider developing a central hub for resources, and where possible create regular opportunities to check in on individuals’ overall wellbeing, and allow opportunities for peers to support one another.

Exercise and physical activity are integral to mental health. As little as ten to fifteen-minute bursts of physical activity can boost our mood, while completing a half-hour of exercise at least three days per week may improve symptoms of mild depression or anxiety. Some simple ways to encourage safe, socially-distanced exercise may be to have a steps competition, allow time during the day for a walk, run or other activity, or to invite employees to take part in a virtual exercise class. Asking people to contribute their wellbeing ideas may be an effective way to galvanise your team and get them engaged.

It is important to encourage team members to take proper holiday time. Travel restrictions might not allow employees to get away, but taking a longer break is essential to avoid burnout. Similarly, leaders and their teams alike could benefit from having scheduled time during the regular working week to be truly ‘switched off.’ Being on devices and checking emails and news frequently can increase anxiety and further prevent workers from demarking home and family time from work time.

As part of our support system, SRI Executive has created a ‘COVID-19 Portal’ on our company intranet wherein staff can access a variety of resources, including their local health guidelines and mental health resources. When we saw the need, we organised a dedicated Wellbeing Day for our team to take time for self-care.

how leaders engage motivate remote teams

Foster connection and trust

Feelings of isolation and disconnection from their team or organisation can be demotivating for many people. Leaders can foster engagement and productivity by ensuring their team feels connected and safe.

It is important for a trusted leader to acknowledge in an open forum what their team is going through, encourage individuals to do what they need to take care of themselves, and offer one-on-one conversations and support. Working virtually has forced us to change our communication habits, and agreeing new guidelines for how teams will work and communicate can keep things open and running smoothly.

While we’re all apart and interacting through screens, it may be particularly challenging to demonstrate empathy—which is key in cultivating trust. A simple first step is to ensure that during calls, people turn on their video. Seeing faces and some nonverbal cues go a long way in making us feel connected. Along with that, it encourages spontaneous, personal conversations about what is going on in people’s homes and lives. Getting a glimpse into everyone’s home offices allows us to see how vastly different individual circumstances and challenges are within a team.

Fostering semi-spontaneous ‘water cooler’ chats are effective so team members don’t need to feel that every conversation is ‘all business.’ Consider asking employees to share calendars and set their status messages accurately, whether it is ‘in a meeting,’ ‘do not disturb’ or ‘has fifteen minutes to chat.’ Our team has added time for a ‘Virtual Afternoon Tea’ each day, at a time when people across various time zones can join. Those who have time come online for a catch-up with other SRI team members around the world. This has given us the added benefit of individuals who wouldn’t normally work closely together getting time to meet and learn about one another. Although it may not be as impromptu as in an office setting, taking time out for socialising can still foster connection.


Encourage creativity and problem-solving

It’s not unusual when in crisis mode for people to fall back on the rote tactical work and familiar, everyday tasks. However, some might find repetition and strict work guidelines demotivating at a time when the outside pressures the COVID-19 crisis are also demotivating. Allowing for creativity, strategic thinking and problem-solving can make work engaging and even serve as a distraction from the anxiety-inducing news cycle.


Reiterate purpose

When employees are cut off from seeing the impact of their work, they may lose a sense of purpose. Leaders who can reiterate their organisation’s mission and values, and reinforce their team’s role in achieving that mission can contribute to greater engagement.

Consider reviewing and re-articulating each team member’s role, projects, and expected deliverable, and emphasise outcomes over how each hour is being spent. This may also be a time to encourage teams to take advantage of learning and development opportunities.

Another way to keep up motivation is to encourage individuals to reflect on their achievements each day and highlight those achievements often to the wider team.


Sometimes having a trusted external advisor can help

SRI Executive’s accredited Executive Coaches, who have all worked remotely, are continuing to work with leaders from global development organisations at this time. We have spoken to leaders who are concerned about keeping their team members engaged and can serve as a neutral source of support for individuals who are themselves feeling disengaged or demotivated.

We have coached individuals at different levels within Rainforest Alliance, the World Meteorological Organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières, the Green Climate Fund and others. Find out more about what we can do to support leaders at every level of your organisation, or get in touch.