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How to Retain Remote Teams: 4 Challenges and Ways to Help Employees Stay at Work

How to Retain Remote Teams: 4 Challenges and Ways to Help Employees Stay at Work

Social scientists spend decades figuring out what the necessary conditions for a satisfactory life are. It comes as no surprise that job satisfaction is high up on the list – after all, most of us will spend 30% of our lives working. We would hate to spend all this time doing something that makes us miserable. Right?

Yet, that’s exactly the case for most people. Statistics point out that 80% of the workforce hate their jobs. 85% of employees feel disengaged at work, showing an “ah, whatever” attitude to completing assignments. 

The defining characteristic of two generations dominating the workforce (millennials and Gen Z) is that we believe that the way things are is not necessarily the way things should be. Most employees in their 20s and 30s aren’t ready to put up with flushing one-third of their lives down the drain. 

Statistically, 60% of employed professionals keep looking for job openings. In our lifetimes, we are estimated to change up to 20 jobs, looking for that one spot that brings fulfillment and satisfaction. 

For leaders, employee retention was always a pain point. Ideally, managers and business owners want everyone on the team to stay engaged and productive for years. They have their reasons – employee turnover costs companies $15,000 per teammate on average. However, life is not that simple – sometimes, blows and retention challenges come from where you least expect them. You might be able to name one yourself – a global pandemic. 

Remote Work: a Challenge in Employee Retention

On top of the economical strain the COVID-19 outbreak put on business owners, it added to the pile of talent management challenges. In the face of the pandemic, many business owners found themselves lacking the infrastructure and practices needed to lead, inspire, and build productive teams. 

Naturally, the shaky economy and plummeting hope for a quick bounce back to normal took its toll on most of us. Workplace stress and anxiety became a trademark problem, with 72% of Americans admitting to feeling it every day throughout the pandemic. 

Last but not least, working remotely came with unique organizational and performance challenges few teams knew how to tackle. At Bridge, we are by no means exempt – here are the concerns our team leaders had to battle when learning how to manage your team. 

Struggle to connect

Managing a remote team is no doddle even if everyone involved is in the same time zone. However, every challenge is taken to the next level once a manager is tasked with overseeing a remote-only international team (as is the case for Bridge). 

We have employees working from Eastern Europe, the EU, and the US – that makes for unique challenges in organizing get-togethers. 

Oversight challenges

If a manager is used to tracking the performance of a fully on-premises team, after transitioning to remote, a time will come when you’ll ask yourself: “What on earth is going on in my team?”. With the entire team scattered across different locations, leaders undoubtedly start wondering what every employee is working on – as, most of the time, they have no clue.

Teamwork is on the way out

 When teammates don’t see each other face-to-face, workplace interactions take a heavy blow. As Atlassian pointed out, “trust falls don’t work on Zoom” – neither do large retreats, casual chats in the cafeteria, and most spontaneous, not forced remote team activities

It’s time to state the obvious – when working remotely, employees will no longer feel like the work is their lives – rather, it’s just a part of their day, the one they want to get over with and spend some time with their nosy kids, noisy pets, or nagging family members. 

Managing employees across different time zone is challenging as well – we wrote a post on it. 

External distractions

When you work and relax in one space, it’s increasingly harder to get things done. Statistically, we are most bothered by smartphones, binge-watching (no wonder Netflix got an influx of over 15 million subscribers just through the first quarter of the last year), kids, and gaming (as a result of the outbreak Nintendo Switch consoles were practically sold out). 

Left without workplaces, families struggle to maintain a work-life balance. In the interview for The New York Times, a woman confessed that she feels she works 5 jobs at once – “mom, teacher, C.C.O, house cleaner, chef”. A growing number of employees feel overwhelmed by commitments and find refuge in quitting their jobs once and for all. 

There’s a silver lining

The challenges of remote work could make team leaders yearn for offices and blame every setback on the “damn pandemic”. However, the truth is, keeping a team outside of the office is a practice a lot of business owners found refreshing and high-yielding. 

To start with, most employees want to stay away from offices. In the UK, 45% of the workforce was willing to take a pay cut if it meant not going to work anymore. Also, most studies show a considerable increase in employee productivity, estimating a 35% or higher performance improvement. 

Plenty of large-scale companies are committed to the idea of not coming back to the offices. Ever. Twitter, for one, has announced a permanent transition to remote collaboration. 

How do successful team leaders manage remote employees to keep them engaged? Although we are by no means a large-scale company, we believe to have come across a range of practices helpful for SME and corporation leaders alike. 

Here’s how business owners can transform team management, meetings, and performance monitoring to not only avoid derailing but improve employee retention. 

Team management: Friendtorship

In 2017, in her TED Talk at Pennsylvania State University, Claudia Williams introduced the concept of friendtorship – a framework designed to keep the team engaged and productive. In 2021, when taking teamwork for granted is no longer an option, her ideas ring relevant and true. 

As the name suggests, “friendtorship” has three constituents:

  • Friendship. 
  • Mentoring.
  • Leadership. 

Let’s take a look at how each of these lays the ground for successful team building. 

Friendship

Building trusted relationships at work is a game-changer for teammates and an efficiency-booster for leaders. Statistically, 46% of employees surveyed by LinkedIn admitted they are happier having made workplace friends. Studies have also found that workplace engagement will be twice as high if each teammate has at least one friend at the office. 

 Other objective benefits are reduced job stress (work friends are an excellent support network), trust within the team, and increased openness of knowledge transfer. 

A word of caution: actively engaging in workplace relationships can be a mixed blessing and promote workplace distractions. Team leaders should be mindful of the risk and allocate time for chatter without causing harm to overall productivity. 

Mentoring

In most organizations, the approach to building mentorship programs is unidirectional – senior employees educate juniors, introducing them to best practices, sharing experience and knowledge. Here’s an intriguing thought: what if team leaders ran mentorship programs the other way around?

Although it might seem counterintuitive, reverse mentoring is the answer remote team leaders might’ve not known they needed. The need for validation is high on millennials’ and Gen Z’s list of priorities. Letting new hires run teaching remote team building activities for senior employees helps fulfill their desire to be seen and heard, improving retention in the long run. 

As far as older teammates are concerned, a training session from a junior will help keep tabs on ever-changing technology and get up to speed on using new tools and social media platforms (they’ve been springing up like mushrooms after the rain – Clubhouse, I’m looking at you). 

This is the point where a team leader starts wondering: “Should I stop running typical mentoring sessions?”. The answer is a definite “no” – traditional Q&A sessions between new hires and seasoned teammates are an important tool for knowledge transfer and help speed up onboarding. 

The bottom line is: make sure each employee is mentored and is a mentor. 

Leadership

In the TED Talk, Claudia Williams specifies two components of successful leadership – accountability and communication. 

Accountability is the willingness to take responsibility for your actions. For leaders, it means holding themselves to standards as high (if not higher) as they put for teammates. When a team leader stops leading by example, taking advantage of his position or accolades, teammates start gradually losing respect for the entire organization. 

Once the respect for established practices and corporate culture is gone, the team stops doing their bests and focuses on doing the bare minimum. For successful teams, the bare minimum is never enough. 

Communication is the tape and glue of high-performing corporate culture. In remote teams, setting up a communication strategy boils down to finding an efficient mix of synchronous and asynchronous workflows. 

 

Synchronous communication runs in real-time. These are conference meetings, phone calls, real-time chat, or urgent emails that need an answer ASAP. 

Asynchronous communication is used for any message that “can wait”. These are emails, polls, and surveys. 

The key to successful communication is in prioritizing the urgency of the tasks at hand.

Overusing synchronous communication inevitably leads to burnout and has a toll on employee productivity. On the other hand, asynchronous-only teams are slow, losing their competitive edge to faster, adaptable competitors. 

A mix of the two approaches is a reasonable way to collaborate flexibly without putting the team’s privacy at stake. 

In both synchronous and asynchronous communication, team leaders should encourage peers to be as precise and fluff-free as possible (and lead by example). 

At the end of the day, a key factor that makes a difference between an authoritarian and a leader is clear communication.

Optimizing online meetings

Let’s let it sink in: there’s no substitute for face-to-face meetings. In 2021, technology has taken humanity a long way, allowing more people to participate in a conference call, improving image resolution and sound quality, or reducing a connection lag. 

Even with that in mind, face-to-face meetings are not just about being able to see your colleagues head-to-toe and hold discussions without a millisecond of lag. Paul Axtell, an author of the book “Meetings Matter” points out that in-person interactions create an irreplaceable sense of empathy and presence, impossible to replicate via a video call. 

How to manage remote workers in meetings? Here are our tips!

Doing remote meetings right means doing them together

Since teams no longer have the luxury of seeing each other in the same space, the second-best option for team leaders is to go all-in – run virtual-only conference calls.

In the favor of this idea, Atsuhiko Nakata – a Japanese Youtuber who teaches over 3 million employees and team managers how to stay on top of today’s complex tech and job market – once stated:  “To be efficient, the remote workforce has to represent the majority of the team, else the offline fraction will feel alienated from offline peers”. 

There’s empirical evidence backing up Nakata’s statement – in 2013, Yahoo! launched a hybrid team allowing people to work both at and outside the office. The experiment backfired – the company’s CEO later admitted that the company failed to “become one” so employees came back to offices. 

Lowering the concentration bar

By design, remote conference calls should be an upgrade compared to in-person meetings – there’s no need for teammates to get dressed, they stay in familiar and comfortable environments and can, to a degree, multitask. 

The reality, however, is the polar opposite. According to BBC, there are several reasons why employees need twice as focus to retain information during a conference call. To start with, a video call gives people constant awareness they are being watched. The feeling is close to that of being on stage, having to perform in front of a crowd – at times, the tension is almost palpable. 

Other than that, it takes more time to process subtle cues (pitch and tone of voice, body language) on a conference call compared to a meeting room. As a result, employees need little-to-no time to feel drained and exhausted. 

How can team leaders ease the burden of energy-sucking conference calls? Lowering the bar for focus and presence is a good way to help teammates loosen up. For example, business owners should allow teammates to tune in even if they don’t have a microphone or a camera on (background listening will help the team stay in the loop while they work on other projects). 

Other than that, there should be no stigma regarding logging out during a meeting. People leaving in the middle of someone’s speech is not a big deal in a conference room – why should it be in a chat room? Once they are allowed free entry and exit, employees will no longer feel like they have to attend meetings and will gradually start doing it out of the free will. 

3. New way to control productivity: focus on outputs, not inputs

A link between the amount of time spent working on something and the level of skillfulness in the field has been present for centuries. Think about the rule of 10,000 hours claiming it’s enough to just show up and put in the time to become a master at anything. 

The same principle governs most organizations – focus on how much an employee works rather than how much is being done. Leaders impose remote employee monitoring to make sure no one on the team slacks off. 

However, one look at most government institutions and comedy shows like “The Office” is enough to see flaws in the system. There’s data to highlight the issue – according to an AOL study, a full-time employee works 3 days per week on average, wasting the rest of the time. 

How to make sure the team is productive? The answer is: by measuring outputs. 

Shift focus from “doing” to “have done”

A Behance study discovered that shifting the focus from time-tracking to idea generation and remote team building improved job satisfaction among employees, increased engagement, and boosted overall productivity. 

Researchers explain the surge of efficiency with three reasons:

  • When we are tired, our brains don’t work well. The participants of a study who were sleep-deprived had slower reaction times and responses to events because the neurons of their brain needed more time to fire. 
  • Idea generation happens in spurs, not on a schedule. An hour of productive research can lead to more creative thought and generate more impact than a full day of mindless presence. 
  • Forcing the team to work beyond its capacity leads to employees resenting their jobs.

Thus, top-notch managers and researchers encourage team leaders to focus on outputs, not inputs. Establish a series of metrics for tracking the productivity of your peers instead of focusing on how much time the team spends at workplaces. This way, your employees will be able to build work-life balance and be motivated to hit the benchmark as quickly as possible and get extra time to “Netflix and chill”. 

Create a safe space

If they led to success, none of us regret failures, Thomas Edison was once asked about his feelings regarding 10,000 failed light bulb tests – the scientist replied: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

That is a healthy relationship with setbacks that should be standard both on an individual and organizational levels. 

However, it’s much harder to stay optimistic about failures when facing them in real-time. The co-founder of Pixar, Ed Catmull explains this by calling setbacks “asymmetrical in time” – it’s easy to brush it off in retrospective and next-to-impossible to plunge through in the present. 

We don’t like to fail, but failure often marks the road for success. That’s why, as absurd as it sounds, team leaders should encourage employees to fail as long as they keep trying. What are the ways to create a safe environment, where no stakes come with failures? Here are the trajectories worth exploring:

  • Reliance on technology. Creating test environments and modeling situations puts teams on a safe playground, where failures are not disastrous and stay under control. 
  • Having enough data to bounce back. Creating a safe environment means allowing teammates to recover from failures as quickly as possible without anyone noticing. “We aim to make mistakes faster than anyone else” the founder of Spotify once said. 
  • Admit to leadership failures. No one is immune to misjudgments – not the team, not its leaders. That’s why business owners and managers should be vocal about their failures as proof of openness, transparency, and humanity. 

The Bottom Line

Business owners often misinterpret employee retention as “making people stay on the team”. In my opinion, it’s better to adopt a different approach to retention, defining it as “encouraging people to stay passionate and curious at work”. 

The strategies for retaining remote (or offline, for that matter) teams are fostering ever-learning, promoting freedom and trust, and looking for ways to build human relationships. 

Once you tick these checkboxes, all other pieces of the productivity puzzle will fall into place, helping leaders build dynamic and long-lasting teams. 

 

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