Tips to Improve Employee Engagement in Distributed Teams

Managers have never faced a challenge of the scale seen in these past six months, and the continuing threat of lockdown means that the era of working from home is far from over. Executives, team leaders and managers - across industries - need to find successful remote engagement strategies in order to protect their team's productivity. But while this is a new challenge for most, it’s old news for the software development sector, which has been utilizing distributed teams for many years.
7 min read
Tips to Improve Employee Engagement in Distributed Teams

DataArt is very familiar with the struggle of engaging a distributed team as this has been our bread-and-butter for the past 23 years. We have a wealth of knowledge in developing, managing and growing a workforce in multiple locations (and time zones). So why not learn from our experience, and implement some of our remote engagement strategies in your company? Read on to discover what we have garnered over years in this field.

Why Does Employee Engagement Matter?

You might be wondering why employee engagement matters at all, especially in the current uncertain climate. But at its core, employee engagement is absolutely fundamental to employee productivity and, therefore, company success. When your employees have a positive attitude to their work, then this has a measurable, significant impact on your bottom line.

A company with engaged employees sees:

  • less turnover
  • less absenteeism
  • higher quality work product
  • fewer safety incidents
  • higher customer ratings
  • higher productivity
  • higher sales
  • higher profits
  • more growth.

How To Measure Employee Engagement

So keeping your employees engaged is important. But how do you tell who is engaged and who is not? Measuring engagement is a complex task, and it is distinct from employee satisfaction. A satisfied employee is comfortable in their job, but an engaged employee is more likely to commit extra time and effort towards the company’s goals. So it is not enough to simply ask whether workers are comfortable with their salary or working hours. Engagement cannot be quantified in such a straightforward way and instead needs a more holistic approach.

An employee engagement survey is the easiest way to gather data on your employees’ engagement levels; but these surveys need to be thoughtfully crafted and well executed. Bombarding your workers with surveys will have an adverse effect, and they need to feel that the feedback they provide is actually heard and utilized. For this reason, an in-depth annual survey works best, followed up by incremental surveys on specific issues on a more regular basis. The data gathered then needs to be parsed into clear, actionable areas, and these results should be communicated with the entire workforce.

Individual metrics for engagement are, unfortunately, inherently misleading; there are many that might indicate an issue or trend (such as turnover or absenteeism), but, without more detailed analysis through surveys, the nature and cause of engagement issues will remain opaque, as will the requisite solutions.

Strategies to Increase Employee Engagement

Luckily, employee engagement strategies can be simple to implement and have long-term results. Below are our top five strategies, applicable across industries.

Strategy #1: Set Clear Goals, with Rewards and Recognition

While having clear goals is a necessity in any workplace, they are even more important when managing a dispersed team. This includes both short-term and long-term goals, for individuals and for teams as a whole; these must be realistic, achievable goals, and success must be measurable.

The reason this is so important is that without milestones to work towards, distributed teams have more opportunity to drift, and individuals can feel less engaged if they do not see how their work product helps both their team and the company as a whole. This is why you also need to communicate to employees how their work is important to the company’s overall strategy and mission.

And as employees working from home (WFH) can feel isolated or overlooked, managers need to make an extra effort to recognise and reward top performers. How you do this depends on the company, industry and staff, but the means can include gift cards, free days off, advancement opportunities, or something as simple as praising their work, so that they feel appreciated.

Strategy #2: Provide the Right Tools for the Job

Many people working from home right now are using a patchwork of home and work-provided tools to perform their duties. While this is understandable in the short-term, it is not tenable. One of the most overlooked aspects of employee engagement is infrastructure; without the proper tools and equipment, employees will struggle to work effectively and will quickly become frustrated. And if tools are inefficient, this will impact productivity.

Your employees should have both the physical hardware and software they need to make WFH as easy as possible; this includes video and voice call capabilities, online conferencing software, streamlined security protocols for ease of access, and organizational software that seamlessly connects them to the rest of the team.

Strategy #3: Promote Work-Life Balance

It is no surprise that maintaining a healthy work-life balance when WFH is difficult for anyone, and there is no better way to show your employees that you care about them than by implementing formalized structures to encourage the development of a healthy work-life balance.

This starts with education as not everyone will think of the simple ways they can better foster boundaries between their work and home lives. Talk to your employees about setting up a designated work space, turning cell phone notifications off and the importance of a comfortable, well-lit environment to work in. You can also promote breaks and physical activity, even during a lockdown.

Lastly, consider allowing flexible work hours; this will be particularly appreciated by employees with children, who may be struggling to juggle multiple work and home tasks. By allowing employees to choose when they focus on their work, rather than dictating a strict 9-5, they will be less distracted and therefore more productive. They will also feel that you understand their needs and are accommodating them, which enhances engagement.

Strategy #4: Supply Training and Development Opportunities

WFH can make employees feel as if they are on a treadmill, going nowhere. Advancement and career progression are usually not top of the agenda for management when running a distributed team, but it is a surefire way of ensuring employee satisfaction.

Ideally, development opportunities should be continuous; this does not need a mammoth budget as you can utilize cross-training methods, so that team members learn from each other, or other employees in your organization. Of course, formalized training programs are also good.

In addition, consider implementing regular “career reviews” with your employees, to gauge their career goals and help them craft individualized development plans that you can help facilitate and monitor with them. Nothing furthers long-term loyalty quite like investing in an employee’s future, and the most significant aspect of this investment is not money but rather your time.

Strategy #5: Foster Safe Social Engagement

The social aspect of working in an office is sorely missing these days, but it can be replicated among distributed teams, with a little effort. Without the easy communication and camaraderie that comes from working closely together, employees can feel isolated, emotionally disconnected from their work, so their productivity suffers.

To combat this, managers must be proactive; there are many ways to approach this:

  • Hold weekly check-ins for the whole team, where the focus is on touching base with everyone to see how they are doing. This should be separate from more formal “goals-oriented” meetings and be rather a more “water cooler” style forum for open discussions and socializing.
  • Encourage feedback, on any work-related issue.
  • Hold virtual team competitions (these do not need to be work-related).
  • Establish an online community board or forum for employees to engage with each other, separate from their Slack, Teams or other collaboration tools.
  • Encourage safe social activities.
  • Start a mentorship program, to foster more one-on-one relationships. This can help both the mentor and mentee.

Engagement Matters: Don’t Overlook It

Employee engagement matters; without it, productivity suffers, turnover increases, innovation suffocates, quality of work falls, customers become dissatisfied, and business outcomes deteriorate. Companies with better employee engagement see a 21% increase in profitability. So make no mistake: this is an important area to focus on, especially in the new WFH paradigm. Make sure you’re focusing on your employees’ engagement, utilize the strategies discussed above, and talk to DataArt if you want our experience in this area and how we can help you.

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