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Remote work’s rise in recent years is apparent, but the COVID-19 crisis has made it more common than ever.

A combination of necessity and mandates has forced the majority of U.S. companies to embrace a work-from-home model, and businesses are scrambling to adapt to the challenges that accompany this shift.

Even before the pandemic, feelings of loneliness and isolation were nothing new to remote workers. Today’s social distancing guidelines and citywide shutdowns have only amplified these sentiments while making it more difficult for team members to connect. On top of that, many remote workers are contending with additional distractions during these trying times — their spouses and children are also at home, and the daily news is harder to stomach and even harder to turn off.

Given these challenges, it is of the utmost importance for companies to find ways to keep their newly remote workers engaged, happy and productive.

Adjusting to the Remote Reality

The cut-and-dry work schedule so many in-office workers adhere to doesn’t necessarily apply to remote work. Sure, the bulk of the work still gets done during a typical 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. time frame, but the boundaries loosen as each employee falls into his or her own work-from-home rhythm.

It will take time for employees to find a work-life balance that allows them to get into a productivity groove while still taking care of things at home. But once that they hit their stride, companies will be surprised by the results: Recent studies show that remote employees work harder and longer than people who work in an office.

Still, this high level of productivity only occurs when companies effectively engage with their remote teams.

Here are four ways to get remote employees locked in:

1. Foster face-to-face contact. 
Instant messaging software can help remote teams keep in touch, but it’s no remedy for remote workers who feel like they’re alone on an island. Fostering human connection is paramount during these difficult times, and there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

Companies should deploy video conferencing technology in a variety of ways. Leaders can use it to check in with employees regularly, teams should use it to communicate and collaborate throughout the day, and there could also be dedicated channels that simulate casual “watercooler” conversations. Provide ample opportunities for employees to make virtual eye contact and connect on a deeper level.

2. Establish clear objectives. 
Goals drive any workplace. Make sure employees know that the flexibility of remote work includes a responsibility to deliver results by setting clear business expectations and objectives.

When establishing these goals, consider following an approach called objectives and key results, or OKR. Pioneered by Intel and popularized by Google, the OKR approach focuses exclusively on quantifiable outcome-based goals that move the needle for the business.

When remote teams work in unity to achieve an OKR, it doesn’t matter what time of day they clock in or how many hours they’ve logged by day’s end. All that matters is the end result.

3. Honor different work habits. 
Not every remote worker has the same daily routine. Many employees are juggling important family obligations with their professional duties, which means they can only work intermittently.

It’s crucial for employers to be mindful of this and to accommodate everyone’s time frames as much as possible. This aspect couldn’t be more important in the current climate, as we all work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic and try to adapt our work styles to an environment that includes family members, roommates, pets, etc. Companies should expect and welcome these additions to the new work environment rather than resist them.

Overcommunicate with team members before scheduling mandatory meetings and setting deadlines. Heavy-handed leadership and remote teams do not mix — set aside a rigid mindset for one that’s both flexible and open-minded.

4. Encourage peer-to-peer accountability. 
An accountable workplace is an effective one. That same mantra should apply regardless of whether your team members are working in the office or from their homes.

Strong teams implicitly empower employees to hold each other accountable. In a remote environment, it becomes more difficult for managers and senior leaders to keep tabs on day-to-day dynamics. Front-line workers have the best understanding of which team members might not be holding up their end of the bargain.

If you hold both teams and individuals responsible for achieving objectives, peer-to-peer accountability will organically form and be a powerful driving force for the business.

Making a companywide shift to remote work is no easy feat. To be successful, business leaders must practice what they preach. As long as they leverage the technology and abide by the guidelines they put in place, their employees will follow suit.

Remote work’s sudden prevalence was unexpected, and it will be a gradual adjustment for some. As more companies engage their employees and replicate vital portions of the in-office experience remotely, teams will be able to overcome existing barriers and regain their productivity.

About the Author(s)

 Leonard  Callejo

Leonard Callejo is the director of online marketing at Webex, an industry leader in video conferencing. He resides in Denver, Colorado.

Director of Online Marketing, Webex
4 Ways to Engage a Newly Remote Workforce During — and After — a Pandemic