CTO at FoodJet Inc, leads enterprise engineering projects, motivating teams and stakeholders with a customer-first approach.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, everyone who wasn’t classified as “essential” got sent home. Most technology workers have been fortunate enough to continue working remotely. This mass experiment in working from home has been eye-opening.
While a remote tech workforce comes with certain benefits, it has numerous challenges too. One vital challenge is keeping team members engaged as a team and motivated by their work. A lot of tech work is solo work done in front of a screen. Having a team in physical proximity prevents the strain of isolation from setting in. Once a team goes remote, they lose that network of immediate support. Without that support network close by, workers find it harder to stay engaged with their work. You can see the effects of disengagement in missed deadlines, poor understanding of assignment requirements, and more mistakes.
There’ve been many lessons learned since becoming a fully remote tech team five months ago, which are distilled into this four-pronged approach to keeping teams engaged and still feeling like a team.
1. Relationships: Keep The Communication Flowing
A great challenge for a fully remote team is establishing new modes of communication -– and making sure people are using them. People have more chances for informal communication with colleagues and managers in an office. Without the possibility of the chance encounter, teams need clearly defined formal and informal communication channels. Encouraging peers to have their own back-channels fosters the team support network. The P2P channels also create a place for non-work-related chat that keeps camaraderie strong.
Another relationship prong is making sure leadership listens and responds to team members whether they’re talking about the work or their remote working conditions. Team leaders should have structured regular meetings and conversations, and be available for individual meetings when a worker reaches out.
In the early days of COVID-19, FoodJet team members shared feedback on what they needed to make working from home work for them. Working in a small space not fitted for work with the entire family around is not easy. If someone needed a proper desk chair or noise-cancelling headphones, they got them. More importantly, they knew they could ask and leadership would respond.
2. Refresh: Diversify That Tech Stack
Working in the same tech stack, doing the same work day in and day out is a recipe for tedium. Some people may prefer that sort of predictable stability. The typical tech worker lives in fear of falling behind the technology curve. Making sure tech workers are constantly stimulated with new challenges and tools is a surefire way to keep them engaged.
That means updating your tech stack as often as makes sense for the business. Move people to new projects or roles on a current project. Any change that requires them to learn a new tool or skill or stretch their current skills is an opportunity for them to grow (both for their and the company’s benefit) and stay invested in their work. Help tech workers stay fresh by giving them fresh challenges.
Where this may not be possible, you can still offer self-directed opportunities for team members to advance their skills. You can make online classes available through your company portal and provide time and tuition support for external learning.
Either way, check in with team members to find ways to refresh their interest in their work.
3. Reward: Acknowledge Team Members’ Contributions
Most companies already have a rewards program for employees. If yours doesn’t, get one started. If it does have one, think about some tweaks to make so it will have impact for remote workers.
For example, offering bonuses on a team basis is an effective way to foster team energy and accountability. Tying a person’s bonus directly to the team’s overall achievement fosters that essential peer-to-peer communication.
Set up new recognition and rewards for individuals who go above-and-beyond in making working from home successful for others. A team member or leader who regularly checks-in with team members is one example. Look for positive behaviors that you want to encourage because they model solid work from home habits.
Simple gestures that make people feel appreciated always help reignite motivation.
4. Reassure: People Want to Know Their Work Means Something
Tech work can feel remote even when the team is in an office. There is often a gap between the team members who are deep in the weeds building a tool and the people who use it. Working remotely expands this gap. Workers who didn’t fall into the “essential” category can feel even less connected to the value of their output.
Find ways to show tech workers how important their work is to the people who rely on it. The FoodJet tech team has been fortunate in this respect as their coworkers have been in the field doing the essential work of delivering food during the lockdowns. They get to see the thank-you messages and photos from grocery workers, restaurant owners, and people who had to rely on food delivery to eat.
Team leaders shared these emails, posts, and photos to make sure the tech teams see first-hand how much of a difference their work makes in people’s lives.
Keep people inspired by their work by reinforcing the value of what they’re doing. Everyone wants to feel like they’re part of something big and meaningful. Never let them forget the impact of their work.
An Engaged Remote Team is an Agile Remote Team
Being able to work from home is an advantage not every worker has. Tech companies and teams pride themselves on being agile. Unexpected events always come up. It’s the responsibility of all companies to continue serving their customer base well by responding to those events with speed and agility. Continuing to keep the remote tech teams engaged and responsive is a critical piece of that puzzle.
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