This has been an incredibly long year since the shutdowns started. It’s worn on all of us, from chamber professionals to our members. While we (mainstream tech users) have been connecting online for nearly two decades, this is the first year where we only had online connections to rely on.
Our staff was forced online and we were left trying to master the technology and learn new ways to keep us all connected during a time of fear and stress. On top of everything else, chamber leaders now need to figure out how to keep remote employees engaged.
But even now as we appear to be entering the “home stretch” moving toward herd immunity and less stringent orders, engaging and managing your work from home team may feel like you’re a first-year teacher trying to inspire seniors in high school at the end of the year.
The newness of Zoom calls and working from home in pajamas has lost its luster. Employees need help now more than ever to stay connected and interested.
Here’s how you can keep remote employees engaged and meet their current needs.
Know Your Employees
There are a lot of cute engagement ideas out there for your online workforce but if your employees aren’t those kind of people, they won’t enjoy the hoops you’re making them jump through in the name of engagement and bonding.
Just as you would tailor your marketing message to your ideal member, shape your engagement strategy for your employees around who you have working for you. Think about what they would like and respond to.
Don’t use cute Pinterest Pins as a management style.
Pay Attention to What “Lights Them Up”
A lot of employers host roundtable-type meetings where everyone gives a status report on what they’re working on. It makes managers feel like everyone has a hand in the recipe for success.
If that’s all you’re going to do for engagement, you could create a shared doc and ask everyone to drop a sentence in there every morning about what they’re working on.
A status report is a waste of face time.
Instead, share goals and invite people to talk about not just what they’re working on but what they’re really excited about. If they can’t come up with anything, you might have a problem.
Make notes about the things they share and what “lights them up.” Look for opportunities to give them the kind of work they love. This may not always be possible, but when it is, making sure they receive those tasks can bring new enjoyment to their work and keep remote employees engaged.
Hopefully, you have a nice mix of personalities on staff and you can hand out projects accordingly.
Break Down Silos
After you analyze what people enjoy working on, you may find that those interests transcend job descriptions. If your chamber is large enough that you have multiple staff members, you should consider assigning tasks based on interests, even if they don’t fit formal job duties.
For instance, maybe your member sales person hates video but your admin loves playing around in that media. Consider putting them together on the project, one behind the scenes (writing the script or goal for it) and one in front (being the face and possibly handling the editing).
Provide Clear Expectations for Chamber Work
When people are working from home, they don’t have the benefit of running into you in the chamber hallway and clarifying instructions you gave. They may not want to contact you at home because they don’t want to disturb you.
When you work in an office together you have clear insight into that person’s day. You can see where they are and what they are doing.
When everyone is working from home, they may assume that contacting you for something as small as clarification may be a waste of your time. However, if they don’t contact you and then turn in something you didn’t want or turn it in a way that you were not looking for, this can be very discouraging and lead to a feeling of having done it for nothing.
That is why it is incredibly important when working virtually to ensure everyone knows who is doing what.
Don’t use open-ended instructions like “we need to isolate which members are…” Be specific about who is in charge of pulling that information and who will analyze it, if those roles are different.
Ensure every call or virtual meeting ends with what you’ve gone over, who has what assignment, and when you’ll return to check on results.
Understand Individual Fears
As things reopen, it’s important to understand that each of your employees has their own view of the virus and immunizations, for that matter.
Those opinions may not match yours and they may not match one another. There’s a certain amount of respect that will be called for over the next several months.
Some people do not want to get the vaccine. Currently, that is their right. Some people may find it difficult to work with the unvaccinated.
You may need to build bridges to ensure your employees respect each other’s opinion.
Building these bridges now and having the difficult conversations before everyone is back under the same roof is a good idea.
You may want to speak to your employees individually to get a better understanding of their opinions on the matter now so you’re not surprised later. Knowledge can help you chart a course of action or understand what potential problems you could face.
It is difficult to engage people in a climate of disrespect. This is one topic you’ll want to get in front of.
Create a Mutual Challenge
Challenges are hot these days and they can help people feel motivated and connected.
There are all kinds of challenges so you can easily pick one that inspires your employees or ask each one of them to pick their own personal challenge to share with the group. You could select a challenge that benefits the chamber like the “30-day contact five members a day challenge.”
Whatever the challenge, offer them something at the end that will make it all worthwhile. Don’t make the reward something that has to wait until after COVID. We’ve all been waiting long enough and a little fun and games can keep in-office and remote employees engaged with each other.
Listen and Relieve Stress
We all have distractions when working from home. Whether it’s kids, lawn sounds in the background, or pets demanding our attention, when you have video calls expect that there may be some interruptions.
If there are, handle them with grace. Here is how the pros did it long before COVID (2017 to be precise):
Reiterate or ask for clarification if you’re unclear what was said or what part of the topic you were covering. If you missed something, it’s likely others did too.
Also, strive to walk the line between encouraging employees to find a quiet area (i.e., get kids and pets in a place where they can’t cause a ruckus) and a show and tell session.
Don’t make your employees feel badly about their responsibilities. Chances are that as annoyed as you may be with the noise, that employee may be reaching a near breaking point. They may be embarrassed or feel out of control of their situation.
You can calm an unnerving situation by acknowledging it and moving on. A quick “Hi, <child’s name>” or inquiry about the pet will put everyone at ease so you can get back to business. Your employees will appreciate the understanding. There’s no need to add more stress to a stressful situation, especially since this may become the new norm in working for many of us.
Just because we’re virtual doesn’t mean we have to stop being ourselves. If you were a jokester or a prankster at the chamber office, find a way to continue these things online.
If you were the serious one in an office full of goofballs, don’t feel the pressure to become more animated just because you are on camera.
Value Their Time and Preferences
Would you ever call a non-emergency meeting on a Friday at 5? What about a meeting at 5 a.m.? Of course not, right?
And yet some people call virtual meetings under the guise of an “office happy hour” or other social-sounding name. If you’re discussing chamber business, it’s not a social gathering.
A lot of chamber pros work all hours. But you need to be clear how your employees feel about all-hour communications from you. Take their lead. If they’re sending you emails at all hours, fine. If you never hear from them between 5 pm and 8 am, you may need to dial your virtual communication back. You may want to consider asking them about communicating after hours.
You might think an email in the middle of the night is okay. Maybe you want to tell them something before it slips your mind. That’s fine. Either write it and leave it in draft until the morning or schedule it to send at a decent hour.
Even if you don’t expect an answer in the middle of the night, your employee may keep their phone by their bed. If they have notifications on and forget to place their phones on do not disturb, you may have just woken them, their spouse, or even a child.
While you’re at it, find out how they prefer you contact them.
Some people love the phone, others want a text, or an email. These preferences may even vary depending on time of day. A text or phone call will generally interrupt someone more blatantly than an email will. You might want to save those for things you need an instantaneous answer for. Keep in mind, that is not everything.
Engaging your employees virtually is about more than just interaction. Since bad feelings or a lack of communication can cause employees to shut down and not want to engage with you, keeping the relationship on good terms when you don’t see each other every day is important.
While we may be in the home stretch to putting COVID behind us, virtual work may be here for the long term. Knowing how to manage and engage with a virtual team are skills every leader and chamber professional needs.