The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a large-scale transition to remote work that was already bubbling under the surface. Remote work is now more acceptable and credible overall, as employees have proven they can maintain in-office productivity levels and even improve performance under the right conditions.
Companies are taking advantage of this trend and giving employees more flexibility to decide where and how they work. Some organizations, like Twitter and Facebook, are letting certain types of roles work from home forever. Clearly, the professional landscape has changed, and perhaps for the better.
However, with the broad transition to remote work comes a new set of challenges. Employees are no longer tied to specific cities or geographies, which means they can seek opportunities anywhere in the world. Consequently, all-inclusive work campuses, wacky office spaces, and no-shoe policies have lost some of their lusters. Companies, startups included, now have to compete more on the non-material side:
- How good are the benefits?
- How impressive is the workforce?
- Is the business interesting?
But the most important question right now, given the freshness of remote work is:
- How engaged do remote teammates feel?
This is a big one because it hints at a broader topic - company culture. Adding remote work to the equation brings new opportunities, as well as creates barriers to success. In the startup world, especially, leaders have to double down on culture and work hard to keep their remote employees engaged. Otherwise, workers will pull up their favorite search engine and start exploring potential career moves with little hesitation.
Keeping this background in mind, below are 3 ways startups can keep remote teams engaged.
Practice Consistent Messaging
Consistent communication is crucial in the age of remote work. Employees need to hear from founders and executives to feel engaged in the larger mission. They need to know what’s going on and what their efforts contribute to at a higher level. It’s not enough for teammates to hear only from direct reports, peers, or supervisors, though those connections are important.
Culture cascades from the top-down, so it’s startup leaders who set the tone and determine how much or how little distributed teams engage. Of course, it’s not sustainable for founders to send out company-wide emails or newsletter updates daily. But this idea can be applied less frequently, say bi-weekly or monthly. Consistency in this form still keeps employees in the loop and establishes regularity they can depend on while working in physical isolation.
To illustrate how important this is, consider a typical, pre-pandemic workday. Even in a smaller startup of 5-25 people, employees might have, at minimum, 10+ casual interactions per day with peers. They might also bump into the founder in the break room or see her plugging away at her desk in the middle of the open floor plan. In this scenario, consistent communication is less critical because people feel the connectivity and energy of the entire team every day.
While recreating this exact scene remotely is impossible, leaders must invest in other channels to keep people motivated and excited. They need to feel the “buzz” in other ways - consistent messaging can help.
Set Clear Expectations
The initial transition to remote work was chaotic for many organizations. However, the dust has settled, and people now understand what it’s like to collaborate remotely. Today, startup leaders have to take the opportunity to set new and clear expectations around remote work, incorporating all they’ve learned since March 2020.
Remote workers need specific, well-reasoned guidance around regular work activities. For instance, startups should have official policies for the following:
- Do cameras need to be on in every meeting?
- How many remote meetings in a day is too many?
- How long is too long for a remote meeting?
- What attire is expected when working from home?
The answers to these questions differ from startup to startup. The important thing is that leaders set expectations so that people aren’t guessing about what is appropriate and what’s not. Ideally, this process would incorporate feedback from employees. There should be a two-way dialogue between managers and employees about what concerns or questions people have about basic remote work practices.
Here, it might make sense to use anonymous surveys to collect feedback from teammates who otherwise wouldn’t share their thoughts. For some people, being in remote meetings all day with the camera on is exhausting. Digital meetings are trickier to navigate and more mentally taxing, but many employees won’t admit this, fearing they might be perceived negatively by peers. Founders need to take this into account and ensure they don’t inadvertently accelerate remote employee burnout.
Additionally, it’s reasonable for startups to set different expectations for in-person and remote employees, so long as the differences are clear. After all, holding part-time remote contractors to the same standards as full-time, onsite employees wouldn’t make much sense. Startups have to approach this with care to ensure people’s needs are met and remote workers don’t feel disconnected from the group.
Plan In-person Retreats
All-remote startups should plan in-person gatherings every once in a while. Company-wide retreats and end-of-the-year parties are a great excuse to celebrate hard work and get people together so that they can strengthen their relationships. Even single-day, in-person working sessions can be valuable for building team chemistry.
Though these occasions may be costly, they are worth the investment. Fortunately, many startups gave up expensive real estate in the transition to remote work and now have some extra cash on hand. Use these funds to sponsor times for the company to meet and enjoy time offline.
If gathering in person isn’t possible, allocate remote meeting time for social purposes. Set up virtual happy hours or casual coffee chats for people to talk about things other than work. These times can go a long way towards making people feel appreciated and valued.
Start Practicing These Habits Today
If you aren’t already practicing these habits at your startup, now is the time. Remote work is here to stay, and you can’t afford to lose employees in today’s competitive landscape. You’re competing with startups all over the world for the best talent out there. By keeping your remote workers happy and engaged, you’ll give your startup the best chance to thrive going forward.
To learn more about how to create and sustain the ideal culture for your startup, download our new eBook today.