How to Engage Remote Developer Teams
HR Tips Eli McGarvie
We have quickly learned how much of a struggle it is to take our company culture and all the rituals we enjoyed and upload them to an online workspace. It’s not quite the same, is it? We can’t really identify what makes our company different from the next, and that’s just one station away from ‘why do I even work here in the first place?’ When the humanised element of work is stripped away, engagement suffers, culture and morale take a hit, and that’s when a team and the company begins to suffer from lower productivity and employee satisfaction.
According to a Gallup study, only 20% of employees are engaged in the workplace, and remote workers reported even lower levels of engagement than their office counterparts. These two figures paint a very clear picture for managers moving into remote working situations. In this article, we’ve broken down each step of engagement so you can discover what works for your team, and we’ve also added some creative ways to keep the conversations going so that you and your team can emerge with strong connections.
We’ve broken down this article into four parts; the first is about communication; the second part is about managing team participation (and a few creative ideas to get you started!); the third part is about showing appreciation; and finally, we share some ways you can measure engagement in your team.
We know you’re probably booting up Zoom for another ‘coffee break’ so we’ll make this simple for you. Below is an outline of the article with quick links to the different sections so you can quickly find what’s relevant to you. Enjoy the read, c’est la vie!
Why remote engagement is a challenge
“We all have a social need, and even the most introverted developers need to be connected to people. It takes work, and probably more work in a remote space, but it’s a serious investment. Once you get the ball rolling with a little creativity, I think it’s something people find a lot of comfort in. And this is something a lot of companies miss because it takes a lot of effort but it’s so important.” ー Hayden Trombo, HR at CleverTech
Psychological distance might be one of the biggest destroyers of teams and culture. The strength, productivity and success of a team hinges on the connections its members have with one another. When you take a team remote, it’s like driving a wedge through those pre-existing team connections (it’ll feel that way to them at least!). In the absence of office chit-chat, team building activities and collaboration opportunities, people will begin to disengage and disconnect. To engage employees in effective and lasting ways we need to be focused on answering this core question: how can we continue to build relationships in our new online workplace?
1. Communication tips to engage remote teams
We’ve already outlined a few ways to set up communication practices in your remote team in the previous guide (check out part 4), so here we will share some general tips to improve upon those already existing channels.
Watch out for extroverts and introverts
Extroverts are great, but they sure do love to hear themselves speak (guilty!), and without proper checks and balances they’ll dominate team conversations, which may make it harder for the less outspoken members (introverts) to share and converse. Keeping quiet isn’t healthy, so remove barriers such as social formalities which cause hesitation and encourage people to be themselves, as they would in the office or at the water cooler. The more comfortable we feel using the communication channels at our disposal, the more likely we are to share and engage.
You’re probably already doing this in some form or another so I won’t harp on for too long. The important thing is to have a space (ideally video-based) which is completely informal to mirror the wacky hallway banter we all love to dip our toes in. Some teams have set Slack channels, others use Houseparty - just keep it non-work related! The reason being that the work-related chat is impersonal; it serves the purpose of getting shit done but not in building strong personal relationships (which is what you want!). It might be worth establishing a few sensible ground rules (language, humour, where the line is) so as to maximise inclusivity.
Take time to learn about everyone
It’s easy to learn about each other when you’re sitting two feet away. We naturally absorb the personalities around us and it creates a familiarity that bonds us closer together. I might not have much to do with the designer who sits next to me but I sure do get along with him. That natural bonding has vanished and we need to be proactive in maintaining those lines of communication so that our desk pals don’t fade into the mist. Put more attention towards those mysterious folk you don’t have much to do with. The risk of interpersonal separation is far greater when remote, and the last thing you want is anything snowballing into something more challenging.
We asked Kevin Borders, CEO at Collage about his thoughts on remote team communication: “I think being remote, by default, people aren’t as likely to talk to each other, so be really deliberate around creating opportunities for conversations — this can be particularly challenging for junior engineers who don’t have as strong of communication and collaboration skills to begin with.”
2. How to manage remote team participation
This is the fun part where you can start getting creative with your team, and let me tell you, virtual lunches are just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got a few creative ideas to share with you which hopefully ramp up team participation and keep your team buzzing through Corona times. But it’s not all fun and games, you’ll certainly have to deal with those who might not be coping so well, so we’ll also share how you can approach and combat isolation. Let’s jump in!
Encourage remote team participation
The effort you’ll need to put into encouraging team participation will be strongly determined by what your company culture is. If you have a tight-knit group, you probably won’t have to do much - they might even use their initiative to take care of the problem for you! But for those struggling, a gentle push will be needed - not to mention some strong leadership. Here are some of the ways we, at Honeypot, inject a bit of adrenaline into our remote working lives.
- Team rituals
Routine and structure are the best remedies to chaos. And as we’ve all been through a bit of a shake-up, the best thing we can do for our teams is to rebuild work structures and rituals. Yes, you’ll have the dailies, and all those other meetings, but let’s think of the rituals we haven’t yet been able to upload. Some of our teams enjoy Friday afternoon drinks together before knocking off for the weekend, while other teams enjoy informal coffee sessions first thing in the morning. You’ll know what works for your team (here are some ideas), but the important thing is to make it regular so team members can quickly familiarise themselves with the set occasion. And above all else, make sure you champion the idea (if it’s yours); show up and attend, or else it’ll quickly fall apart and work against any future participation.
- Virtual co-working sessions
Solo work is productive, yes - but it lacks the social element which is so enjoyable about being in an office. Bouncing ideas around the room and pairing up with a colleague to solve ‘that’ problem is one of the joys of the workplace. We don’t want to lose this because we’re remote; it’s a big part of what keeps teams tight-knit. So tee up some time to solve development problems over a video call, together. Some remote teams even join up for video calls as they work separately just to keep table-top banter alive.
- Community leadership
The responsibility to handle tricky situations like the one we’re in mostly falls on leadership teams. But there are great ideas all around, and as we all know: the best ideas are born when there’s a crisis or problem. Some of our partners have held virtual Hack weeks, where employees could work to discover solutions to the short-term barriers they were facing. This is a great way to promote community leadership and involve everyone in company-decisions to move forward collectively.
- Community outreach
As you know many workers in Germany and around the world have been put out of work due to the quarantine but just because we are forced to stay home doesn’t mean we can’t still help those who are less fortunate. Some great initiatives have been set up in the wake of COVID-19 that help local businesses and workers. We know that our colleagues over at XING are donating unused lunch vouchers to the Abendblatt “From Person to Person” campaign, which is distributing food to short term workers and other vulnerable community members in Hamburg. This is a great way to get involved in your local communities and build your team comradery. Here’s another great initiative in Hamburg and another which is Germany-wide. A bunch of our team members here at Honeypot have been supporting Helfen Shop Berlin, an initiative which allows you to buy vouchers for your favourite shops to use once the store reopens after quarantine. Maybe you can find an initiative in your local area to rally the troops behind.
- Take your office ONLINE, literally!
Keep the company culture strong by shipping your remote employees reminders of the office like the objects and aesthetics that represent and identify your brand and community; things like posters, paperweights, stickers - all the fantastic stuff people use to jazz up their home offices. It’s like football jerseys: you may only see your team play twice a year, but that physical reminder keeps you rooting for them all year round (awww I want a shirt too)!
Honeypot’s icebreakers and team activities
The old team lunch can quickly grow stale - the best way to reignite your team’s spark is to get them active - conversations are great but they only reach so far. Here’s a list of some creative team activities (inspired by Honeypot) which can engage the troops, boost spirits and get the conversations rolling again:
- Cooking challenges
With a bit more time to spend in the kitchen, some of the Honeypot folk have rolled up their sleeves and opened those dusty old cookbooks to experiment with new recipes. It’s organised as a weekly ‘challenge’ based around a weekly theme, and at the end of each week, the group gathers to share the pictures of their creations. Last week was Vegan week and this week is International week. Here’s a nice mouth-watering collage :)
- Meme groups
If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Bit dramatic but mostly true - humour has a way of turning us all into optimists, and that’s what we need to be in these times! Humour is, in my humble opinion, the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to building, repairing and maintaining relationships. We are probably guilty of going a little overboard with our meme groups; there’s a dozen or so going at any given time, but we know those knee-slappers bring us closer together and the fires burning bright. There are a bunch of ways you can get this started: Slack channels, WhatsApp groups, Messenger - you name it!
- Sharing pics and videos of new hobbies
A couple of our company go-getters have been using their off-hours to learn new hobbies and skills. Rock climbing, abseiling, mountain biking - yeah, none of the above. Instead, they’ve been learning such things as: singing meditation, musical instruments, candle making, and gardening (digging for beetles…yum!). While you wouldn’t call these communal activities, the team has involved everyone by posting pics and videos, sharing their progress and experiences with the group. This has encouraged a community of learners actively sharing and engaging with their coworkers.
- Quarantine Q’s
One of our culture warriors has taken to the company Slack channel with a bunch of weekly ‘Quarantine Questions’ - ranging from downright whack to ‘hmm, that’s pretty interesting!’ These questions spur on discussion and get everyone chatting and tagging each other - they’re also a good laugh too. A couple of the latest questions were: “If you could be another Honeypotter for a month, who would it be and why?” and “In what ways will you be good to yourself this weekend ;) ?” It’s a nice way to break our workdays and remind us of the reason we love our workplace: the people.
- Yoga sessions
Yoga!? Who cares. Just kidding. Some of our more flexible folk have been teeing up virtual yoga sessions during the lunch breaks; it’s a unique way of engaging and sharing similar interests (now you’ve got a good excuse not to stare at those pixelated faces)
- German coffee breaks
Sometimes it’s nice to speak in a foreign language (or so I hear). We’re a very multinational group; many of us aren’t from Germany and so need a little time to practise the mother tongue. We’ve been using our coffee breaks to brush up with others - it’s not just German we’re trying to learn! Coffee breaks are also held in Italian, French and Spanish! Ooh la la.
- Deep Talks
At the beginning of the quarantine days, one of our much-loved Honeypotters, realising our need for deeper connections during these times, started a deep-talk session. It’s a small-group format where the moderator asks thoughtful questions to individuals in the group who, after answering, pass those questions on to another participant. You could make this format as light or deep as you want, though the benefit of digging beneath the surface is that it encourages vulnerability and an environment of sharing which naturally builds deeper bonds between people. Don’t know where to start? Here’s a question generator to get your gears turning ;)
There is always much more we can learn in times of crisis and it’s best to share that knowledge around with the team and wider-company. Holding virtual workshops is a great way to get the team engaged with some of the skills and practices they’ll need moving forward. We’ve had workshops on remote communication, delivering feedback and on self-awareness, priming the team for the weeks ahead.
The idea is to keep the social interaction density high using a combination of these mini formats since they serve as the pillars of your company’s identity. Secretly we are all dying for a chance to connect with our co-workers and these activities allow us to do just that. For the most part, people will jump in and start these activities and conversations themselves! Also, don’t think these activities must go company-wide either, start with your team and maybe divide some of the social responsibilities around and let the group decide!
Deal with isolation
We’ve talked about a bunch of different and creative ways you can bring the team together and enhance participation - but what about the other side? What can you do when team members are struggling to connect and are slowly drifting away from our team efforts?
Our friends over at GitLab sum it up nicely: “Prevention is a team sport. Leaders must work to establish a workplace culture that empowers rather than restricts, managers must be proactive in sensing the signs of mental strain, and team members must feel comfortable surfacing issues while they are still manageable.” - GitLab
You may have your suspicions already - it’s not rocket science, and most of us can tell when a team member is falling behind or disengaging, and it’s even more apparent when working remotely. It’s not the time to be losing valued talent (it never is), those developers who are disengaged are much more likely to pack up shop and look elsewhere. According to a Korn Ferry survey, boredom is the top reason - 33% of respondents - for professionals changing jobs.
So let’s say you’ve been caught in the whirlwind of crisis management and haven’t had time to gauge every individual coworker. There are a few things you might want to look for to identify the signs early before you risk losing a valuable member of your team.
Signs of employee disengagement
- Missed deadlines (Can I get an extension?…)
- They stop offering input
- Their relationships with colleagues change
- Work hours and break times are constantly changing (lack of structure)
- There are more ‘sick’ breaks than usual
- There’s a lack of social participation
- They are less likely to offer their opinion
- They don’t want to commit to long-term projects
- They’re late to meetings or skips them entirely
It may seem like we’ve listed a bunch of reasons why you wouldn’t want this employee on your team, but that’s not the case at all. We all suffer from demotivation and feelings of isolation; there could be a number of reasons that feed into these types of behaviours. The obvious would be the current situation of the world, it’s understandable why someone would feel demotivated at work when so much else is happening at home and abroad.
Remember this is a teammate who is struggling and doesn’t need someone to tell them off. The best you can do is jump on a 1-on-1 call with the person and see if you can uncover the reasons behind their lack of motivation and isolation. What’s their day-to-day like? How’s working from home? You want to address these issues as soon as you can and provide support so that this doesn’t snowball into a more significant problem. Everything hinges on the quality of your relationship with your individual teammates. If it’s low, you’re going to need to start building rapport with them and invest time coaching them through and out the other side. Or take notes from our friends at mySugr, who benefit from sending weekly and bi-weekly health surveys to see how their employees are doing which enable them to make quick changes going forward.
The best time to stop burnout and isolation is now - before you even reach a point of distress. Our friends over at Gitlab suggest managers to encourage healthy ‘routines’ which proactively help reduce mental strain and potential isolation. Here are some of their recommendations:
- Set clear boundaries between work and home
- Take a vacation day
- Take a “mental health day” to lower your stress (spend time outdoors, exercise)
- Know when to take a break
- Put a break reminder on your computer (to ensure you do take those breaks!)
- Switch off when you’re away from work
- Don’t suffer in silence
- Don’t go straight to work after you wake up (try and have some ‘me’ time beforehand)
- Remove Slack from your smartphone or at the very least, turn off notifications for it
- Keep each other accountable. If someone in a different time zone should be asleep, tell them
- Use your Slack status to share a message with the team that you are unavailable
Provide Feedback Often
I know it may not seem like feedback belongs here, but trust me, it does! Your team will be familiar in an environment where they receive feedback daily - instantly in some cases! In the vacuum of remote work, which is a completely new way of working for many, uncertainty can rise. This combination of anxiety and the unknown can lead your colleagues up to the doorstep of imposter syndrome. Without affirmation (positive or negative) members will be hesitant towards action.
Regular feedback lets your team know where they are positioned, calms those worry-warts and doesn’t leave anything up to surprise (making your job a whole lot easier). We recommend weekly reviews to catch up on how everyone is going and see what the future holds. Of course, you’ll have some guns on your team who can bust through anything with complete autonomy and don’t need you on their backs like a doting mother. But there will certainly be others who are more comfortable with traditional work environments and may need a little more ‘hand-holding’ if you catch my drift.
Honeypot’s guide to online performance reviews
Yes, you might find a remote performance review awkward or off-putting for a number of reasons, but it’s time to embrace the change and get on with it. Here’s our method to holding a 360 review, which has actually been rather successful, and will hopefully cut down on some of those cringey moments and awkward silences.
First, have a very clear structure and agenda like this example we have outlined below:
1. Employee’s self-review feedback
If someone seems overly self-critical ask them to provide an example of something they are proud of (this is a common problem for high-achievers). If they can’t give one, why not? And try and find ways to help that coworker feel achievement and contribution.
On the flip side, if they are very self-confident, ask them about what they could have done better.
2. Employee’s feedback on leadership (that’s you) and the company
People often need a push with this one, since we tend to shy away from giving criticism to our manager to their face (no kidding!). So do your best to encourage honesty and openness.
If they aren’t saying something directly, point out some areas yourself and ask them for their comments.
3. Feedback from employee’s peers
As you share the feedback, focus on behaviours, not personality, and draw connections between what they’ve said about themselves and what others had to say on the same subject. Does anything differ? If so, why is there a difference?
Ask the employee which parts of the feedback resonate the most and why.
4. Manager’s feedback of things done well and improvements
5. Finish with the key takeaways
It’s important for them to arrive at a final narrative with at least two things they can be really proud of and the top areas they feel they need to improve in.
Differences between remote performance reviews and in-office onces aren’t drastic. The most important takeaway is; the agenda should be defined and structured, being the best defence against awkward situations and silences.
3. How to show appreciation for your remote team
We show appreciation to our colleagues when they demonstrate hard work or go beyond set expectations. But sometimes we can overlook what others have done or achieved because we’ve been busy course-correcting and trying to navigate to easier times. What we need to be reminded of is that appreciation and praise are the champions of high performing, highly-engaged teams. According to Hubspot, 69% of employees said they’d work harder if they were better appreciated. So don’t let that good work go unnoticed - high quality recognition will benefit them and you in the long run.
How to Recognise and Reward Your Remote Team
In the office recognition almost happens naturally, we see someone working hard or notice a change and can immediately address it. But in the online space, we’ve got a few more hurdles to jump through to ensure our teams are feeling seen.
1. Implement an Employee Recognition Program
Yes, it’s obvious, but still needs to be said: get the organisation on a HR platform that has built-in employee recognition features, and if you’re already on one, make the most of those features. Officevibe does a great job when it comes to tracking employee satisfaction, recording wins, and sharing gratitude. Some platforms like 15Five can be integrated into Slack and other chat apps to make it easy for public displays of gratitude. At Honeypot, we have a dedicated company channel for sharing individual and team wins, and we can definitely see how it improves comradery and good vibes all around.
Most of the organisations we’ve come across are using one of the following employee recognition programs:
2. Offer Remote Career Development Opportunities
Try to provide the same opportunities afforded inside the office to the remote workplace. For example, you might have mentorship and coaching programs or educational activities; bring them online! Don’t hold back just because the future is uncertain, workers still want access to career growth opportunities. This might mean a bit of creativity but there’s plenty on offer now that the majority of workshops and conferences have been shifted online. Giving employees opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and strengthen their knowledge is key to their success, and it’s a great way to bring up your team’s performance. At Honeypot we have a yearly budget for learning and development opportunities, so that employees can choose where they want to direct those allocated resources.
3. Help your team jazz up their home offices
Sitting in our pyjamas sipping home-brewed coffee is one great benefit of remote work, yet there is one major disadvantage we tend to overlook: the lack of technical resources we have available at home. There are a bunch of us out here hunched over, squinting at our tiny laptop screens. If you have the resources, create a budget for home offices so that team members can enjoy a few of the office comforts like cushioned chairs, webcams, monitors, toilet paper, mousepads, pasta, printers and all the other equipment which makes our work easier. The money you spend on improving your worker’s experiences will help them feel included, cared for, and turn them into a much more productive lot. Remember one extra monitor can double the output of an office worker! ← That’s a made-up fact by the way, so don’t go spreading it around.
How to show appreciation
Recognition is only a piece of the puzzle. A broad thank-you announcement can also be a little impersonal, especially in remote situations. Reinforce your gratitude with individualised gifts; this extra bit of effort has a dramatic effect. It doesn’t have to be something fancy, it might be as simple as take-out lunch, and you’ll immediately notice the difference.
Here are some perks we’ve thought up which you might consider offering your remote people to make them feel included and valued:
- Care packages (snacks, toilet paper, etc.)
- Office furniture (cushioned chairs, standing desks)
- Birthday cards
- Growth opportunities (conferences, workshops, online education)
- Home fitness equipment
You get the idea. And if this seems like too much to juggle, why not save yourself the hassle and instead give your team a monthly allowance so they can do the spiffing themselves.
Efforts of appreciation go a long way in keeping teams engaged and autonomous, they also keep your online culture attractive to current and future employees.
4. How to measure remote team engagement
Everything we’ve discussed so far has been about strengthening bonds between team members and encouraging engagement. But how do we know what’s working? Here are some ways you can measure the effectiveness of your engagement strategies.
Performance tools… again
We touched on some of the HR tools you can use for tracking recognition and rewarding employees. These same tools can also record team engagement across periods of time. Project management tools can do the same for performance. It’s going to be helpful to have data on your side when identifying performance metrics and levels of satisfaction. This way you’ll be able to clearly see the issues and how well your team is engaged to better inform your management style.
Measure output, not input
Often the loudest voices on a team are usually doing the least, there’s always a lot of activity but it’s a bit murky when it comes to results. Focus on the output of your remote team members, the number of tickets closed or commits they’ve had over a period of time - this is a much better metric of engagement than the number of times you’ve seen them post in the team slack channel.
Ask your team for feedback!
Want to know if your team is engaged? Ask them! This will be the quickest way to gauge how your team is feeling. Anonymous surveys are a great way to gather feedback and suggestions,or even better, use regular 1-on-1 sessions to monitor and evaluate the team’s engagement. One to one usually works the best as people will tend to be more open about how they feel. Sure, you might have already organised a few of these, so you know what it’s all about - I’ll just say these two things; you should use these sessions for more than just talking shop; and how if you approach these sessions lazy and unprepared don’t expect much to come of them. Here’s more on hosting 1-on-1 sessions as a remote manager.
Also, look to the traditional ways of gathering team feedback: performance reviews, 360’s and self-evaluations. If your team is committed to success they will be honest and quickly point to areas which need improvement, in others and in yourself. Peer reviews and self-evaluations provide great metrics to measure the engagement of particular members. And as we suggested earlier, make this a regular thing! Don’t prolong uncertainty in times like this, if someone is struggling to adapt, tell them and offer advice, don’t wait for a quarterly review.
Pulse surveys are a popular method of quickly measuring employee feedback. They are essentially short multiple-choice questionnaires which can be used to gauge employee’s reactions for decision making and employee experience. It’s a great way to bring the team along with you when making crucial decisions on employee engagement. Even simple questions like, ‘who’s interested in X or Y’ or ‘how much value does Z-activity bring?’ are great starting points.
All of your efforts towards increasing engagement are lost if your team doesn’t actually want to do the suggested thing. For example, some of our teams here at Honeypot love to get into technical debates, while other teams just want to shoot the breeze and play some Friday night trivia. We need to be aware of these differences when assessing our methods of team participation.
Engaging remote engineering teams
Despite the increased efficiency gains and uptake in employee autonomy delivered by remote teams, there are structural weaknesses when it comes to engagement and socialisation. We asked this question in the very beginning: how can we continue to build relationships in our new online workplace? The answer is: by keeping social interaction density high, and getting creative in the ways which we participate as a team. We’ve listed a bunch of ways you can do that above - now it’s time to implement them!
Thanks for reading!