Remote work is on the rise. According to data from FlexJobs, the number of people working remotely has increased by 159 percent over the last 12 years. A report by Upwork shows this trend is expected to continue, with 73 percent of teams projected to include remote employees by 2028.

In addition to advancements in technology and more flexible scheduling options, there’s another key factor driving the pivot to remote work: the growing impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Due to the pandemic, professionals around the world are practicing social distancing and working from home to help limit the spread of germs and stay healthy and safe.

This shift has prompted many business leaders to adapt to managing employees virtually and finding different ways to keep them engaged and informed.

Related: Resource Roundup: Tips & Lessons to Help You Navigate Through the Coronavirus Crisis

If you want to be an effective manager and boost your team’s performance, here are five tips to help foster engagement when your employees are remote.

How to Engage Remote Employees

1. Hold Regular Check-In Meetings

Frequent check-ins are vital to employee engagement. According to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management and Globoforce, 89 percent of HR professionals believe ongoing peer feedback and check-in meetings have a positive impact on their organizations.

Research by Gallup shows employees who regularly meet with their managers are three times more engaged than those who don’t.

Without the face-to-face interactions that come with working in an office, the need for regular check-ins is even more important when managing remote employees.

“It’s difficult to understand what’s going on in the office and the subtle nuances that may impact the way in which colleagues interact with each other,” says Harvard Business School Professor Anthony Mayo in the online course Leadership Principles. “A key to confronting these challenges is to engage in more extensive communication than you might if everyone were in the same location.”

Schedule regular, recurring meetings with your team using tools like video conferencing software to share information and delegate tasks and responsibilities. In doing so, you can ensure your employees feel more connected and aligned on objectives.

2. Recognize Employee Contributions

Noticing and praising your team’s work not only boosts employee engagement, but reaps several other benefits, including:

  • Greater productivity
  • Stronger company loyalty
  • Higher retention rates

A little can go a long way when it comes to workplace recognition. According to a recent study, 70 percent of employees believe their motivation and morale would improve if their managers said “thank you” more often.

Take note of your team members’ contributions with simple statements of appreciation via email, digital chat tools, and video check-ins. You should also make time to provide more detailed, nuanced feedback.

When giving feedback, ensure your comments are specific, clear, and timely. Try to strike a balance between highlighting the positive behaviors and actions demonstrated by your employees and offer suggestions for how they can continue to learn and develop.

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3. Engage in Collaborative Goal-Setting

Setting specific, attainable goals is critical to your team’s success. Research shows formal, structured goal-setting leads to higher levels of employee engagement, which, in turn, drives workplace optimism and individual performance.

Besides a clearly defined objective, effective goal-setting requires outlining a series of smaller, actionable steps that need to be accomplished to achieve the desired end result.

Use goal-setting as a means of empowering your team members to take on greater responsibilities and bolster their skills. Some examples might include inviting one of your employees to lead a critical team meeting to enhance their decision-making, or suggesting an online class to further their knowledge of a technical business discipline, such as business analytics.

As you discuss goals with your remote employees, highlight how each individual’s efforts connect to the work of their colleagues and the company as a whole. By doing so, you can improve performance by up to 10 percent.

4. Solicit Input and Encourage Participation

In addition to setting goals, find other ways to collaborate with your remote team members and solicit their input. Data from IBM shows 83 percent of employees have a more positive work experience when they feel their ideas and suggestions matter.

When leading virtual meetings, strive to create a psychologically safe environment in which team members feel welcome to speak up and share their opinions. This is especially important when facilitating organizational processes, like team decision-making. You enable more innovative problem-solving when you surface and debate diverse perspectives.

According to HBS Dean Nitin Nohria, who’s featured in the online course Management Essentials, it’s your responsibility as a manager to allow for alternative points of view to emerge and be considered.

“If someone has the contrarian point of view in a meeting, and everyone else is against them, one of your jobs as a leader is to side with them—even if you don’t agree—to make sure their viewpoint gets heard,” Nohria says. “It’s very important, if there’s a minority opinion in the room, to not cut it off too quickly.”

By encouraging participation among your team and allowing for alternative views to emerge, you can ensure your employees feel both valued and engaged.

Related: Decision-Making in Management: 5 Common Pitfalls to Avoid

5. Create Opportunities for Personal Connection

Beyond meetings and collaborative projects, create opportunities for your employees to socialize and build personal connections virtually. Research by Gallup has found that employees with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged than their colleagues and are:

  • More effective at engaging customers
  • Produce better work
  • Have higher well-being

“The real challenge is ensuring that, as a remote employee, you're creating the types of personal connections and support systems that enable you and your team to thrive,” says Mayo in Leadership Principles. “You need to create substitutes for the casual hallway conversations, meals, and accidental interactions that typically happen in the course of a day and week when everyone in the team is geographically in the same place.”

Some suggestions for cultivating camaraderie among your remote team include leveraging video conferencing software to host a virtual happy hour, or organizing an online book club so employees can bond over a shared interest.

By enabling this kind of virtual team-building, you and your employees can forge deeper, more meaningful relationships with each other.

Learn More about Management Essentials

Engaging Your Team

Engaging remote employees brings a unique set of challenges. By taking advantage of digital tools, communicating constantly, showing appreciation, and finding ways to collaborate and connect, you can effectively manage your team and overcome the barriers imposed by physical distance.

Do you want to become a more effective leader and manager? Download our free leadership and management e-book to find out how. Also, explore our online courses Leadership Principles and Management Essentials to learn how you can take charge of your professional development and accelerate your career.

Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in news and content marketing. He has a background in video production and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.