By Ellie Hearne

“Do you work with remote teams?”

We’re asked this a lot.

It’s not surprising given the rise of remote working. Working from home or a coworking space has never been easier. Laptops are lighter, docs are on the cloud, video calls are mainstream, and smartphones mean even a stroll to a cafe can be “productive time.”

But much as the introduction of helmets into NFL games led to more injuries, the rise of tools to help us connect more has led to less true connection.

Remoteness isn’t always about location

Alongside the practical challenges of a diffuse workforce (staying present during back-to-back calls, working across timezones, reading nuance and tone from brief emails, and the like), a more pointed issue lurks: workplace loneliness. What’s more, you don’t have to be working from home to experience it. Employees who work in open-plan offices surrounded by team members can easily feel isolated, too, precisely because of the veneer of connection tech provides.

It doesn’t take a leadership-development expert to recognize that “remote working” of both types can foment low morale, disengagement, and reduced productivity. Indeed, a mere 13% of employees are engaged at work, regardless of where they sit geographically.

This kind of presentee-ism - where employees clock in but don’t really “show up” for work in the other sense of the term - is hard on everyone. People are sitting in front of their computers each day, with inbox and chat notifications popping up, but they’re neither being heard nor feeling seen - and, of course, they are not producing for their companies.

Occasionally, this means you hired poorly. Much of the time, it means you’re managing poorly or you’re dealing with a systemic challenge.

How can we reengage a remote worker?

Remote working, done right, can represent a perk - the flexibility to work from home or elsewhere, to be left alone to get things done. It can even enhance productivity; tech like laptops, SaaS tools, and smartphones can improve output without coming at a steep cost.

But how can employers strike that balance? How can you engage your team, wherever they happen to sit?

We put our heads together and compiled this list:

Take a robust approach to onboarding

When you look back to your early days at a company, you may not recall the formal aspects of the onboarding process, but the chances are you remember the more social interactions you had with colleagues, like the first time someone showed you how the coffee machine worked, the time your boss shared what they remembered about their first week on the job, a peer talking about a mistake they made, etc. Trivial on one level, but vital to making you feel a part of something and to giving you a sense of the culture.

Remote workers should be welcomed to the team via a video meeting (with a heads-up) and other team members should be encouraged to reach out to introduce themselves, and offer up a little 1:1 time to get acquainted. Even if it’s via phone, it helps your new (and old) team members feel more connected. (Better connected teams perform better, after all.)

Recognize cultural dynamics

Get to know the cultural nuances of each place your team members work. Working in Toronto is of course different from working in New Delhi, and working in London is different again. But you don’t have to carry your passport to experience different office cultures. At my last employer, the New York City office and the California one may as well have been at separate companies. Frequent trips between both were great for helping the team connect - but in leaner times, even conference calls (done well) had a positive impact.

Speaking of which…

Upgrade your meetings

Meetings are the bane of many people’s existence. But for remote workers, meetings are often their only real-time interaction with colleagues - so it’s vital not only to make them useful, but to make them human.

Here’s a quick-and-dirty list of musts for meetings. Do yours pass muster? (Or is this closer to reality? Let’s hope not.)

  • It’s necessary - it adds something that can’t be achieved by email or Slack. (Human connection is important, too, and can’t really be achieved via instant message.)

  • It has a clear goal or agenda that’s stated at the start of the meeting.

  • It starts on time. It (ideally) ends early.

  • It includes only people whose presence is necessary. Anyone else on the guestlist knows their presence is optional.

  • It’s never dominated by one or two voices - and everyone present contributes something of value.

  • It ends with clear action items, each with an “owner” assigned.

Invest in relational skills

Any team can master technical skills, but relational ones - the so-called soft skills - are the ones that make or break success, morale, and engagement. And since remote workers “get nervous that they’ll get forgotten about,” per Siobhan O’Mahoney of Boston University’s Questrom School of Business (and anyone who’s said “…are guys are still there?!” on a conference call), investing in foundational skills like active listening, delivering and receiving feedback, and delegating effectively can help your teams feel valued both by the company and by one another. People don’t necessarily seek out jobs for these reasons, but they certainly leave them for the same.

Provide opportunities for face-to-face connection

Watercooler chat can be great, but it’s not going to miraculously engage a disengaged team member. And if your team works remotely, even the most gif-filled Slack channel can’t substitute a good face-to-face interaction. Consider holding a quarterly offsite where your team meets in the same place. Failing that, even an annual one can make a world of difference.

For teams that aren’t remote, these real-life face-time opportunities are more readily available, though that doesn’t mean they can be neglected. In an unhealthy work culture, colleagues tend only to interact with one another when they need something done. In a healthy one, connections exist outside of work needs. This doesn’t mean everyone socializes with each other outside of work - but that conversations regularly touch on topics not directly related to particular projects, that people know a little about the humans they’re working with, and that individuals feel valued by those around them - regardless of where they sit.

In essence, get to know your team. You can’t help people perform at their best if you don’t take the time to get to know them. Where do they excel? What are their stress triggers? What will help them thrive at work? It might be time to find out.

We help engage individuals and teams through coaching, workshops, and strategic communications. We build relational skills and we help companies lead.

(And yes, we do work with remote teams.)

Ellie Hearne is a leadership-communications expert and founder of Pencil or Ink. She has worked with Apple, Google, Kate Spade, Marriott, Morgan Stanley, Oracle, Pfizer, Piaget, Spotify, Starbucks, and Twitter, among others, and has coached numerous individuals and teams. Ellie can be reached herehere, and here.