Work From Home: Keeping team members engaged and bonded

With both hybrid and fully remote work models now in place, most organisations have settled down to a business-as-usual rhythm. And that’s not likely to change again soon. Many employees love their working arrangements now: Their commuting time and stress is cut, cost of childcare is reduced, extra sleep helps mental health, kids and pets get attention and comfortable clothes get a workout. In fact one could argue ‘what’s not to like?’

However, despite all the benefits of WFH, there are some individuals who may struggle with it.

For those who prefer to be surrounded by teammates or crave mentoring, working from home the majority of the time can leave them feeling lost.  As I mentioned in my previous article, there’s a lot to be said for learning through osmosis; living new experiences can teach us far more about culture and “how to go about things” than reading or a third person explanation.

For leaders, this presents an important question: How can we ensure WFH arrangements promote the development and connection of everyone on your team?

Being mindful of what some individuals may be experiencing can help:

Yearning for personal interaction

Feeling isolated from the team and management rates as one of the biggest problems for professionals with WFH arrangements.  In an article by, the author states:

“A study of over 1,000 employees, conducted by Business Electricity Prices has revealed that a whopping 53% of remote workers are worried about being left out of in-person team meetings and other activities that take place in the office.

While over a third of home working employees have fears about being overlooked for promotions and pay rise opportunities in favour of people who actually work in the office.

There are clearly two key issues here that employers need to address. The first is the anxiety stemming from feelings of exclusion, and the second is the worry and concern that they will be overlooked professionally.

While the first may seem like a harmless case of FOMO (fear of missing out), feeling isolated and lonely has serious implications on both physical and mental health. One study revealing that loneliness can actually increase the likelihood of mortality by 26%”

For these reasons, making connection-building events a regular occurance can help deal with feelings of non-inclusion. Currently, we’re noticing many clients implementing a range of in-person activities, such as dogs at work days, special team lunches, guest speakers, employee recognition days or drinks after work – anything that will draw people into the office.

For teams scattered far and wide, there’s a good chance they won’t miss the in-person interaction quite as much – as nothing has changed for them. However, online activities can still help with team cohesion – such as quizzes and competitions over drinks.

And of course, ensuring those working for you continue to get your one-on-one attention regularly never goes astray.

Team burnout

For some professionals, WFH has also made work/life balance just a bit harder.  Rather than stopping work in the evening, many people are finding themselves returning to their laptops at night to ‘brush off odd tasks’ – which can lead to hours more work than intended.

With less disconnection time and fewer interruptions, professionals are working three additional hours a day on average – according to an article by Forbes Magazine. And it’s not just the long hours that cause burnout, it’s the unhealthy lifestyles and personal issues that are associated with WFH.

How do you tackle the problem from afar?

Train your team to rethink their weekly schedules:

  • Create boundaries outside of office hours – including no emails, messages or phone calls unless urgent
  • Build in breaks between meetings to get a coffee or make the mental adjustment to the next agenda
  • Schedule Not Available blocks in their diaries for focused work without interruptions
  • Encourage time off for life admin or to recharge batteries

For other tips, take a look at how Microsoft is improving the work-life balance of their hybrid teams.

Recognising your unconscious bias

An easy way to make individual team members feel unappreciated is by favouring specific people. Often it’s hard to recognise if you are doing this, but it can be obvious to those working for you.

Is there someone you give more attention to than others? Is there an employee you’re fixated on bringing into line? Do certain team members rub you up a bit?

Someone’s personal likeability should not have any bearing on how they are treated professionally – especially if they perform to standards – which leaves you with no choice but to self-check for subconscious discriminatory behaviour.

Start by questioning your assumptions and thought processes. Ask yourself:

  • Do your words and actions reflect your intentions?
  • What are your core beliefs – and are they justified?
  • Do these beliefs have bearing on your relationship with specific personalities?
  • Do you really understand the other person and what motivates them?
  • How would you act if you were in their shoes?
  • Do you let others challenge your assumptions?

Consider asking for feedback from colleagues who differ from you. Or your own superior perhaps.

It’s only when leaders develop a deep level of self-awareness that their whole team truly trusts them, confides in them and values a supportive open relationship.

Feeling unappreciated

The point above can also lead to feelings of worthlessness and non-appreciation with some employees. This can be amplified if you need to give critical feedback to the person in question. Don’t avoid the problem if you think it will further hinder your relationship with them – rather, look at ways to guide them without sounding judgmental.

In a WFH situation, it can often be hard to understand what is going on in their lives, so when providing feedback consider:

  • Is there something personal that’s causing slip-ups?
  • Do they have a different perception of their performance than you?
  • Can you provide specific praise before discussing the criticism? They will be more receptive if they know you value them
  • How should you reassure them that you just want to guide them and progress their learning?
  • Can you let them know you’re in their corner?
  • Clarify that the employee fully understands the situation and outcomes your want
  • Ensure there are no misconceptions

Saying Thanks

Team members may also feel taken for granted if you don’t show gratitude in a meaningful way. Indeed, you may wish to recognise the long hours, tight deadlines and difficult working environment by gestures – not just words.

Offer them a day off, for instance; send a special home delivery or online voucher; give specific recognition at a corporate event; or take individuals to coffee and let them know how much their efforts mean. Gestures like this seem like a small token, but they’re an effective way of maintaining loyalty and commitment in all working environments.

Taking ownership 

Employee unrest isn’t always a reflection of your leadership skills. However, as a leader, it helps to ensure everyone has your understanding and their needs met – both physically and psychologically; they are your work engine at the end of the day.

In a Harvard Business Review article titled Managing Anger, Frustration and Resentment on Your Team, (February 2022), Nihar Chhaya argues that it’s important to:

  • Balance your emotions before reacting to your team’s: Don’t take things personally and resist the urge to act defensively or dismissively
  • Be curious: Ask for more clarification, be non-judgmental and provide safe space for openness and honesty from team members
  • Ask for their guidance: Invite them to partner with you to address their concerns
  • Acknowledge anything you could have done to prevent or alleviate an unpopular decision or situation

And if a team member approaches you with their struggles? It’s important to be supportive, understand what they are going through and ask what it is they need from you to feel supported.

Leadership in a WFH world

In a revealing McKinsey & Company article titled This time it’s personal: Shaping the ‘new possible’ through employee experience (September 2021), the authors discuss how “Workers are hungry for trust, social cohesion, and purpose. They want to feel that their contributions are recognised and that their team is truly collaborative. They desire clear responsibilities and opportunities to learn and grow. They expect their personal sense of purpose to align with that of their organisation. And they want an appropriate physical and digital environment that gives them the flexibility to achieve that elusive work–life balance.” 

The authors also cite research that claims “…people who report having a positive employee experience have 16 times the engagement level of employees with a negative experience, and that they are eight times more likely to want to stay at a company.”

When you read studies like this, many would agree that employee experiences in a hybrid/remote working world now need to be factored in strategically within organisations. As a leader, however, you can promote team engagement and loyalty immediately – simply by applying mindful reactions, appreciation of what others may be experiencing and personal awareness.  As they say, it’s the personal touches that count.

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