6 Effective Ways For Managers to Stay in Touch With Remote Staffby@refocus
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6 Effective Ways For Managers to Stay in Touch With Remote Staff

by Roman Kumar VyasSeptember 26th, 2022
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When the work setup is remote, informal communication must be encouraged. Otherwise, employees would dig into tasks, lose contact with the team, and in the worst case, lose motivation because they would think that their work is not needed anymore.

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In the office, colleagues communicate and make friends almost by themselves. A new employee occupies a desk, listens to conversations around, and one Friday evening goes to a bar with all the team members to celebrate the end of the work week. And then he/she finds common interests with co-workers, participates in extra work activities, and creates group chats.

When the work setup is remote, informal communication must be encouraged. Otherwise, employees would dig into tasks, lose contact with the team, and in the worst case, lose motivation because they would think that their work is not needed anymore.

Refocus has more than 150 employees who all work remotely, which is why it is crucial for us to maintain the "chemistry" between the team and managers. Here are 6 ideas that will help increase employee efficiency and establish a common language among team members and managers.

1. Onboarding bonuses

You can support colleagues right away during their first day at work by sending merchandise production — a hoodie, a thermal mug with the company’s logo, or laptop stickers. The employee receives some kind of insignia and feels a sense of belongingness. Support may also be provided through useful presents — a discount on services, access to a book club, or a session with a coach. Doing this will make employees feel supported from the very beginning and establish the fact that they are part of a community comprising like-minded people. 

As a founder, I am convinced that an unhappy and burnt out person will not benefit the company. That’s why at Refocus, we pay a lot of attention to the mental health of our employees. One time, we organized meditation training for everyone and agreed on discounts for psychotherapy sessions.  

In Qmarketing, another company I founded, we always used to send a welcome set of wines to new employees. It was a beautiful box with four bottles of high-quality alcohol, and for the non-drinkers–a set of tea or coffee. At Refocus, we haven’t established a similar system yet, but we’re working on it. We understand how difficult it can be to join a team, so we make an effort to support the person from the start.

The wine set sent to new employees

2."All-team" meetings with the entire team

  • Meeting participants: the company’s entire team, including employees and managers
  • Frequency of meetings: once a week on Fridays
  • Duration: 1 hour

As stated by my co-founder Igor Gurovich:

"All-team is a meeting of the entire group. The objective of this call is to learn about the methods being practiced to make processes more transparent. Generally, all-team meetings are also held to relax and unwind. When you work remotely, it is very important to meet and communicate with the team at least once a week. These Zoom calls are less about numbers and more about people."

For all-team meetings, we appoint a moderator beforehand to help monitor the timing, announce meeting objectives, and pass the floor to colleagues. Department heads to discuss the results of the week's work, talk about victories and difficulties, or share plans for the coming week. Meeting attendees also communicate in the chat box while the session is ongoing. And the moderator encourages the team to ask questions or send out reactions and hearts in the chat box at the beginning and end of co-workers’ speeches.

Screenshot of the weekly Refocus team call

Thanks to team meetings, employees feel involved in the overall result as they have a unifying goal and mission. It’s vitally important as according to a McKinsey survey, 70% of occupied people’s life goals are determined by work. So team meetings are a way to set direction, inspire, and motivate.

Moreover, these meetings provide an opportunity for common reflection. There is not enough time in the task flow to look around, analyze mistakes, and learn lessons. All-team meetings provide this opportunity, and at the same time, show that the colleagues and heads are not perfect. Work does not always go smoothly for them, but they move on and do not give up nonetheless. General reflections help colleagues become closer to each other and improve work efficiency by 23% as claimed by the Harvard Business School.

Each team has its own approach to meetings and goals. You can take an example from other companies and adjust the format to your own. For example, at The Mobile Majority, managers send employees the meeting agenda and goals before it starts, allowing employees to leave comments on the plan, ask questions, and prepare. Studies show that many companies replaced traditional face-to-face meetings with online ones due to the pandemic but then terminated this practice when things started going back to normal.

We at Refocus constantly update the format of our online meetings. We rearrange headings, remove and return frameworks, and so on.

 "At the same time, this is a very expensive meeting: all the founders, heads, and absolutely all the employees are present in it. They do not spend this paid hour on work but invest in communication. But the cost pays off."

– says my co-founder Alex Solo, and I totally agree with him.

Below are several heading options that you can borrow and use for work.

  • Category "Acquaintance with a new-comer"

When you work in the office, you say: "Hello everyone! This is Paul. He is a CRM manager.” And then you take him through all the departments. But it’s a little different for a remote team.

At each team meeting, you need to dedicate a few minutes to newcomers to talk about past work experiences, hobbies, and career goals. They might prepare a PowerPoint slide or introduce themselves without one. This is important in making employees feel that the company is growing at a stable rate.

Slide from a newcomer’s presentation 

  • Category "Refocus Talk"

Refocus Talk is an informal part of the meeting where you can get to know your colleagues better. The randomizer chooses a speaker to prepare a  10-15 minute speech on any topic. He/she can talk about hobbies, favorite movies, and travel destinations or share something that he/she excels in that is not related to work.

"For example, one of our employees shared a story about her grandmother–the difficulties she faced in life and how she overcame them. It turned out to be a touching story. Another shared what to do if a fire started and you lived in a multi-story building on the 20th floor. Someone talked about embroidery and exchanging postcards with people from other countries. And one of the employees talked about her story and how to treat people with depression. There are no restrictions during Refocus Talk."

Alexander Solovyov, co-founder of Refocus

  • Category "Interactive"

In interactive mode, we give the team a task. An example is to come up with what our company will look like in ten years. We open Miro, and everyone writes ideas on stickers. Then the host reads out all the answers, and we select the most useful ideas for the team and the founders.

Kind of tasks that can be given to the team:

  1. describe the company's values and implement them into a new brand
  2. create a company record book — everyone should write about their achievements in different fields
  3. write the "word of the week" — describe the work week in one word.
  • Category "Thank you"

Every meeting, we allocate a few minutes to say “thank you” to our colleagues. We randomly select one person and ask him/her to publicly thank his/her colleagues. Social psychologist Monica Barlett has proven that gratitude improves wellbeing, reduces depression, and helps create new relationships and develop existing ones.

If this slide is on the screen, then it's time to say “thank you” to colleagues.

  • Situational category 

We are currently penetrating the Asian market and getting to know the Asian culture, so we also devote time for this during team meetings. We analyze the funniest Asian memes of the week to better understand our new target audience’s way of thinking.

3. One-on-one meetings between a manager and an employee

  • Participants of the meeting: a manager and an employee
  • Frequency of meetings: once every two weeks
  • Duration: 40-60 minutes
"The purpose of one-on-one meetings is to discuss issues, brilliant ideas, attitude towards colleagues, opportunities for further development, and the next steps to take in work and life in general. These cover everything that does not fit into the framework of work reports and other less personal and confidential forms of communication."

- says Igor Gurovich, co-founder of Refocus

The manager is responsible for the effectiveness of these meetings, so he/she prepares for them in advance:

  • Scores an employee with a free slot
  • Sends an invitation to Google Calendar and adds a link to the meeting in Zoom
  • Prepares a framework in Miro to fill in during the meeting
  • Sends the meeting schedule to the employee
  • Prepares a list of questions

How to choose a meeting slot

At this time, the employee mustn't perform other tasks, and the manager should not resort to late meetings. To do this, we recommend setting aside a separate day for such meetings and holding them one after another.

How to prepare a framework

Where to fix ideas and agreements is not important. The main thing is to record everything in the process. We at Refocus take meeting notes using Miro. We indicate the date and the employee's name on the board to easily find it among other boards. We save the meeting schedule on the board so that we don't miss anything.

Stickers are usually grouped this way:

  • proud, joyful, and inspiring moments
  • frustrations, pains, and problems;
  • the focus of the last two weeks is what the employee spent more energy on
  • next steps: what the employee and the manager will do to improve work performance
  • areas the employee needs help in
  • everything else that doesn't fit into this framework

 Template for one-on-one Refocus meetings 

What to ask an employee

During the first meetings, it will feel awkward to discuss problems and feelings. Then after several meetings, it will seem like there is nothing more to discuss. This is not the case, and the manager understands this as soon as he/she starts communicating. We share questions that help Refocus managers "pull" employees' problems to the surface.

1.  Find out how things are going

  • Great weather today! How are you? How are you feeling?
  • What's going on in your life?
  • How are things at school/with your family?
  • What interesting things happened since our last meeting?
  • What results are you proud of?
  • What motivates you the most in your job? And what are the tasks that you find most interesting?
  • What do you like most about the company and your current role?
  • What inspires you at work and in life?
  • Have you thought about what you particularly like at work? Which areas attract you the most?

2.  Discuss restrictions

  • I noticed you look tired. Are there any problems I can help you with?
  • Do you have any difficulties with planning tasks or organizing a work day? Do you need help with this issue?
  • Is there something that distracts you from work? Maybe something that’s getting in the way? In my case, the smell of food distracts me.
  • Are you satisfied with the equipment?

3. Discuss difficulties and problems

  • What didn’t you manage to do?
  • What problems have you had to face recently?
  • What or who prevents you from enjoying your job?
  • What would you like to change in your work? Are there things that demotivate you?
  • If someone was fired, demoted, or transferred to another department, don't try to pretend that nothing has changed. Explain to the employee what is happening and ask how he/she feels about it.

4. Gather feedback about yourself

  • Do I ever ignore you or refuse to answer your questions?
  • Is there anything that you think I should do differently
  • How can I become better as a manager?
  • What would you like to improve in terms of our interaction?
  • What can I do better for you? Do I need to describe tasks more accurately, set meetings more frequently and communicate in Zoom, or raise questions less often?

5.  Discuss any other suggestions/ideas regarding work and development.

The questions from the list are just a guide — adjust them to yourself and your company’s situation. Perhaps the meeting will have to be devoted entirely to a complex case or changes within the company.

But make sure to adhere to the three basic one-on-one principles: intimacy, trust, and hierarchy.

Our co-founder Alex Solo, who has conducted hundreds of one-on-one meetings, says:

"The manager’s task is to create the safest and most comfortable environment so that the employee will not think that he/she will be reprimanded for something. To do this, you need to build a space that promotes trust. It is important to take into account that employees have different backgrounds and emotional states."

How to follow these principles in meetings

  • Intimacy: the manager does not allow anyone other than the employee to be present during meetings. This is a space where you can discuss with other colleagues and not be afraid of offending anybody.
  • Trust: the manager creates a space that encourages the employee to share ideas, difficulties, and plans. This is an opportunity to know how the employee truly feels.
  • Hierarchy: at meetings, positions should be removed. It is not the position that is important here but the solution to problems.

The main thing is to not miss or cancel one-on-one meetings. The "magic" of such meetings happens only if they are held consistently.

4. Donut sessions

  • Meeting participants: at least two employees selected randomly
  • Frequency of meetings: at the request of employees
  • Duration: 30 minutes
"When people work in the office, they can drink tea or coffee, chat, go for a smoke together, or visit a bar after work. Such things help people become emotionally recharged. For remote workers, such a thing can be replaced by donut sessions."

  Igor Gurovich, co-founder of Refocus

Donuts are random meetings assigned by the Slack donutbot. The algorithm selects one or more colleagues with whom you "eat a donut" or informally communicate as if you met each other in the kitchen during lunch break.

Such meetings are especially necessary with a large team. This is an opportunity for colleagues from different departments to find something in common with each other. Donut sessions replace real-life informal communication, help employees disconnect from work tasks, and allow their creative juices to flow. Usually, after such meetings, unexpected decisions come to mind — and of course, employees feel rested and become more productive as a result.

Moreover, you can support donut sessions with a separate chat for flooding in Slack. Employees send photos of pets there, arrange live meetings in bars and coffee shops, and share news and recently watched TV shows.

5. Zoom parties

  • Meeting participants: an entire team or department
  • Frequency of meetings: optional
  • Duration: 1-3 hours
"If possible, sometimes you need to meet with the team offline. But if it’s a challenge to make that happen, you can arrange a Zoom party with different activities like playing mafia or drinking wine. Such meetings are especially needed when you feel that the team is facing problems. A party, even if it is held in Zoom, will help everybody relax”

– Alex Solo

3 ideas for a zoom party with colleagues

  1. PowerPoint Night  - Colleagues are tasked to prepare presentations on absurd topics. For example, they rate the hottest Disney characters, sort out love languages and help each participant determine his/her own, or describe who colleagues were in a past life. Each presentation lasts no more than three minutes. If the speaker does not finish within the given time, he/she has to drink.
  2. Online Tasting - Before the party, you can send alcohol and snacks to all your colleagues, which you will all taste together and chat about during the online meeting.
  3. Quizzes - Create a test or quiz using free online platforms like Testix. Dedicate a test to an information guide, check colleagues’ knowledge of a field, or invite employees to learn more about the company in the form of a test.

6. Brainstorming sessions in co-working spaces

  • Meeting participants: an entire department or managers
  • Frequency of meetings: optional
  • Duration: from several hours to several days

Periodically, employees need to work together offline. Even meeting once a year with colleagues from your region improves team cohesion. It is not necessary to gather everyone in one place. If the team is international, rent co-working spaces in different countries and help colleagues who live there get to the place.

Conduct brainstorming sessions for the most difficult questions that cannot be solved in everyday work. For example, formulate a company's communication strategy, come up with creatives for a new product, or draw up a department development strategy.

We recently had a brainstorming session in our Manila office, which is open for team members who prefer to work outside of the home.

I came to the meeting, and we had a great time discussing the company’s values and achievements. It’s always great to encourage the team whenever you have the opportunity!

To conclude

There are countless ways one can bring life to a remote team – and most of them costs almost nothing compared to the expenses you would have to deal with if you have a tired and unmotivated team! So if you feel that your team is feeling disconnected, try applying some of these methods, and you will immediately see results.