How to keep a remote team engaged during meetings

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During meetings, it can be a challenge to keep remote team members, lone contributors, and home office staff synchronized and productive. Follow these leadership tips.

Image: m-imagephotography, Getty Images/iStockphoto

The call started as a typical meeting. The first 10 minutes were filled with beeps and bloops announcing callers are joining the meeting and departing, long gaps of silence, and announcements of “Mary Smith here” that triggered multiple voices declaring that “home office isn’t on yet” followed by awkward small talk. Finally, a cacophony of voices and laughter heralded the arrival of the home office staff, and the noise continued for another minute or two until relative silence indicated that the meeting had begun. As usual, the speaker was too far away from the phone for anyone on the line to hear much beyond someone coughing or a burst of laughter at an unheard joke.

If you’ve worked remotely, or you’re in a satellite office or at a customer site, you’ve probably experienced these types of calls. Aside from the practical challenges of not being able to hear the speaker, and likely quickly switching to doing something else and getting even less value from an already unhelpful experience, you’ve probably felt like an outsider. While the folks on the other end of the line laugh and joke, it’s clear that you’re not part of the experience, ultimately creating a feeling of being unimportant and disengaged from the rest of the team. As leaders, it’s our job to help our remote teams feel engaged and part of the broader community. Here are tips on keeping your remote teams engaged.

SEE: Managing remote workers: A business leader’s guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Experiment with the tools

Once an expensive novelty, just about every electronic device we carry now has a camera, and videoconferencing is a standard feature of every messaging application. Simply being able to see each other immediately increases engagement. Not only will people feel an immediate connection by being able to see their peers, but you’ll be able to identify when remote team members are distracted and disengaged. 

Emerging tools like voting and Q&A apps can also help promote engagement and keep everyone in the loop. Be sure to remember the next tip before deploying a whole suite of new tools on your next important call.

Do a systems check

Whether you’re using video for the first time, or firing up the trusty speakerphone, take the time to test the technology with some of your remote team. If you’re based at the home office, it’s all too easy to ignore the speakerphone in the corner of the room, and your remote team will likely give up trying to communicate that they can’t hear you and instead will completely disengage from the conversation. Make sure the tools work effectively; if they don’t, seek alternatives, one of which might be asking everyone to join the call via phone rather than creating a clearly superior experience for those in the room and treating your remote workers like passengers in steerage class.

Respect everyone

It can be hard when you’re surrounded by your team in the home office to remember that your remote workers may be sitting alone or in a customer office somewhere. While you’re exchanging high fives and sharing inside jokes, the remote workers are feeling increasingly alienated. Consider their situation and avoid basic gaffes like starting calls late, or filling the first dozen minutes with banter that they can’t relate to or share. You might even use techniques like having someone remote facilitate the call, or starting each call with a joke or update from a remote team member.

Get feedback from your remote team

It’s easy to assume that because everyone physically in the room with you “got it” that the remote team had the same experience. Check in with a couple of your remote team members after each call, and rather than just asking if the call was okay, ask for three tips on how you can improve their experience on the next call. Try to implement these tips and publicly acknowledge those who contributed. Not only will you likely get helpful feedback that makes your calls more effective, but you’ll also clearly indicate that your remote team members are equally valuable and equal participants on the team, whether they are physically present or remote.

Remote working is a fact of life, as companies provide workers with additional working options and expand around the world. Some foresight and simple changes can help keep your remote workers connected and engaged with home office, not only making them feel like full team members of the team, but using that engagement to keep them connected and productive. 

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