How to Train Remote Workers as Teams

The Automated Insurer | Leadership

By Mike de Waal | 1 December 2021

Key Points

Leaders across industries are experiencing a similar challenge: how do we keep our employees engaged? With the rapid and unexpected growth of remote work spurred by the global pandemic, cultivating engagement and employee happiness while avoiding burnout is paramount.

Based on our experience at Global IQX, here are some approaches that have been successful:

  • Check-in with your employees
  • Make virtual meetings fun
  • Encourage your team to take breaks
  • Take bonding activities online

With COVID-19 disrupting business, most employees in the insurance and insurtech industries have been forced to work from home, and many are retaining their remote work arrangements for the foreseeable future. 

Nearly two years into the pandemic, the data is in: many employees appreciate the flexibility and autonomy that comes with remote work. 58% of employees say they would look for a new job if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely and 33% prefer a hybrid-work arrangement. It’s apparent remote work is here to stay.

Despite its growing popularity, working from home has its challenges on the best of days. Now throw in your partner working beside you and perhaps add some children into the mix. Or maybe you’re living alone and talking to your house plants.

Longtime physical distance can lead to emotional isolation and stress. It behooves employers to make a human connection with their people when they most need it.

At Global IQX, we emphasize team-building and connection as critical components of our corporate culture. Implementing tools and activities that keep employees connected, interested, and feeling heard is vital to long-term success, now more than ever. Over the past two years, teams large and small worldwide have had to shift operations dramatically and quickly adapt to how they work.

Fortunately, Global IQX has always had a hybrid workforce using web-based tools. In addition, we had tested all of our teams remotely before the pandemic began. So we were ready, and the process was almost seamless.

There are several ways companies can leverage digital tools to check in on employees and promote active participation, keeping them engaged and still feeling part of the team.

Before we dive into some tips and advice on preventing employee disconnect, let’s review the benefits and challenges of the hybrid workplace. 

Positive impacts of remote work

Early in the pandemic, many industry leaders feared productivity would plummet once workers left the office. Fortunately, for most workers, productivity remained the same or even improved.

A recent study by Microsoft on the impact of COVID-19 on European businesses finds 82 percent of leaders said their companies were at least as productive as they were before the pandemic. 

In a hybrid-remote workplace, employees may have more flexibility in their hours. Many firms allow employees to control their work schedules, choosing when they want to commute to the office and working around childcare and other needs. 

Hybrid workspaces provide employers with a cost-savings opportunity. Due to the lack of people physically using the office, there aren’t assigned desks in a hybrid office or a need to purchase new office equipment. 

As soon as businesses can create a schedule for how many employees will be in the office, employers can cut down the cost of rent, office supplies, and any other in-office expenses.

While some companies offer their employees stipends to buy their own equipment at home, six out of ten employers still say cost savings is a substantial benefit of remote work. Additionally, remote work provides financial help for workers as the average employee can save up to $4,000 by working from home. 

Hybrid workplaces should help improve focus on tasks by eliminating the interruptions that an office workplace is prone to. A recent survey by FlexJobs indicates 68% of workers say their productivity has increased because of fewer interruptions and distractions.

The obstacles of remote work 

For many companies, hybrid and remote work has been difficult for both employers and employees. 

Rarely seeing co-workers in person has made it difficult to communicate and establish relationships in the virtual office. 

Additionally, working in the same place where you sleep, cook, and have family time has led to some struggling to disconnect from work, resulting in high burnout rates. 

The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been managed correctly. Burn-out has three characteristics: 

  • The feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from work or having negative emotions related to work. 
  • Reduced professional efficacy. 

Work-life balance has become such a critical issue in Portugal that the country made it illegal for employers to contact their employees outside of work hours.

Another major concern with companies with both remote and non-remote workers is disconnect. Remote workers in a hybrid workforce might feel less recognized and appreciated compared to their onsite colleagues who receive more casual facetime with management. 

Here are some tips on how employers can prevent disconnect and burnout amongst their remote employees. 

Check in with your employees 

With 77% of workers having experienced burnout at their current job, employers must find ways to prevent burnout amongst remote and in-office employees. 

It can be challenging to interact with employees while working remotely, as infrequent email correspondence can increase miscommunication. 

Instead, make sure employees are kept up to date with consistent communication that works for your business, such as daily video touchpoints and weekly emails. In addition, make a point to check in with individual team members to see how they are doing and ensure they are appropriately supported.

Additionally, be sure to provide a space where your employees can share their work-related problems. A study by Gallup found that employees who have managers who listen to their work-related problems are 62% less likely to be burned out. 

Employees want their managers and CEOs to back them up when things don’t go as planned. This does not mean excusing wrongdoing but rather providing employees with a positive, supportive environment to share work frustrations. 

For example, companies could send out an anonymous survey asking their employees what their most common workplace frustrations are, what they’d like changed in the hybrid office, what they like about their hybrid work setting, etc. 

Employers may not be able to come up with solutions for all of their employees’ problems. However, the action of just listening and supporting the employee may be enough to make them feel recognized and understood.

Some other ways to help an employee who feels burnt out or frustrated includes: 

  • Ask them if they’d like more responsibilities or fewer
  • Spread out their workload amongst other employees
  • Hire freelancers for contract work for workload assistance (even budget-friendly options like Fiverr and Upwork may be enough to take the pressure off)
  • Tell them it’s okay to say no to additional tasks

Make virtual meetings fun

Virtual teams don’t get to enjoy the coffee-break talk, foosball, or quick chatter between meetings. So maintaining fun social interactions between team members is crucial.

Use video calls, meetings, and touchpoints with teams to have a little fun and foster connection among your team.

As well as continuing video meetings with our clients, at Global IQX we hold an internal company-wide video call every two weeks to touch base with everyone and provide internal updates. Every other week, we also set aside about 15 to 20 minutes to have a little fun. Some of the activities we’ve built into our meetings that any team could easily incorporate include:

  • Costume contests, dress-up formal Fridays, holiday themes, the ‘80s, etc.
  • Games such as trivia, truth or lie, sharing bucket lists, etc.
  • Recipe sharing
  • Group stretching
  • Contests to see who can come up with the best Zoom background
  • Fundraising for the local hospital and food bank

Use Breakout Rooms

It’s not always easy for employees to get to know each other in a company-wide setting online with dozens of employees on a single call. To build rapport between team members, I strongly recommend leveraging the Breakout Rooms feature on most popular video meeting services. This breaks the call participants into smaller groups where they can interact more casually and even have friendly competitions with other groups.

Breakout Rooms can be randomly assigned, helping employees from different departments learn more about each other and break down silos.

The evolving remote manager

Many managers have struggled to adapt to the new norm of supervising their employees outside of the office. A Harvard Business Review study found 40% of supervisors have low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. 

Supervisors are also questioning their remote workers, as 34% of employees believe their supervisors do not have confidence in their remote work skills. 

Managers can start to micromanage tasks when they don’t trust their employees.

To be clear, a micromanager is a boss who excessively supervises their employees. For example, instead of explaining what tasks need to be done for the day and when they need to be completed, a micromanager will watch their employees closely and constantly criticize their work and progress. 

Since the pandemic, 21% of workers say their supervisor has constantly evaluated their work, and 11% feel their boss keeps close tabs on them by frequently checking in. Unfortunately, this has been detrimental to employees’ mental health as 49% of employees who experienced high monitoring levels are always anxious when working. 

 In a remote work setting, trust is the glue that holds teams together. 

To build up this trust, you should encourage the manager to set clear goals and priorities,” says Iwo Szapar, CEO of Remote-how, a platform powered by and for leaders of distributed teams. “It can be daily, weekly or monthly so we know what should be delivered and what are the deadlines.” 

An article written by Ken Gosnell, the founder of  CEO Experience, a leadership coaching and consultancy firm, says employers should focus on managing their culture rather than micromanaging tasks.

“Leaders can communicate with clarity about values, beliefs and behaviors that should be embodied in the culture of a company. When employees understand how and why a leader thinks like they do, then they aspire to complete tasks and projects according to the values of the culture.”

Encourage your team to take breaks

Not having a designated office to separate work from personal life and responsibilities is a significant adjustment. Encourage your team to take breaks and give them the flexibility they need to manage their schedule and make their days productive. Communicate expectations to demonstrate trust in your team’s ability to be accountable for their work and deadlines without having to prove they’re online all the time.

Once given complete control over their schedules, employees can schedule their breaks to what works for them. 

Some use the Pomodoro technique, a time management routine that can help prevent burnout, increase focus, maintain motivation, and improve creativity. 

The Pomodoro technique consists of breaking up the workday into intervals of hard work for 25-30 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break to clear your head. Then, after completing four intervals (roughly 2 hours of work), you take another 15-30 minute break. 

Its purpose is to help the brain maintain intense focus during the 25-30 minutes of work while also satisfying it with breaks. 

The benefits of the Pomodoro technique cannot be overlooked. For example, Chris Winfield, an entrepreneur and author, published a case study that details how this technique assisted him in completing 40 hours of work in only 16.7 hours

Others are using the Ultradian Rhythm, where employees work in 90-minute intervals. The technique is based on optimizing our bodies’ natural rhythms to maximize productivity. 

If you want a more straightforward way to schedule breaks, at least try to schedule two 15 minute breaks, one in the mid-morning, the other in the mid-afternoon when you are most fatigued. 

Take bonding activities online

Creative team-building games and events are crucial elements of fostering a connected and engaged hybrid workforce. Fun activities help employees feel challenged and valued. So while we may not be playing golf or having an office party for a while, let your team bond over a virtual activity on Zoom or Skype.

A slew of options keep popping up, from virtual escape rooms, Zoom Tic Tac Toe, to live-stream classes. So far, we’ve held a few optional virtual events to bring our team closer together, including a fundraiser, a Halloween costume contest, a recipe exchange, and a jam session put on by our resident musicians.

These activities can be short and simple–just something genuine that makes your team feel valued and gives them a little break.

Hybrid work – the future of office work

Hybrid work has brought challenges and opportunities for many companies throughout this pandemic. Businesses need to implement digital tools and activities that keep employees connected and engaged. Hybrid work can be physically isolating, but thanks to technology, we do not have to be alone.

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Mike de Waal

Mike de Waal is president and founder of Global IQX, an Ottawa-based software provider of AI-driven sales and service solutions to employee benefits insurers.  He has deep experience in both software development and business management skills. Early in his career, he worked as a computer programmer and then went on to become a financial planner and a benefits consultant with giant Manulife Financial before becoming a tech entrepreneur.  He can be reached at [email protected].