Engagement is one of the topics remote leaders lose the most sleep over. In a recent poll, we learned that “keeping the team engaged” is more of a concern for leaders than team communication, measuring performance or making sure people are working when they say they are.

So, there’s no doubt today’s question is one that’s on the mind of every Long-Distance Leader, but a bigger question remains: What exactly is “engagement?

The dictionary wasn’t much help. It actually made me laugh, because the first definition was “The duration of an agreement to get married” while the second was “to meet the enemy in combat.” As a former comedian, my first reaction is “there’s a lot of good material here,” but that doesn’t help us get any closer to our goal of defining engagement.

When managers talk about their employees being “engaged,” what exactly are they looking for? Essentially they want to know if their people care (about more than a paycheck, that is). Here is a partial list of behaviors that show your employees care:

Proactive communication

Do members of your team regularly reach out to you (and their teammates) with questions, suggestions and feedback, or do they have to be begged, cajoled and solicited for their input? This can also show up in one-on-one coaching sessions. Do people raise issues and discussion topics on their own, or do they go along with whatever your agenda is? Do you only hear from people when there is a big problem, and you find yourself asking, “why didn’t you say something earlier?” There’s likely a disconnect you need to address.

Active meeting participation

Do people treat virtual meetings or teleconferences in the same way they do in-person meetings? Do they offer opinions, ask questions, and generally speak up? One of the biggest signs of low engagement is silence when you ask people to contribute. If team members think they’ve done their job by simply joining the call and getting an attendance checkmark beside their name, they are disengaged.

Offer proof they have the big picture in mind

When you have conversations with team members, are they only concerned about only their own work, tasks and metrics, or do they seem interested in the team and organization’s success? Engaged workers about more than just getting the work done. They want to know how their work impacts everyone’s overall success.

Willing to engage (constructively) in conflict

Often the first sign of disengagement is the hardest to recognize. People who aren’t emotionally invested in their work and their teammates will gradually stop offering ideas, challenging bad information, and providing feedback. They simply disappear into the background. What can look like passive agreement may actually be a matter of not caring enough to put in the effort it takes. It’s hard to tell at first, because it appears that everyone is doing what they’re told without argument. That lack of conflict could be a sign of trouble, however. And of course your meetings all end on time because no one is talking. That’s a good thing, right? Maybe not.

None of these behaviors in and of themselves is proof that your team members are disengaged. After all, sometimes people actually agree with what’s being said in the meeting and don’t need to chime in. Other times they decide for the good of the team and their relationships not to challenge someone’s idea.

On the other hand, if you are hearing less and less positive input from someone, the quality of their work is dropping, or they seem to be meeting minimum performance standards but aren’t putting in visible effort, you may have an engagement problem.

Leading remotely requires constant monitoring of, not just what’s visible, but what’s lurking under the surface. Make sure your one-on-one conversations are probing for more than just task completion. And if your gut tells you something’s up, it’s probably right.

What are some of the ways you actively test the engagement of your team members?

As I alluded to above, your meetings are a great place to encourage and measure employee engagement. It’s also a great place for you to start as a Long-Distance Leader building that engagement level you’re after. We’ve got a great on-demand course to help you do that, Leading Effective Virtual Meetings



Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.

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