Employee engagement is often listed as the biggest challenge for people who lead remote, virtual, or hybrid teams. But if this is a problem that requires brand new, cutting-edge solutions, why are so many companies using caveman techniques to keep employees engaged?

If you are of a certain age, you remember the cartoons where a caveman would club a prospective mate on the head and drag them by the hair back to their cave, where they would then be married. As engagement ceremonies go, it is certainly cheaper than a diamond, but far less romantic. And while this is a somewhat crude analogy, it is kind of the way many organizations go about their engagement efforts.

How is this like employee engagement programs? Just because you’ve been knocked on the head and overwhelmed is not a guarantee that you will want to spend the rest of your short, Paleolithic life with the person who claimed you. Both people need to be committed to making the relationship work. The same is true of many programs designed to help remote workers create strong social, emotional and psychological connections to their employers. We figure if we just beat them over the head long enough, they will feel connected.

Flawed Assumptions About Engagement

Many well-intentioned efforts to help employees connect to the organization and each other suffer because there is a flawed assumption at work. In essence, the thinking is, “I want you to feel connected to me, and if I just work hard enough and overwhelm you, you will submit.” Thus we get an endless barrage of pizza days, cutest pet contests and well-meaning newsletters.  Maybe the employees you hope to connect with don’t want to be clubbed and dragged back to the cave.

The problem is that real engagement requires the effort and buy-in of both parties, and remote workers often have different motivators at work than those who work in traditional workplaces. Unless you understand what people really want you are working really hard, for all the right reasons, and not only getting poor results but giving the other person a massive headache in the process.

Have you asked your remote workers what they are looking for from the working relationship? 

Contractors who seek short-term contracts will interact and engage much differently than those looking to find a home and a career with your company. Some people really enjoy activities that connect teammates. Others choose to work from home specifically because they can focus on work and not get distracted by constant interruptions and socializing.

Holding meetings in a conference room where most of the team can get together and socialize often helps galvanize the group and create strong bonds. But how is that helping the person working from home who can’t hear what’s being said, isn’t asked for their input, and feels like a second-class citizen? Perhaps having everyone join online might level the playing field and create more of a sense of camaraderie. Do the introverts on your team really want to share their embarrassing high school photo with people they’ve never met and don’t yet have a relationship with?

Without taking the time to understand what is motivating your remote workers, you run the risk of putting a lot of effort into engagement programs that are counter-productive.  True engagement requires the invested effort of both parties.

Have you taken the time to understand the needs of the people on your virtual team? Or are you just beating them with a club and hoping they stay?

One thing that can help you better understand your team is the DISC Assessment. Find out how to utilize DISC with your remote team to open up the lines of communication.



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

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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