How to Read the Virtual Body Language Of Remote Workers

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Aug 9, 2018
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.

All managers want their teams to be happy and engaged in their jobs. Unfortunately, even the greatest companies will occasionally find themselves with an unhappy employee. Managers know there are certain patterns to look out for that may reveal an employee feels dissatisfied — lack of enthusiasm, changes in demeanor, or questionable breakroom etiquette, to name a few. But when employees work remotely, it gets a bit trickier to pick up on these signs.

Today, the workplace is more mobile and distributed than ever. According to Global Workforce Analytics, a quarter of the workforce works virtually at some frequency. Those employees often have different motivators and require distinct considerations compared with their traditional in-office coworkers. Moreover, without the socialization and collaboration found in an office environment, working remotely can lead to a significant lack of engagement.

So, how can you ensure your remote employees remain as engaged as the people you’re greeting every day in the office hallways? At the end of the day, body language and communication are critical for both local and remote employees. Below, I outline some of the “virtual body language” patterns that may signal an unhappy employee who needs some extra attention.

Recognize missed meetings

Keep an eye out for team members who miss or are continuously late for routine standups or one-on-ones meetings. This is often an early sign that an employee could be checking out. This is easier to pick up on when you see a person physically missing from a room, but don’t take this any less seriously when it’s one fewer voice dialed-in or a missing face in the video conference. Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to address missed meetings.

When it comes to remote teams in different time zones, simply scheduling meetings comes with a unique set of challenges. To avoid confusion and miscommunication, always remember to note the time zone of each attendee when scheduling meetings, and plan accordingly.

If you have reoccurring team calls, make an effort to occasionally rotate start times to ensure team members across the country — and around the globe — aren’t always stuck with an early or late call time. Check in to solicit feedback on the timing of a regularly scheduled meeting to ensure it isn’t especially inconvenient for team members as their own schedules shift. On the other hand, if everyone has agreed upon a date and time, your remote team is responsible for honoring appointments.

It may seem obvious, but if you do notice an employee consistently missing meetings, virtually or otherwise, don’t wait until your next scheduled one-on-one to check in. Send them a quick note or, even better, make a call to get a sense in real time what might be causing them to check out.

Listen carefully for silence

An employee may be making their deadlines, logging in on time, and joining the meetings on their calendar, but are they actively participating? Take note of the employee who is uncharacteristically quiet on team calls and group projects.

This is even more important with virtual employees, who usually have to do a bit more work to participate from afar. Take the time to learn how each of your remote team members prefer to communicate. The medium that gets the best response from one employee may not be ideal for another. Some employees may steer away from the informality of group-messaging apps, while others might prefer quick back-and-forth over an email thread.

Context is incredibly important as well. Make note of which conversations are best for an in-person or virtual one-on-one meeting (e.g., delivering sensitive feedback) and which are easily delivered in a quick email (e.g., checking in on a project deadline). Don’t know how an employee prefers to receive feedback or handle one-on-ones? Ask! A silent, disengaged employee could just need more organized and structured communication.

Manage your milestones

Productivity is much easier to observe and track when your employees are present in the office. When your team is remote, you can’t pop into their office or run into them in the hall to check on a project’s status. Likewise, it’s harder for your virtual team members to casually ask questions and share ideas with you — often critical for employees to grow in their roles and ideate on ongoing projects.

As a manager, you can’t afford to lose track of important milestones and deadlines, but you also don’t want to practice virtual micro-management. Consider developing a team communication and operating agreement. These kinds of plans should provide general guidelines for project management among your teams, incorporating important information such as when to provide status reports, preferred communication venues, what needs to be communicated and to whom, and how information should be presented. Agreeing on a plan like this can help to instill a greater sense of accountability among team members while ensuring key deadlines are met.

As for recreating the ability for a virtual employee to “swing by” like a local employee can, managers should help build engagement in their remote staff by consistently assuring them that they are just as much a part of the team as those working on-site. Leverage technology like chat apps and block off “virtual office hours” on your calendar to make yourself as present and available as possible for feedback and support without being physically nearby.

Check in early and often

Every employee is different, and there is no universal rule book to address employee unhappiness. Be sure to assess your virtual team’s engagement levels often and address concerns with individual team members early. Disconnects happen far too often: a recent study from The Center for Generational Kinetics found that 80% of managers think they’re transparent with direct reports, but only 55% of employees agree their managers are transparent. So, use the tools at hand and use them wisely, and you can ensure a happy, engaged workforce — virtual or otherwise — moving forward.

This article is part of a series called Remote Work.
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