Regardless of their background, education or experience, working remotely has been the dream for many people.
There are countless benefits to remote jobs that most people advertising this type of position can rave on about and bring to the forefront. Although these benefits are indeed great for employers and employees as well, many times they are treated superficially by all parties involved.
Benefits vs dangers of working from home
Even though working from home in a remote team brings forth benefits of freedom, flexibility, comfort and security, these will not lead to productivity and job satisfaction or investment return if not managed and handled comprehensively, with mental health and physical health in mind.
When I first started working from home, way before the pandemic hit us so hard, the first few weeks were amazing and I was thrilled to have had the opportunity. However, after the first few waves of excitement connected to a novel new position faded, I quickly found myself engulfed in my work and had a hard time keeping focused.
Employers as well as employees oftentimes find themselves wondering why remote teams and remote workers have sedentary performance, spiral downhill after a while and become less and less driven and motivated as time goes on. For me, the main issue at the time was the fact that all my training and communication was online and through a single platform that did not really allow for a lot of flexibility or conversations.
Employee and team motivation, especially in remote working environments, is not just about ensuring great hardware, training and communication. Although these things will give any company or employee a great basis to develop from, they are not enough for long-term job satisfaction and investment return. I needed a face to talk to, someone to tell me how their day was just as boring and difficult as mine, someone to empathize with me when I would bang my head at the wall at now knowing how to proceed.
Studies and testimonials have shown that one of the dangers of working from home is the lack of separation between the time we sell and the time we spend for ourselves. Remote workers tend to work without having a fixed schedule and have trouble regulating their time and task management efforts. Another danger is loneliness, that will affect all areas of a person’s life, especially their work productivity and job satisfaction.
Both of these hit me hard after 6 months of working online. I could not keep to a schedule and would always be “on-call”, too worried about what was going on in my “office” to actually find time to consider the space my home as well. Moreover, working on my own all the time, really led me to feel a lot of self-doubt because I had no-one to compare results with. My team members never engaged me and I felt awkward to always be the one starting casual conversations, so I stopped trying.
Engaging and motivating remote teams
In order to keep employees and remote teams motivated and engaged, companies must take into account the lack of oversight they have as well as employee profiles carefully. One of the first things managers can do is get to know their teams. Since a remote environment does not really allow a familiar space for friendly conversation, a very interesting way to get to know your new hires is by allocating time to play.
I realized this when I was switching between working remotely and in a new office, with a new team, getting ready to move to the online environment due to the pandemic. While in the office, the games we played in the relax room and the casual word-games we would play in the office had a tremendous impact on the mood of everyone.
Play, of any kind, within a remote team allows team members to show their personalities, their passions, their inclinations and their true colors. Expressing themselves through games is the easiest and friendliest way to decompress and let go of the pressure that comes from the desire to perform well and achieve results. That is why, once my own team had been moved to online work during the pandemic, setting up a schedule for play was one of the first things that I did. We started the whole online working environment endeavor by first playing and getting to know each other. Let’s first summarize the benefits of playing in the remote environment and then let’s see what kind of tools we have available as employers and managers to include play in our employee engagement plan.
Benefits of Play
There are many studies (1, 2, 3) and books that explain and demonstrate how playing and engaging in free activities reduces stress hormones in the body and as a result, increase job satisfaction and team engagement. This is especially important for working remotely, because engaging in playful activities during working hours will improve the view employees have on the company and on their colleagues through opening new areas of opportunity to get to know and trust each other as humans, rather than cogs in the machine.
Since I’ve had experience working remotely before, as well as during, the pandemic, I can safely say that the latter is much, much worse. In most place around the world, the pandemic brought strict travel restrictions and most people were not allowed to go out under almost any circumstance. Just for groceries and medical emergencies, for months on end! That was an experience that I would not like to repeat.
The first week of restrictions was fine for everyone. Both my team and I were learning to see the beauty in being home and of introspection. However, as time went on, the itch to be with our kin became stronger and stronger and it was noticeable during meetings that people on my team were getting more and more irritable and inconsistent. When I felt like things were going to bubble up, I prioritized the team members that were most vulnerable (living alone, living in quarantined cities, etc) by focusing my attention on engaging them as much as I could.
Then, my prerogative was to keep playing, on a daily basis, for as long as we could. This helped my team enormously, because they would complete their tasks in a more organized manner so that they could participate in online team building events and games without having to worry about their work-related tasks.
Social skill development and improvement
Since remote teams do not have the option to socialize at the coffee machine or water fountain and in a pandemic, can’t really meet outside of work, socializing and getting to know each other can be extremely difficult. Considering that most communication channels for remote workers have certain restrictions as to what kind of conversations can be had, companies must consider implementing ways in which remote employees can build team spirit and get to know each other.
Online games are a great solution for this problem, especially since there are so many games and apps that can work through conversation, through teamwork and through alternative ways of communication: text-based, collaborative, pvp, trivia, roasts, guessing games, find the culprit, puzzle, logical games, point and click and so on.
My team was mainly composed of younger remote workers whose interests were quite modern, which was a bit of a challenge for me. Nonetheless, by starting out with Trivia games and icebreakers, as well as no-strings-attached virtual lunch breaks, I slowly uncovered their likes and interests and started seeing possible friendships that I could enable by engaging certain people in certain games. This way, not only did I contribute to the individual’s mood and spirit, but I also hit two birds with one stone: the people that had similar interests would inadvertently take over the task of socializing and building their relationship without my interference. Which brings me to our next point:
Improve team relationships
Remote teams will have better relationships if they are provided with team building activities online because they will get to engage colleagues in non-practical ways. Games for remote teams allow individuals to express themselves freely and build relationships within games. Since these relationships are built outside of the pressure of the working environment, they will build strong connections that will, eventually, seep into the remote working environment.
Most of my team has managed to develop personal relationships and even have organized events outside of work where they meet online for various games and activities. I have a group of social justice warriors that have gathered around a forum that they run and are trying to help communities around them reduce plastic waste. It all started during a Trivia game where these individuals got into a heated discussion about climate change after a question regarding axolotls as pets.
Another smaller group out of my team are hosting daily gaming parties playing mmorpgs together and then boasting and laughing on our chat groups with the rest of the remote team, posting memes, jokes and generally having a good time. I have also found a couple of like-minded individuals with concerns similar to mine - raising children - and we actually started a parenting group where we consult each other about our kids’ behaviors. We even managed to set up meetings for the ones that live close to each other and in non-quarantined cities.
As these personal relationships were flowering, performance and accountability on the team was going up insofar as the remote employees started picking and choosing accountability partners for more difficult work-related objectives - such as finishing an Excel course, figuring out a process tree error, correcting documentation that was sent out and then proofreading everything before sending it out to me. Collaborative initiatives were really booming after people started knowing each other on a personal level.
Increase brain function and logical thinking
Engaging in paced games and interactions as well as puzzles, logical challenges, trivia and other games has proven to be quite useful, generally speaking, to improve cognitive function, brain functions and logical thinking. By improving these areas, remote teams will perform better, learn faster and complete tasks in more practical, efficient ways.
As my remote team piled up the tenure, their performance metrics were skyrocketing. Whenever we had challenges that we needed to solve, or big meetings we needed to prepare for together, we would always start out by playing a game like chess or tic-tac-toe in a tournament in order to decide roles each of the online team members would take on.
Once the tournament was finished, everyone was pumped to get started and filled with enthusiasm at the plan that they managed to devise together. It was great to see how I hardly needed to intervene after launching a challenge. The online team would complete it by working together and were getting better at it as time went on. I think it was key that we kept weekly team building events up and focused on having at least one collective game/break every single workday.
Increase team engagement
Giving your virtual team the opportunity and outlet to play and enjoy something other than working will improve their opinion of the company as well as their team mates. Laughing and de-stressing over games has proven to be excellent for engagement and morale over time and it is an investment that every company should consider making.
As I was saying in the beginning, as virtual employees started getting to know each other through our virtual games and lunches, they started engaging more and more. Their initiative grew as more and more people were joining the fun. Of course, there were still a couple of introverted personalities on the team and the fact that we never forced these interactions or virtual team building activities allowed them space to engage in their own rhythm and be productive in their own way.
By acknowledging that not everyone is the same and being empathetic and accepting of everyone on the team, remote workers were confident to speak up when they had something important to say and engage in crucial moments where it was necessary, despite lack of engagement in the “play” part of things.
Boost productivity and creativity
Regular breaks from responsibilities and work tasks give virtual teams the opportunity to relax, re-center and start fresh after enjoying some stress-free time. There are enough things to worry about when working remotely, so getting a break that you can enjoy with colleagues voluntarily will help decrease stress hormones and increase productivity and creative problem solving.
When remote teams are given the opportunity to participate in games and activities outside of their work responsibilities, they will have more drive and motivation to actually do the work consistently. Because they can look forward to something other than tasks and responsibilities when starting their shifts, remote worker absenteeism will decrease, which in turn will increase remote team productivity and accountability.