How to motivate employees as a remote manager: 2021 guide

How to motivate employees as a remote manager: 2021 guide

Beer pong and free food does not motivate employees. This does.

With great power comes great responsibility. And if you are a remote team leader, you would have surely felt the burden of this responsibility. Between all the Zoom meetings and running projects remotely; you also have to figure out people’s morale, align with their career aspirations and ensure that everyone is on the same page. Phew. 

After having worked with 150+ senior executives, I have seen a few common patterns that all the successful leaders use. I wanted to compile them all into an actionable guide. Personalised for remote team employees. 

Ready? Let’s go!

Step #1 - Proactive listening systems

A basic pillar of good people management is to check-in with your remote team on a regular basis. These check-ins should not be about work, or tasks. They should be about them as an individual. There is an informal way to do this - take out 5 minutes during a random Zoom call and discuss life. But a more structured way is to slot recurring meetings to discuss their career, professional development and issues at work. This is best suited for 1-on-1 meetings. 

Here is the nub. Proactive. Listening. Show that you care. Listen to their feedback, and their worries. And being proactive means that you should check-in before a team member reports an issue. Here are some tips on how to setup these check-ins:

  • Build a library of thought provoking questions in an excel sheet e.g. e.g. “How are you energy levels” or “Are you happy with your career progression in this team?
  • Make these questions timely and contextual. If you are going through a rough quarter where the team is missing their goals; make the check-ins around identifying roadblocks!
  • Setup a recurring calendar invite to remind yourself that you have to send the check-ins out to your team on that day. In your excel library, keep marking the questions that you have already sent out. 
  • You can send the questions out as a google form, or simply copy paste it into your favourite email or chat app and send it out! You don’t have to get really fancy. Just get started on step 1. 

Who would have thought that a simple way to help your team is to just listen to them? 

Why do this async over chat/email/forms vs meetings?

I always recommend leaders to collect answers in a written documented format vs verbal ad-hoc conversations. Giving your team the power to give feedback at their comfort, allows them to write better and also access their deepest fears better. They can answer questions without you looking over their shoulder. 

Plus, if you are working remotely, then this should anyways be your default way of working. You should only set up meetings to resolve issues, and respond to team answers.

Tools like Kaapi can help you build your questions library

Should you allow anonymous answers

I have written extensively on this topic before, so go read it! Summary - unless you are an HR Leader of a 500+ employee company, you should not have anonymity in your questions. It sets a wrong culture ..

Step #2 - Respond to feedback, fast

You must act on the responses that your remote team is now sending to you. You don’t have to resolve everything right away. Just let them know that you have heard them, and will soon discuss this in your next 1-on-1 meeting. If it merits, you can also set up a special meeting for any critical feedback that requires urgent intervention from your side. 

Think of these responses as bugs in your product. If you let the backlog accumulate, your team will faith in the system and morale will go down further. 

A weird conundrum 

There might be employees in your remote team who are so low on motivation and morale, that they will not even engage with your check-ins. Don’t worry, that is itself a potential signal to set up next steps.  

What to do when someone is not replying to your check-in questions

Not replying to your questions is not necessarily always a bad thing. And neither does it always equate to low motivation and morale. Here are some ways to set up the right culture:

  • Lead from the front - by publicly answering these questions yourself during town halls & team meetings. Being vulnerable can actually be your superpower. And this is how you teach your people that introspection is a good thing.
  • Reward good feedback - by publicly giving praise & recognition to employees who are engaging with the check-ins regularly and providing good feedback to you.
  • Highlight actions already taken - by you based on the team’s feedback. This builds a culture of trust & stability. Knowing that their leader will execute the right things, kickstarts the loop of you getting more answers to your check-in questions. 
  • Help them build a career growth & development plan - to show that you really care. Understand their aspirations, and guide them on possible ladder paths to climb to get there. Going above and beyond normal duty as a manager will help you gain trust!

One reason you should never accept is that “John is really busy with the new project, and hence he doesn’t have enough time”. Busy-ness without introspection is a bad idea. It’s exactly when times are tough and hectic that you need to zoom out, talk to your leaders and think about the path you are on. 

Step #3 Follow through 

After a few weeks of this, you will start getting good insights back from your team. After that, here are some things you can do:

Remember that intrinsic motivation > external factors

You can gamify rewards & recognition systems as much as you want.You might be tempted to think that a solution to most motivation problems is to do a fun team outing, promotions or even a fancy reward system. But in the end human beings are motivated by only those things that are essential to their personal belongingness. And that is why you should spend 90% of your time identifying what your team member really wants. Everything else is a false gift wrapper that hides the real problems.

Identify their aspirations, their dreams. And then align your team's goals the best you can with those personal aspirations.

Make a personalised action plan for anyone who is low on morale

Our monkey brain will automatically try to find patterns in the team answers e.g. “Oh, John must be feeling down because Covid has created uncertainties”. Which might be true, but your job is to narrow down the root cause for every individual. Even when the business is bad, and you are doing layoffs, you will find that some people are ok with it. What’s really frustrating them is the lack of work & clarity during the layoff period (this has personally happened to me)

Try to understand the root cause of low motivations, and that will make next steps easier e.g.

John no longer finds work challenging Change of project / team
Too much work pressure on John Change of project / team
John is low on confidence Change KPIs, or give an easy win project
Personal issues Give them space
Lack of clarity about career / role Help them build a career development plan

Low morale is not always a big red flag 

Every employee, including you, goes through phases of high and low motivation. So before you raise your internal alarm, think if this can simply be solved by that person taking a break! Or maybe this is something that is not in your control e.g. personal issues at home? At such times, all you can do is give them the space they deserve, back off a bit, and give complete independence on choosing their own project, pace and timings at work. 

Always give options to that employee

If someone is struggling to cope with the work, the answer is not always productivity tips. Maybe the right answer is to let the employee choose their own next project. Optionality gives them some control over their future, and that control plays a major role in motivating someone and exciting them!

Show progress every week

Increase morale and keeping employees motivated can not be solved in a week, or sometimes even a month. It requires constant push, inspire, hold and support. 

You can do small-small things to keep them going in the planned direction e.g. reading material to learn new skills, or connecting with mentors etc. 

Use the notes feature within Kaapi to make note of important feedback from employees that needs your action

Bonus - Transitioning into remote? Top mistakes to avoid

  • The fun Friday Zoom games are fun, but that’s not what makes your culture. Now that the facade of beer pong and beers in the fridge has crumbled, how will you motivate your employees? 
  • Focus on spending money on things that actually result in increased productivity for knowledge workers - good chairs, internet connections and health insurance
  • Learn to respect time, space and privacy - You must embrace async work asap! Which means that you can no longer call for a meeting at a whim. You can not expect answers right away because your team is in a different timezone. Allow your people to respond when they can, without disturbing them. 

And that’s all folks! This is how you build your people systems. These systems are the backbones of scaling your team culture. They help you become a better leader, and keep your remote team employees happy. 


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