How to handle disengaged employees when managing remote teams
Engagement 4 minute read

How to handle disengaged employees when managing remote teams

Rise | March 25, 2021

Knowing how to handle disengaged employees, especially during a pandemic that has caused many workplaces to switch to remote work at least part-time, is extremely important.

Spotting disengaged employees is one of the harder—but essential—skills a manager needs to learn. Knowing what to look for and how to handle disengaged employees is extremely important. Disengaged employees can not only waste time and money—with as much as 18% of a disengaged employees’ salary being wasted— but they can also impact other employees. Disengaged employees may, at the very least, frustrate or demoralize their coworkers. They could also potentially force their coworkers to pick up their slack.

Without the usual signals of engagement that are visible and recognizable in person (such as body language, enthusiasm, and attentiveness), identifying disengaged remote employees is increasingly challenging. However, with remote work continuing into the foreseeable future, and potentially permanently, it’s essential that leaders know how to handle disengaged employees. 

The workplace isn’t a place. While, in the past, leaders considered it imperative that employees be in the same location and in close proximity to foster collaboration and creativity in their work.

Dom Price, a futurist at Atlassian Software, makes the point that if that were the case, then no business would have expanded beyond a single office. Price says: “Given the right environment, remote workers enhance your business rather than tax it. If they’re off on their own little islands or generally ineffective, that’s a people problem—not a proximity problem.”

There are many factors that contribute to an employee becoming disengaged from their work.

While some of these factors of disengagement may be personal (or circumstantial, such as a global pandemic) some contributing factors may be in your control to address as a leader. 

Generally, disengagement is caused by a lack of something: communication, respect and trust, flexibility, or recognition. Most employees want to feel engaged, so it’s important to recognize the signs of disengagement (like apathy and poor attitude) and know how to handle disengaged employees. 

Observing virtual body language may give you an idea of what’s going on.

If leaders are missing the signals, it’s a people problem, not a proximity problem—to quote Dom Price again. Behaviours such as missing stand-up meetings, not replying or replying very slowly to emails and messages, missed deadlines, or a lack of participation in team activities or chats are some obvious signs that something is up. A lack of communication must be addressed as soon as possible before the situation worsens.

Here are some additional signs that your employees may be feeling disengaged:

  • A lack of interest in learning and development or overall career growth with your organization
  • An increase in PTO requests or generally missing work for seemingly no reason (of course employees should use their time-off, but if an employee is taking time off more frequently than normal, it may indicate something else is going on)
  • The employee is more quick to get frustrated with tasks or their coworkers
  • The employee is doing the bare minimum, and not going above and beyond in ways they may have previously

As a best practice, daily or weekly check-ins should be common for remote teams.

Implementing predictive analytics and sentiment analysis tools can also help managers to analyze their team’s engagement according to the data. Effective collaboration requires a high level of trust, no matter where the work gets done.

It’s important to address any issues directly to try to get to the root cause of disengagement. Reframe your thinking to make these conversations a part of routine check-ins, rather than as a reprimand for poor performance. It’s important to actually listen and offer support and suggestions. 

When you lay down ground rules and give your employees the autonomy to make decisions, they’ll want to do their best work. If you look over their shoulder every five minutes and micromanage every decision, your employees will soon disengage. The key is to develop trust and the practices that go along with it.

Purpose is essential to employee engagement and overall happiness. Employees who are able to derive meaning from work are three times more likely to stay with their organization. 

Having a clear company mission and culture is important too, as it allows employees to align themselves with the goals of the company. Employees should also be offered learning and development opportunities and know that there is room to grow in your organization. 

This means providing learning and development options that can be incorporated into their regular work, as well as encouraging employees to take advantage of any free online seminars and courses available to them. 

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