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The need to belong: A key driver for remote worker engagement

Employee engagement is an ongoing challenge for managers, one that is further compounded when members of teams work remotely. Engaging remote workers and keeping them motivated without in-person oversight takes extra dedication and effort from managers. Indeed, even the most empathetic and emotionally intelligent managers find connecting with remote employees more difficult than employees just down the hall.

So how should a manager go about engaging remote workers?

First, it is critical to understand that human beings possess an innate need for belonging or relatedness. Pioneering researchers in the area of motivation, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, note that the desire to interact with, be connected to, and experience caring for other people is critical in obtaining a sense of relatedness in the workplace and in life more broadly.

Despite being off-site, remote workers are no exception with respect to needing a feeling of relatedness at work. A remote team member’s job still involves interacting with other people, and through their daily work activities, they naturally seek belongingness. Yet, monitoring remote workers and instilling in them a sense of belonging can be challenging when employees are often many miles away from one another. In many cases, managers may even discount the importance of belongingness or assume that employees feel a part of the team simply because they work with other team members regularly.


Remote workers are no exception with respect to needing a feeling of relatedness at work.


However, cultivating a sense of belonging in remote workers is more complex than many managers believe. Individuals must sense a deeper psychological and emotional connection to the team and feel that other team members and the manager are fully engaged in the team as well.

Intentional communication and routine practices aimed at promoting positive team member relationships play a crucial role in making this happen. For instance, conference calls often cannot replace the efficacy of face-to-face meetings simply because individuals cannot connect with others on the same level without the ability to read non-verbal language (e.g., smiles, head nods that signal agreement, hand gestures such as giving a thumbs up, etc.). Without physical

cues, remote employees also lose the sense of when to contribute and when to remain silent during a call. As a result, they may remain silent so as not to interrupt others but, in so doing, fail to connect with other team members on a more meaningful level. Even worse, without the ability to read body language, remote workers may misinterpret what others say, creating potential conflict amongst team members and undermining their feelings of belonging.


Without physical cues, remote employees also lose the sense of when to contribute and when to remain silent during a call.


Using technology, such as video conferencing tools, may help minimize these issues. If possible, occasional in-person team meetings and get-togethers, whether every few weeks or months, are also helpful in allowing remote workers to relate to their colleagues on a more informal level and learn more about their different interactional styles. Such knowledge helps to promote greater team synergy and prevent misunderstandings based on a lack of knowledge of other team members’ ways of communicating.

Moreover, during conference calls, it is important that managers be mindful of remote callers and ensure that they’re welcomed to chime in and speak up. Such efforts help remove the psychological distance between remote workers and others on the call and prevent hesitation that may hinder their participation. In addition to fostering effective communication processes, managers should also focus on communication frequency with remote workers. Scheduling daily or weekly time to connect with remote workers, whether one-on-one or in team situations, helps to promote more positive manager-employee relationships and greater team cohesion.

Finally, less structured communications using chat and instant messaging technologies may also help increase remote workers’ connections to others at work. These virtual forms of communication may help to replace casual water cooler discussions among coworkers and informal visits to team members’ offices to talk about work-related ideas. The constant connectivity such technology affords may also prevent managers and team members from pondering what a remote worker does with all their work time and similarly help limit the extent to which remote workers wonder what conversations they may be missing out on at the office.

As with any attempt at motivation, “painting with a broad brush” can often do more harm than good. Yet, ultimately, managers who have an understanding that each of their employees needs to feel a sense of belonging at work will ensure that their employees stay emotionally connected to their teams and motivated and engaged in their jobs.


Christian Thoroughgood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!

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