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How to improve engagement and retention in remote engineering teams?

Remote
Company Culture
Collaboration
Motivation
Team Processes

25 October, 2022

Mrunal Kapade
Mrunal Kapade

Director of Engineering at Inspire Energy

Mrunal Kapade, an Engineering leader, based in Silicon Valley, shares tips that helped reduce attrition in the remote engineering teams while leading multiple teams from startups to Fortune 500 companies.

Understand People’s Sources of Motivation  

For managers and people leaders, employee retention is an important focus area. Unless you are working for a hypergrowth company, this can be challenging. High turnover can affect retention and create a leaky bucket even though you have a great talent acquisition strategy. Frequently searching for new hires and onboarding them can become counterproductive. No one wants to see their teammates leave due to an unfulfilling work environment.

The reasons for attrition can vary depending on the team, but one of the significant factors could be a lack of motivation. Employees are motivated by two basic types of motivation. One is intrinsic, and the other is extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is defined as engaging in an activity for its inherent satisfaction or challenge entailed rather than rewards or punishments. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is driven by a prize or penalty you may earn.

Gather employee feedback 

There are both quantitative and qualitative ways to collect employee feedback. Some organizations I’ve worked for employed annual, quarterly, and monthly pulse surveys. These surveys provide a lot of quantitative and qualitative feedback, which, as a leader, can be very insightful depending on the quantity and quality of questions asked. Some companies build their in-house survey tools, but many small and mid-size companies use external services such as the ones provided by CultureAmp, Lattice, 15five, etc. Monthly pulse surveys can be overkill and create survey fatigue. You may have surveys, but if the participation rate is low, there is a high chance of a poor signal-to-noise ratio. Just sending an email or slack reminders does little to improve participation. In my experience, adding 15 or 30-minute calendar invite or time block on everyone’s calender have yielded far better participation rates. Short quarterly and long-form annual surveys can generate better meaningful responses. 

Surveys are just one way to collect employee feedback which is more quantitative than qualitative. You also need to understand the ground perspective, which can provide better qualitative data if done correctly. Managers can gain more information from their 1:1s or team meetings which can be anonymized and relayed to the leadership and talent management team. Another way to achieve that perspective is by nominating dedicated “Engagement Champions” from the group or division annually who can conduct such observations by engaging with people. The selected person partners with the division leader to analyze the survey feedback, shares the team pulse regularly, and discusses how they can address the issues. Together with the division leader, they can highlight the division's top three pain points and collaborate with people to develop solutions. 

Take Action: Provide more than one reason to stay

Address Pain Points

Every organization has some pain points or something slowing them down. As an engineering person, it’s easy to see technical debt, but it’s hard to see organizational debt. These could be manual processes or unnecessary meetings. Understanding pain points and fixing them should always be the priority. 

Review and Rethink Compensation

Extrinsic motivation is the most straightforward aspect of retaining people. Albeit, it's only the first step in a long list of to-dos. 

You can lose people if another company can pay them more. That’s why partnering with the HR or Talent Management team is essential to understand how you benchmark salaries and benefits. You need to make sure that you are benchmarking against the right set of companies and industries.

Besides salaries, recognition bonuses or awards based on delivery milestones or significant achievements can also significantly improve motivation. However, it’s also important to celebrate small wins periodically, as these small wins eventually lead to more notable accomplishments. These awards could be spot bonuses or gifts or gift cards of employees' choice. Celebrating such successes via team lunches or happy hours is another good way to recognize such milestones. The benefits are twofold: the team not only feels recognized, but they also feel more connected socially.

Provide Meaningful Work

Only some people are motivated solely by compensation, and few companies can match the salaries and perks of the top companies. Some people are mission-driven and may care deeply about specific causes or values. For example, some people may be passionate about climate change or environment-focused companies, and some may find improving healthcare their mission. In contrast, others may be more passionate about a specific product area or type of business. For example, some engineers may prefer open source development vs. closed source. They may like building consumer experience vs. more enterprise or developer-focused services. No matter your company or organization, meaningful work always provides long-term satisfaction. It is also explained well by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where you may gain psychological safety with the help of extrinsic motivation. Still, to attain self-actualization, you will need to uncover your intrinsic motivations.

Recognize and Appreciate Employees 

Recognize, appreciate, and thank people for their effort publicly. It can be for a large project delivered or even small wins. It could also be for some small help they provided for a few hours. Everyone loves appreciation and recognition. If your company uses Slack or Microsoft Teams, create a dedicated #recogniton or #high-fives channel to recognize and acknowledge such efforts. Other external services like Lattice or 15Five have dedicated integrations to incorporate such recognitions in the performance reviews. These are asynchronous ways to recognize people, but you can also leverage synchronous ways to appreciate people. Open forums such as a company or division-specific all-hands meetings can be a great venue to highlight, showcase and recognize individual and team accomplishments. You can institute an “Employee of the Month” or “High-Fives” section towards the end of such all-hands meetings.

Break the Silos and provide opportunities for team bonding

In remote organizations, fostering teamwork and enabling people to engage with each other can be challenging. Getting individuals to feel connected to their coworkers and work is essential to create a culture of collaboration and trust. You can improve these connections and bring down silos by having: 

  • Periodic deep-dive sessions where every team takes turns presenting their work. 
  • Weekly or biweekly team syncs provide updates on the roadmap and pass-downs from executive leadership or catch up on how people are doing. It’s also an excellent opportunity to showcase demos.
  • Periodic virtual team time or happy hours to bond over a social game or a topic people feel like socializing. 

Apart from virtual syncs, it’s equally important to have in-person on-site or offsites to strengthen trust and build long-lasting relationships. It requires careful planning of the budget and everyone’s time. Having a mixed set of quarterly and annual onsites or offsites for planning and team building can significantly go a long way in establishing meaningful connections. However, you don’t have to restrict yourself to internal company-focused events. Various external conferences and networking events are another great way to build relationships internally and externally.  

Summary 

  • Everyone is motivated differently, some more extrinsically and some intrinsically. In any case, you need to address both aspects to engage and retain your people.
  • Get continuous feedback from your teams through quantitative and qualitative surveys, 1-on-1s, and other meetings.
  • Based on the feedback, take action on two or three focus areas to improve engagement and motivation within the team.

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