11 Strategies for Employee Retention on Remote Teams
With the news of recent layoffs, hiring freezes, and rescinded job offers, it’s easy to kick back and assume tech workers are eager to keep their jobs.
That would be a mistake.
A recent survey shows that 72% of people in tech are thinking about leaving their jobs within the next year. Post-pandemic shake-ups coupled with the Great Resignation means competition for tech talent is fiercer than ever.
We’ve all heard stories of how difficult it is to hire right now, and we personally have had to get creative with our recruiting and interview process to grow our team. It’s easier to keep the talented team you have happy and growing, so they’ll stick with you.
People are looking for jobs that leverage their skills, teams that support their ideas, and leadership that cares about their growth.
So, what can you do to keep your team happy and connected in a market that feels like an all-out bidding war?
Building strategies for employee retention goes deeper than summer Fridays and Zoom happy hours. We’ll explore what really attracts the best talent and keeps your remote team members happy for the long haul.
1. Develop a deep understanding of why teammates leave
Of course, the strategies in this piece are to prevent you from getting to the point where your team members leave, but people will leave. When they do, be sure to conduct a thorough exit interview that results in actionable takeaways.
How we do this: We leverage Harvard Business Review's advice on how to conduct exit interviews that really count. A sampling: choose someone who is not the person’s direct manager to conduct the exit interview. This will lead to more candid feedback and insights.
Making exit interviews standard practice for every departing team member also boosts the probability that you’ll take action based on them.
For us, many of our learnings from departing teammates have informed the content of this piece—especially the next two.
2. Give team members ownership over problems, not tasks
At Remotion, we prioritize making sure our teammates have ownership of a problem area that they can drive impact in. This helps teammates stay closer to the customer problem and take on longer term ownership instead of individual tasks—which results in a stronger roadmap and a more satisfied team.
How we do this: we have “pods” built around customer problems like acquisition, retention, and sharing.
We benefit from having team members get deep, sustained focus on a single customer problem. It helps our engineers be more product-minded, see their impact over time, gel as a team and collaborate more closely, and feel more invested in their work.
It doesn’t totally match up with how we do things, but we like how Spotify lays out their case for autonomous “squad” teams.
3. Don’t silo people. Proactively support and connect them to the rest of the team.
On small and fast-moving teams especially, it can be easy for teammates to end up as the lone engineer or team member working on a problem. That was true for us when we were still a <15 person team—and was a recipe for a sharp decline in employee engagement.
While tackling a project solo can be challenging on any team, it can be especially demotivating remotely. If you have to have just one person working on a given problem (or a group of people working on a problem that's fairly separate from the rest of the team), be sure to make sure you provide ample opportunities for them to get support and feedback from the rest of the team so that they don’t feel siloed.
How we do that on our engineering team (we use these guidelines to break down siloes even when people aren't working solo):
- Make sure engineers have enough context to participate in roadmapping and design for other pods
- Engineers should always have someone to bounce ideas off of and implement solutions with for projects greater than 3 days
- We have a functional weekly sync where engineers can learn from each other, and support each other with pair tech design, pair programming, and code reviews
These strategies help the team gel, move faster, and find more enjoyment in their work because they collaborate more and feel more like a team. All things that make everyone more likely to stick around.
4. Explicitly discuss “burnout budget” when diving into projects with tight timelines.
Burnout is a huge reason people leave companies. It’s hard to recover from when it happens, so you need to be vigilant about keeping your team from burning out to retain them.
Our team uses the concept of “burnout budget” as a tool in guarding against burnout. One of our engineering managers coined it in a retro we ran after a high-stress, tight timeline project that ultimately yielded lower-than-we’d-hoped results.
“Burnout budget” (n.) how much time and energy you can spend working on projects with tight timelines and high stakes before you burn out.
Of course, it’s an ambiguous amount of time—but your team knows it when they see it, and you should be talking about it.
How we use this concept in practice:
- As we’re kicking off projects on ambitious timelines or expanding scope, we explicitly discuss the potential cost on the team before diving in.
- We ask: will this project dip into our burnout budget? If the answer is yes, we ask: is it really worth it?
The term helps usacknowledge together that a too-fast pace leads to burnout when sustained for too long. It’s okay to dip into our burnout budget sometimes—but only very occasionally, and only if the team is convinced it’s worth it.
5. Hold regular office hours to be more accessible and transparent as a leader
On remote teams, team members can’t pop into their manager’s office—but leaders can recreate that experience with open office hours.
By making yourself accessible to anyone on your team, you help to build alignment around strategy and create a culture of open communication.
We recommend setting up office hours once a month, especially after all-hands or big strategy adjustments. Invite everyone to drop by and chit-chat about whatever—they can ask questions, bounce ideas off of you, or just catch up.
How to implement: Set up a room in Remotion for team members to jump in and out of during your scheduled office hours. Here's me hanging out in our cofounder Alex's office hours in Remotion:
Anyone can set up remote office hours, but your approach should depend on your team size. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Open Office Hours for a deeper dive and advice for teams of all sizes.
6. Help your team build relationships with each other with coworking
If your teammates don’t really know the people they work with, it can be difficult to collaborate smoothly and comfortably on the day-to-day. Knowing your team makes work a lot more satisfying, and brings the energy back to building something together.
When a team member pipes up to share a controversial idea with people they have no real connection with, they’re bound to be hit with uncomfortable thoughts: Is this idea dumb? What if no one agrees? Is it hot in here, or is it just me?
We all deal with these thoughts once in a while—but when team members deal with this uncertainty daily, it can cause a toxic work environment that makes them run for the hills.
On the other hand, remote teams who feel connected have a sense of trust in one another. They’ll welcome different perspectives because they assume good intent. That drives a sense of psychological safety makes your team more likely to stick around.
How we do this: We make room for close relationships on our remote team with virtual coworking. We hop into rooms in Remotion and work alongside our remote teammates while we listen to music, popping off mute to collaborate or chat when the mood strikes.
Relationships are built in actually working together, not in meetings—and Remotion can help you make space for collaboration that feels more natural and will build stronger relationships.
7. Help your team find whatever you lack (mentorship, etc.) elsewhere.
To retain your employees, you need to understand what might tempte your team members to jump ship to other companies for work. You may have an idea already—but if you don’t, that’s okay. Get this info through 1:1s or exit and stay interviews.
Then, do your best to solve for them.
An example of this on our team: As a team of 20, our team members don’t always have access to the same kind of mentorship offered at larger tech companies.
We can do our best to address their need for that by proactively hunting for mentors that help our team members grow. We’ll do that through mentorship programs like First Round Fast Track, or through external classes by experts or mentors we find through our network.
Instead of sweeping shortcomings (especially ones that are a natural byproduct of working at startups or your industry) under the rug and hoping no one will notice, be honest about what you don’t have. From there, find a creative way to offer the support your team members need to drive their career growth.
8. Align with team members on their growth and impact, and make space to build relationships
Flexibility, work-life balance, and fair pay are all hot topics when it comes to why employees quit, but we’re learning that relationships with management matter more. According to recent McKinsey research, 52% of people polled quit their jobs during the Great Resignation because they didn’t feel valued by their managers.
A recent Zapier study echoes the same idea—Gen Z and millennials connect best with managers who prioritize people over driving results for their company.
To build relationships with direct reports, we recommend weekly or bi-weekly 1:1s with each team member. Nothing radical here, but we work to make this an explicitly non-tactical time where we can connect personally, celebrate wins together, and share feedback with one another.
Regular facetime (and the casual convos that go along with it) also means you’re more likely to get to know your people personally.
How to update your 1-on-1's:
- Avoid getting tactical and into the day-to-day in favor of connecting personally and talking about growth.
- Share the venn diagram below with your team member and ask if they think they are leveraging their talents, working toward their goals, and creating value for your org. Plus—and crucially—are they healthy and happy as a foundation to all of that?
- Create a role definition document together with areas for improvement and growth you’re aligned on. Identify the gaps between current role and where they’d like to move towards. Check in on them at least once a month in your 1:1s.
9. Host “stay” interviews
If you just rely on exit interviews to learn where things have gone wrong, you’re a little too late. Instead, proactively dig into what does and doesn’t work for your team with “stay” interviews. Feedback should be the cornerstone of your employee retention strategy.
Stay interviews might uncover similar insights to surveys, but can help you go a bit deeper, you’ll round up three to five high-performing team members for voluntary 1:1s.
How to implement: Near the end of every year, pick out a few team members who are thriving in their roles and ask if they’re up for a chat about work life. Set aside 30 minutes to chat with them individually, and try questions like:
- What do you like about working here?
- What do you dislike?
- What is your favorite thing about your role?
- What would you change about your role?
- Tell me about a day recently that was especially stressful. What happened?
- What about an especially good day?
- What does your dream position look like?
- What do you hope to learn in the next six months?
- Is there something you loved about your last job that you don’t have here?
Once you’ve gathered all of your responses, tease out common themes—for example, if all of your team members mention wanting to learn a specific skill, set up a team workshop that helps them do just that.
This is also a great opportunity to solve common stressors and dislikes. If your team members feel they need extra hands on deck to avoid project delays, for example, consider hiring a new team member to beef up support.
Chatting with your top talent allows you to talk to people who have aced their work process and can clearly see what works and what could use improvement.
10. Offer remote upskill opportunities
Team members want to keep learning new skills on the job. According to the TalentLMS and Workable survey, nine in 10 tech workers want to see more professional development opportunities at work, and eight in 10 are hopeful that their leadership will step in and look out for training programs.
Depending on your budget, there are several upskilling opportunities you can provide, like offering:
- Tuition assistance
- Workshops and seminars
- Mentorship opportunities
An easy, free way to do this: At Remotion, we do this via engineering lightning talks.
Lightning talks are a series of short, back-to-back, show-and-tell sessions from multiple team members where they demo a valuable skill to the group. We realized our team had so much expertise collectively that could be easily shared in lightweight ways.
To set these talks up, book an optional 30–45-minute team meeting. Ask your team members if they’d like to share a quick presentation of a skill they love and give each volunteer the floor for five minutes.
Engineering lightning talks help our team tap into the skillsets of others and grow together.
11. Calculate and track your retention rate
It’s helpful to have a trackable metric as you implement all these strategies. Retention rate is an easy place to start. Having this number handy will help you figure out which changes work for your team and which ones don’t.
Annual retention reviews are the norm, but we suggest calculating them more often—this helps you stay on top of changes and adjust quickly. Larger companies should calculate as often as monthly, while smaller orgs can stretch their evaluations to every quarter.
How to calculate: Start by deciding on your time period. Then, look up your head counts on the opening and closing dates of your last complete cycle (e.g., your last full month or quarter).
Write down how many people were with you on day 1, then note how many of those people stayed with you through the end of your cycle. Any new hires after day 1 don’t count for this period.
Here’s your retention rate formula:
(Final headcount / starting headcount) × 100
So, if you started with 30 team members and ended with 27, your formula would look like this:
(27/30) × 100
Which leaves you with a retention rate of 90%.
Ideally, your retention rate should always be 90%+. If you’re slipping below 90%, don’t stress—our strategies can help you get back on track.
The case for virtual coworking: build a connected remote culture.
Regularly coworking with your hybrid or remote team can help you build the social cohesion that makes work feel less like work.
Here are the biggest reasons we think virtual coworking is an effective way to create a close-knit remote culture:
1. It fosters casual conversations.
Building a connected remote culture is all about fostering 1:1 or small group organic conversations. Virtual coworking makes space for those conversations. When you spend time together outside of agenda-driven meetings, spontaneous chats naturally occur, as they would in a traditional office.
2. It's more inclusive than scheduled social events.
It can be draining for introverts to have to participate in scheduled, purely social conversations. Virtual coworking allows the team to spend time together and occasionally chat without having to constantly be "on," making it more inclusive for introverts and extroverts alike.
3. It's easy to say yes to.
Purely social events are important, but if your remote team is busy or on a tight deadline, it's tough to find the time for social chats without it feeling like an obligation. Coworking is much easier to get your distributed team onboard with because it doesn't take time away from getting work done.
4. It improves remote collaboration.
Coworking can lead to unblocking and shorter feedback loops and stronger remote collaboration. Quick questions get answered easily and in the moment, without a having to schedule a meeting or go back-and-forth in messages. Coworking also builds peer accountability.
5. It's scalable.
Coworking works for teams of all sizes and is a great way to scale your remote culture as your team grows. It's helpful to create opportunities for teammates from different functions to get to know one another.
6. It creates shared momentum.
Virtual coworking helps remote workers for the same reason you might get a membership at a traditional coworking space: the feeling of togetherness is motivating!
Get started with virtual coworking: choose the type most aligned with your priorities.
It takes intentionality to make virtual coworking feel natural and energizing enough to stick—it's not as simple as leaving a Zoom call open all day.
Here are a few of the ways we've set coworking up for our team. We recommend choosing one to start with. If it works, make it routine and experiment with other types from there.
Try independent coworking.
Try project-based coworking.
Best practices for virtual coworking.
Keep group sizes small.
Limit your work sessions to 4-6 people to minimize distraction and help make introverted teammates comfortable chatting.
Signal boost coworking.
Set a norm of letting the entire team know when you're hopping into a coworking room or session.
Make it routine.
Once you've figured out what kind of coworking works for your team, make it a regular, opt-in event. Set up a recurring calendar event to do it at the same time each week to maximize the impact.
Set expectations ahead of time.
When you're first introducing coworking to your remote team, share what you're imagining in your calendar invite and at the top of work sessions to get everyone on the same page. For example:
Let's try virtual coworking! We'll work independently on our own projects with our cameras off, but we'll share virtual space and listen to music together — like we might work side-by-side at a physical office.
Listen to music together.
Play music while you work in a virtual room to create a shared environment and add a little bit of personality to your virtual coworking session.
Set up Coworking Rooms in Remotion.
Most of the above is doable with any video chat app or virtual office, but much easier with Remotion—which we designed with a lightweight, smooth coworking experience in mind. Remotion is the perfect virtual coworking platform—easily set up virtual rooms that your teammates can hop into for different styles of coworking.
While Remotion's virtual workspace is free to use with your remote team, if you're curious about joining a virtual coworking community built on our platform—check out Swift Remote Studio for iOS, Mac, and Swift developers.