The Remote Worker Dilemma
Once a privilege reserved for the most valued employees, working remotely is the new normal.
Some 70% of employees work off-site at least once a week, and more than half of remote workers work virtually full-time. It can be a win/win. Employees like the flexibility to do their jobs where and when they choose. Businesses like the low or no overhead costs, the ability to put sales and service people close to customers, and the greater pool of candidates from which to hire. But just how good for business is a distributed workforce?
According to the prevailing research, working remotely improves productivity, enhances a company’s appeal as an employer, increases job satisfaction and, if managed effectively, strengthens employee engagement.
But remote employees can feel isolated from the team—so much so that they lose the connection and deep affiliation with their colleagues that drive teamwork and support for the organization’s mission. Communication suffers. Differing work schedules and lack of face-to-face contact lead to less dialogue and an increased reliance on email and hastily written text messages. The invisible but invaluable non-verbal cues like a clenched jaw, eye roll or reassuring smile that help us interpret meaning are missing. Conflict is more likely to arise, and when it does, it takes longer to surface and resolve than when people face their colleagues regularly. Establishing trust may be the biggest challenge. When it comes to trust, proximity matters. Research consistently shows that the closer we sit to our colleagues, the more likely we will interact with them and form relationships that lead to team commitment and trust. Without that trust, engagement, speed, efficiency and, ultimately, performance suffer.
For some organizations, the downsides of remote workforces outweigh the gains. A number of prominent Fortune 500 companies, including Honeywell, Bank of America and IBM have ended or substantially scaled back their programs. Their leaders cite the need to improve teamwork, collaboration and communication as reasons for the change. While some companies are cutting back, more are charging forward and finding ways to effectively manage distributed workforces.
The following are some best practices pulled from the growing body of evidence on remote work management.
Recognize the need to work differently. According to Inc. magazine, 63% of companies now have remote workers, yet 57% of companies have no remote-work policies. If remote work is part of how a company is doing business, it’s critical to be intentional about it and create structures and processes that level the playing field. As one CEO explains it, “When we have a staff meeting, we don’t have on-site employees sitting in a conference room and remote employees dialing by phone. Everyone participates in the meeting from their workspace; otherwise, remote workers are at a disadvantage.” Success depends on on-site and remote workers having access to the same information and level of participation in decision-making. That means eliminating convenient practices like impromptu meetings in the hallway or last-minute project changes without including the team.
Excel at communication. Companies with distributed workforces live or die based on communication. Those skilled at managing remote workforces are relentless about hiring people who can communicate clearly and concisely verbally and via email, team chat and instant messaging. They train to ensure that existing employees hone their communication skills. Typically, they choose a single platform based on the team’s needs and require that it be used by everyone in the company for all communication. They set clear expectations for communicating as well as standards for responsiveness. For example, to help support work/home balance, one company has a policy not to send emails after business hours. If something is genuinely urgent, people reach out by phone. Employees no longer feel they have to keep checking their email or risk being viewed as unresponsive.
Make work public. Trust is essential to successful remote worker programs. Managers need to know their people are getting the work done. Remote workers need to know they are accountable. Colleagues need to feel confident that their co-workers are doing their share. Being transparent by publicly posting individuals’ goals, progress and results in real time keeps people accountable and builds trust.
Gather regularly. Many studies, including Gallup’s State of the American Workplace, indicate that remote working pays the highest returns when employees maintain regular face-to-face contact with their managers and co-workers. Where distance allows, companies often mandate a minimum of one day a week in the office. Designating a standard day for all staff helps facilitate group events and meetings and maintain a sense of unity among the team. For farther-flung members of the team who can’t come in weekly, companies make the investment to bring them to the office monthly or quarterly.
Create opportunities for day-to-day social interaction. The relationship-building opportunities that happen naturally in an office don’t happen in a distributed workforce. The casual social interactions that forge connections and ultimately foster teamwork are missing. This can leave remote workers feeling lonely and disenfranchised from the team. Smart companies design ways for team members to interact both professionally and personally. For example, one company encourages connection through Yammer, an enterprise social network that creates a Facebook-like environment, where team members can share pictures from the weekend, their travel plans and any interesting articles they are reading. Another company has a #Dogs channel in its shared communications platform where employees post fun photos and stories of their beloved pooches. Some companies have online gaming competitions and virtual book clubs. It’s a matter of taking things that naturally evolve in the office and translating them to the online environment.
Prioritize relationship building with direct reports. The “open door” and “management by walking around” policies that help keep managers in touch with on-site employees aren’t options with remote workers. Effective managers take the initiative for weekly check-ins via voice or video-chat and go out of their way to form personal bonds with remote employees. They continuously keep the lines of communication open, clarify expectations, recognize achievements, and surface issues before they become problems.
Not Fit for Everyone
Managing a remote workforce isn’t for every leader or company. It tends to work best in organizations that are deliberate and disciplined, committed to accountability, open to new ways of working and extraordinarily good at communication. When strategy, skills and culture are aligned to support remote work, the benefits to business can be well worth the effort.