If a remote employee has something to say in a home office and no one is around to hear it, do they make a sound?
If you’ve fostered a strong remote work environment, employees should have plenty of outlets for connection and support, but getting to this point requires careful planning and continual effort. In particular, as companies increasingly look to reap the benefits of remote work long term, managers need to focus on the following areas:
1. Allow for True Flexibility
Many companies make the mistake of trying to babysit or police remote employees to make up for the lack of in-person visibility, for example, requiring strict working hours or adding mandatory check-ins. During the shift to remote work due to COVID-19, employers also have turned to more intrusive measures such as using employee monitoring software.
These approaches can easily feel like overreach to employees, making remote work lose its appeal. In times of better economic conditions, employees might resign or find another employer who provides more freedom, but today, employees might feel like they have no choice but to put up with “Big Brother.” However, this dissatisfaction can easily lead employees to underachieve. And Gallup finds that employee disengagement is associated with less customer engagement and lower productivity. In other words, monitoring employees too closely can ultimately backfire.
Nearly twice as many remote workers as on-site workers say schedule flexibility is important, according to a 2019 Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics study—so ease up on the reins if you tend to micromanage. For example, allow your employees to take a few hours off during the day if they need to attend to childcare, run to the supermarket, or walk the dog, and then finish up their work at night. Or if an employee works best in short, highly focused sprints followed by a few half-hour breaks, they should be free to do so.
Staff also should have flexibility in terms of their communication style. Instead of requiring all of your employees to be available 24-7 on tools like Slack, be cognizant of which communication strategies help increase productivity as well as feel comfortable to individual employees.
Dr. Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, offers remote work communication suggestions in an April 2020 episode of FreshBooks’ I Make a Living podcast. She recommends using “asynchronous communication strategies,” which means moving away from expecting immediate replies and letting employees respond to messages on their own timelines. The specifics of these timelines (for example, one hour, four hours, one day) can differ based on your company’s needs and an employee’s role. For example, a customer service employee might need to respond to a query faster than a marketing associate needs to respond to an email about next quarter’s content strategy.
To help clarify these timelines, Dr. Yousef encourages using priority indicators in messages. If something requires a rapid response, senders should write “urgent” in a subject line, so recipients know to respond quickly. And if someone can’t be reached via email on an agreed-upon timeframe—maybe they’ve closed out of email to focus on another task—then colleagues should expect a phone call. You may want to develop some role-specific guidelines linking indicators and timeframes, to prevent overuse of “urgent!” tags.
2. Foster Connection
While employers should give employees flexibility, you don’t want to cut off all ties and leave your team floating in the ether. Loneliness is one of the top challenges of working remotely, according to a 2020 Buffer and AngelList survey. However, the study authors note they “don’t think this implies that remote work causes loneliness. Remote workers feeling lonely is also an accurate reflection of a larger-scale societal struggle with loneliness.”
Still, you don’t want remote work to make the problem worse. Enough of us already struggle with the thought that we’re random assortments of atoms floating around on a little dot in the vast nothingness of the universe (or, worse, that we’re all in an Elon Musk simulation).
Employers can take cues from the levels of interaction individuals have used to stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. Connection varies among personality types; some crave more video chats and virtual social hangouts, while others are content with the occasional email or phone check-in. Either way, employers should help employees remain connected to the larger mission.
You can learn more about what individual team members need to feel connected by gathering employee feedback through tools like Culture Amp or TinyPulse. Based on that feedback—as well as what managers might hear and observe directly from employees, you could take actions like:
- Set up a variety of Slack channels that employees can use. They can discuss work projects in some channels while sharing TV recommendations or quarantine haircut disasters in another.
- Share both remote and in-person volunteer opportunities. Even if colleagues don’t work on the same projects together in person, they can be part of the same effort that helps them feel like they’re a part of something greater than themselves while also representing their companies in a positive light.
- Provide a weekly stipend for employees to use at coffee shops where they can work (pandemic permitting), to feel more connected with their local communities. Even if this doesn’t foster connection among staff, it can help individual employees overcome feelings of loneliness when working from home, which helps them stay engaged and do a better job.
3. Provide Career Development Opportunities
Although remote work can be great for employee satisfaction, not everyone sees it as the right move for their long-term career prospects. Nearly a quarter of remote workers in the Owl Labs/Global Workplace Analytics survey fear working remotely will affect their career progression.
That fear can be due to issues like not getting as much face time with managers as they would in an on-site office. In many cases, climbing the career ladder isn’t just about producing quality work but also about networking and demonstrating leadership skills, which might not be as readily apparent in a remote environment.
Employers shouldn’t shirk their responsibility for supporting remote employees’ career development. There is a correlation between employee satisfaction with professional development opportunities and being highly engaged, finds a 2019 Bonusly survey.
So what can employers do?
For one, companies need to be aware of distance bias. This phenomenon is a “natural tendency to put more importance on things and people that are closer to us than farther away,” explains Sacha Connor, founder of and lead consultant at Virtual Work Insider, in a Lehigh University blog. “Just recognizing that the Distance Bias exists, and being able to label it when it creeps in, will go a long way to reducing it.”
In other words, if a manager assesses their team and reflexively thinks of nonremote employees—or the most communicative remote employees—as doing a better job than more solitary or quieter remote employees, it can be useful to take a step back and consider whether distance bias is making someone’s actual work seem better or worse than it really is.
Managers also need to be aware of what employees specifically need to feel like they’re on the right track career-wise. In many cases, that could mean more frequent check-ins and in-depth performance reviews to make up for lost in-person face time. Other employees might be satisfied simply by having more access to career development tools, such as memberships to online education platforms like Udacity or LinkedIn Learning to advance their skills.
Tackling these three areas can help you build a dynamic remote team that might even outperform in-person groups. Still, managing remote workers takes skill and commitment, as old problems can quickly be replaced by new ones. But if you stay tuned in to what employees are experiencing while working from home, and maybe even fostering connection by wading into what they’re watching on Netflix, you can improve your employees’ and your company’s overall performance.