Remote work has rapidly expanded in the last decade, and only continues to grow. There are many benefits to remote work for both employees and companies. Savings on office space, the ability to access a deeper talent pool, and increased employee satisfaction all make remote work attractive. While more companies are responding to these incentives, there are certain practices that should be kept in mind to make remote work, well, work.
If not properly implemented, remote work can become a lose-lose. Employers can struggle to track or measure their remote employees’ work, and remote workers can experience loneliness and isolation and have a hard time focusing. This disconnection can result in disengagement and a loss of productivity that harms both companies’ bottom lines as well as remote workers’ careers.
As companies replace offices with Google hangouts and Slack, they must be careful to implement practices that compensate for what an office provides.
Occasional in-person interaction can make remote work work better
Many jobs can be done by workers located anywhere they have access to a computer, a smart phone, and Wi-Fi. Still, when members working remotely form a team, it’s important to find ways to keep members feeling connected. Social bonds make people more productive and collaborative, and they can help retain key talent longer.
To get remote teams off on the right foot, it can help establish a deeper relationship if the employee’s initial onboarding is conducted in person – even if only over a couple of days. To maintain connection that can weary as team members spend time focusing on their own projects, aspire toward holding in-person gatherings at least once a year. Holding smaller get-togethers every few months or even bi-annually can further deepen these relationships.
In-person meetings are also important for resolving serious workplace disagreements. It is considered bad form to break up with your significant other over the phone, and the same rule extends to work relationships.
Resolving serious disputes in person can prevent negative team dynamics and resentments from taking hold, and can strengthen bonds between workers. If an in-person resolution is not possible, video conferencing is the second-best option. Video conferencing empowers people to see facial expressions and hear tone, which can be important to keeping contentious matters from growing more heated.
Foster communication, and not just about work
The lack of organic collaboration via informal water cooler discussions is often cited as a negative feature of remote work. However, there are informal discussions on distributed teams; they just don’t happen over an actual water cooler.
Companies should encourage remote team members to talk about non-work related matters as a way of bonding. This can take place in Slack channels, company Facebook groups, and over one-on-one video chats. Companies have Slack channels dedicated to pets, music, books, and jokes, for example, giving employees a way to discuss common interests and engage in non-work related banter.
Assigning younger team members a buddy to meet with, or arranging for employees to share a drink or lunch over Skype at a recurring scheduled time can help build the social arenas found in the office into the remote work ecosystem.
Relationships fostered through informal dialogue can also help prevent conflicts. It can be human nature to assign the worst possible interpretation to ambiguous written communications like messaging or email. Especially when things inexplicably go wrong.
In an office, when a coworker in your office pushes back a deadline because they got sick, you can see that they are under the weather and empathize with them. When the same happens in a remote work setting, it is easy to find yourself assuming that it is really just an excuse for your coworker to do less work.
Strong social connections among remote coworkers builds trust and empathy. In a world where people spend hours a day texting and on social media, digital bonding is the new norm, and by providing forums like Slack channels and video lunches for remote workers to gather in, companies can ensure remote workers feel connected to one another.
Set clear expectations for work
Without good communication practices, it is easier for remote workers than their in-office peers to feel disconnected from their work goals and their company’s mission and objectives. This can lead to disengagement, a feeling of isolation, and poor work product. Companies can avoid this pitfall by carving out clear expectations around work.
Setting protocols for work goals and communication brings a flow that helps maintain engagement and clarity. Eighty-six percent of executives and workers cite ineffective communication for workplace failures. Companies should avoid this by giving effective ongoing training on how to use remote work productivity tools, like Zoom or Asana, and instructions on when and where to communicate.
Poor communication practices in an office can be somewhat compensated for by informal discussions as a worker grabs their boss in the office to ask questions. For remote workers, this might not come as naturally. Onboarding is the best time to lay out expectations on all things, including deadlines, when check-ins will be, and what the weekly time commitment should be. These small details are often overlooked, but they are important for remote workers to understand their mandate and stay engaged.
Workers want to have their bosses check in with them, and they want to feel connected to a larger team. The best way to ensure that communications and team dynamic continue to be not only organic, but weave the team together, is to have both regular and clear contact over work expectations, whether it is through Slack, calls, video conferencing, or in a work management platform.
Create a level playing field
For companies that are semi-remote, it is incredibly important to ensure that remote workers are given equal opportunities for advancement as their in-office peers. Otherwise, they can become resentful and disengaged as they watch lower performing employees receive better promotions and raises. The best way to ensure equality is to have company-wide standards of performance that are clear and visible to all employees, and that don’t hinge on fuzzy metrics like facetime.
Implementing communication practices that put remote employees on equal footing can also be beneficial. An in-person meeting with one remote employee dialing in on the phone, for example, makes it more difficult for the remote employee to contribute equally. Consider having meetings where everyone, including the people located in the same office, meet through video conference instead.
In addition, encourage a practice of documenting work and ideas in digital spaces, whether it be Slack, a work management program, or a Google Drive. This ensures that important work developments do not occur outside remote workers’ purviews, and that remote workers have the opportunity to be key contributors.
Work life balance
One of the reasons employees highly value remote work is for the flexibility to engage all aspects of their life. However, one of the risks of this flexibility is that some employees will have trouble drawing a line between work and life, and will let work take over their life, which might be productive in the short term, but can ultimately lead to burnout.
With email, Slack, and smartphones, all employees run the risk of being on the clock at all hours, but for remote workers without a 9-5 office routine, it is even easier for work to spill over into what would otherwise be personal time, and vice versa.
Companies can help prevent this by ensuring that expectations around availability are clear and delineated. Managers can lead by example and show that they take time off for personal activities where they are not available, whether for travel, a child’s recital, or even walking their dog in the middle of the day. Managers who do not respond to every work message instantly, day and night, can make it clear it is permissible for employees to have time off the clock.
By ensuring workload is reasonable, and also stressing that employees should have a personal life, and not be on call 24/7, companies can help remote workers to take advantage of flexibility without falling into the trap of working around the clock and burning out.
When implemented properly, remote work is a win win for companies and employees. As the benefits have become clearer, more and more companies are shifting to this way of work. But to ensure remote work is successful, companies need to learn to effectively manage a team outside the office. By purposely fostering relationships, ensuring excellent communication, and setting clear expectations, companies can see increased productivity, higher employee engagement, and greater savings from a remote workforce.