That’s not to say remote working isn’t without its challenges, particularly in the area of employee engagement. Distributed teams, lack of face-to-face contact with co-workers and potentially less interaction with managers can make it tricky to maintain a company’s culture, values, and, ultimately, engagement.
We look at the challenges of remote working for both employees and employers, and how you can make it a core part of your workforce strategy and maintain, or even increase employee engagement.
What’s good about remote working?
For employees, remote working offers more autonomy over when and where they work best, and less stress and expense getting to it. We are genetically influenced to be either ‘larks or owls’; one person may produce their best work at 6am, another at 11pm. The traditional 9 to 5 commuter day – that tries to define when and where workers should feel their most productive – suits few people well, and is likely to become a rarity as flexible working becomes the norm.
Remote working, when well organised and scheduled, offers better work-life balance with opportunities to exercise, fewer office distractions, less workplace stress with resultant lost workdays, reduction in carbon footprint and the potential for older people to contribute.
Employers can recruit from an international talent pool of all ages (workers in different time zones can offer 24/7 support) and cut overheads on office space, business travel expenses and carbon footprint. Happier, healthier employees are more engaged – 80% of remote workers say they are happy with their job, compared to 55% of on-site workers , produce quality work and are less likely to move to a competitor.
‘Workers who have control over their schedules report finding time to exercise more, eat better, and have higher morale and a better outlook in general.’
-American Psychological Association
What’s not so good about remote working?
Employees may feel isolated, lonely and detached from colleagues. Particularly conscientious remote workers may find ‘switching off’ after work challenging, work too hard and for too long, and risk burnout. It’s harder to bounce ideas around and get different perspectives remotely, and company culture is difficult to maintain without those casual, sociable ‘water cooler’ interactions that help a team gel. Because much of human interaction is through body language, remote workers miss out on non-verbal communication when they don’t see colleagues, and may misinterpret message tone.
Remote workers may find accessing information from colleagues hard, and managers may appear out-of-touch and distant, particularly when the technology supplied is outdated or inefficient. The effects of detachment go further than relationships within the office – employee engagement can take a hit as remote workers may feel sidelined or second best.
Less-than-enlightened employers may believe that a remote workforce will not work as hard or as efficiently as one that’s office-based (despite research showing that remote workers are more productive). Leaders worry that remote teams are harder to manage, and communication may be difficult or break down entirely.
‘We need to acknowledge that isolation, anxiety, and depression are significant problems when working remotely, and we must figure out ways and systems to resolve these complex issues’
– Amir Salihefendic, CEO of Doist
Communication is key
Good, clear internal communication is critical for remote workers who don’t have the luxury of asking ‘what did he want again?’ to a person sitting next to them. It’s important to give employees clear briefing at the beginning of a task, ideally face-to-face through video conferencing, and that they can also dip in and out of open team communication channels to gather essential information and support as they work.
Remote workers are generally self-reliant, tending to soldier on with tasks until they encounter a problem. Tempting as it is to leave them to it, a good manager should check in with remote team members on regular 1:1 video calls and then really listen to what they say and how they are. Because remote working can be isolating, these 1:1s are helpful for sounding off or emotional support.
The best technology
Remote working pivots on high-quality, reliable, portable technology. Workers need the best HD laptops, tablets and phones, and access to the fastest, most reliable broadband to support video conferencing.
Email, with its faceless formality and endless ‘reply all’ threads is probably the least engaging medium for flexible workers. Far more efficient remote working tools include task and project management platforms, communication and networking systems such as video chat and messaging, cloud storage, and remote team management apps.
There’s a huge selection of remote working communication tools available, many of which integrate with each other. Most companies pick and mix the ones that best suit their tasks and employees. The basics are:
- Video conferencing, eg. Zoom Face to face, the team can discuss tasks that need more explanation, share screens, host webinars, create virtual conference rooms and hold invitation-only meetings. Sessions can be recorded for future reference.
- Chatting, e.g. Slack Organise conversations into dedicated, searchable, prioritisable channels that integrate with hundreds of other apps.
- Social connection, e.g. Unremot and Pukkateam See which team mate is available for a quick chat, then click and call them.
- Cloud storage, e.g. OneDrive and Google Drive Secure and shareable, these can be integrated with other tools to streamline collaboration.
- Project management, e.g. Trello and Asana Manage workflows and help the team stay focused on projects, tasks and goals.
- Brainstorming, e.g. Mural and Miro Collaborative whiteboards to thrash out ideas and present results.
- Time tracking and focus apps, e.g. Toggl and Serene For remote workers needing to stay focused and productive, these kinds of app track project time, or switch off distractions enabling deep focus on a particular goal.
Keeping up an office culture
We think of office culture as an organisation’s internal environment, featuring the personalities, the décor, the fun social interactions, the impromptu team lunches. While an on-site team enjoys the camaraderie, a remote worker called upon only to do their specific task then forgotten will feel like a mere cog in the corporate machine and will rapidly disengage. To engage remote employees, it’s important to include them in the interactions and fun things that on-site workers get up to. This is where good technology comes in. Make video conferencing the norm so that people can interact face to face. Instead of launching straight into business, make time for some friendly ‘how’s it going?’ chat at the beginning and end of calls, and introduce some playful elements, such as virtual tours of everyone’s workspaces.
From the budget for office equipment, make sure some of it, especially branded items, goes to remote workers to improve their home office environments. This improves employee experience and engagement in three ways – it feels like a gift, it makes a person more effective in their work and it conveys a sense of belonging. And make sure there are opportunities for everyone, remote and on-site, to meet up occasionally, whether in designated workspaces or on company retreats or days out.
Including remote workers from the start
Where employees participate fully, they also engage. Participation for every worker starts with excellent onboarding, which should ideally be in person at headquarters to experience the vibe, ethos and culture of the company, and on-site colleagues meet their new remote teammates. Get-to-know-you surveys are particularly useful during the onboarding process to understand what motivates and makes a person tick, and to personalise birthday cards, gifts and swag.
Not all remote workers work from home, and even those that do appreciate a workspace outside their four walls where they can interact with other people or local team members. Setting up such workspaces helps team cohesion and engagement.
Appreciating remote workers
It’s a fact that employees whose efforts and accomplishments are recognised and rewarded tend to be more loyal to their companies. Acknowledging work done is an important aspect of employee engagement and company culture, but it can be easy to forget to do this for remote employees. From something as small as a ‘Good job!’ GIF on the team chat to something as large as a company award, make recognition visible so other members of the organisation are aware of the valuable daily contributions that remote workers make.
Measuring remote employee engagement
The only way to find out if your remote employees are satisfied is to ask them, and the best way to measure engagement is through survey data. Three types of employee survey to use for a remote workforce are:
- eNPS: Asks a simple, single question: ‘On a scale from 0-10, how likely are you to recommend our brand/company to a friend or colleague?’ eNPS can help you understand your remote employees as part of a wider employee experience program.
- Pulse surveys: Frequent, quick surveys to measure employee experience and organisation health. These are particularly useful to collect feedback from employees about specific projects or activities.
- 360 surveys: Employees receive confidential, anonymous feedback from people who work around them, usually their manager, peers, direct reports, as well as themselves. For remote workers who have historically tended to be sidelined, 360 feedback surveys are particularly inclusive and informative.
Remote working doesn’t have to be lonely and disengaged. Remote workers are critical assets to a business, and deserve to be treasured. When every employee is connected, given the tools and the great technology they need to work and share in the company culture and willing to give and take, projects and profits flow.