Making Remote Work, Work
*Remote Workers: Staffers who are offsite – be it in another time zone or on the other side of town.
Remote work*. We all hear about it. Some love it. Some will leave their jobs for the privilege (37% to be exact). Some organizations reject it wholeheartedly (Yahoo!) or are backtracking their policies (IBM). Love it or hate it, it’s not going anywhere. Today’s office places are distracting; “office distractions eat an average 2.1 hours a day.” Gen Z, the first “true digital natives,” who grew up able to work anywhere at any time on devices that fit in their palms are knocking at the door. By 2021, they’ll make up 20% of the workforce. The idea of being confined to a stationary desktop computer is laughable to them. And let’s not ignore the host of organizational benefits that remote work boasts: increased employee engagement, productivity, and retention; financial savings from reduced real estate costs and staff accepting reduced pay for increased flexibility; not to mention the positive societal impact of remote work, making it easier for working parents to re-enter the job market and decreasing the gender wage gap. But meeting Gen Z’s expectations and sustaining an engaged remote workforce takes effort. And that’s where we are today, getting a grasp on the ramifications of remote work– before it’s too late.
I’m not arguing for eliminating offices (we’d be out of business if that were the case), but I am suggesting that companies need to do more to integrate their remote colleagues than opening up a Slack channel and using Go-To-Meeting.
It’s clear that employee engagement is key to organizational success (See: this, this, and this), which means we need to implement strategies for engaging our on-site and remote staff. More importantly, we need to better connect them to each other. According to the Advanced Workplace Institute, social cohesion (relationships that provide a sense of connection and belonging) is the number one factor associated with knowledge worker productivity. After all, who wants to brainstorm, yet alone accept criticism, from a stranger on the other side of the country? But it’s not 1999, and a deep social connection can’t be made over AOL IM.
If social connections are the Holy Grail, how do we foster them? And how do we make them meaningful? There are some silly sounding recommendations out there (ready for a robot colleague?), but they’re worth considering. Harvard Business Review (HBR) contributor, Rebecca Knight, suggests a live streaming video portal into the office. These portals provide an opportunity for “collisions” between on-site and remote employees (something HBR and Inc. sing the praises of). Another recommendation is to encourage casual conversation. Another HBR contributor, Paul Axtell, suggests opening conference call lines 10 minutes early to provide an opportunity for catching up with colleagues. He also recommends starting meetings with non-work related questions, such as “What’s happening in your country?” or “How’s your family?” Self-professed “Future of Work Expert,” Ryan Jenkins, suggests creating Slack channels for non-work topics like #watercooler and #laugh-out-loud. As Graber reminds us, we need “to recognize remote team members as human beings.” By seeing remote colleagues in video chats, understanding our shared goals, and connecting socially, we can work toward replicating the benefits of physical proximity.
As for managers, additional effort is necessary. Managers should tailor their communication strategies to individual employees. Some staff prefer talking on the phone, others rely on messenger apps, while others favor face-to-face interactions. Adapting to individual preferences isn’t as onerous as it may seem. After all, don’t we modify our behavior in-person to optimize communication? To effectively meet varied needs, the entire staff has to be well versed in all forms of communication. In the face of physical distance, we must replace physical barriers with digital bridges.
All these recommendations are not to discount the importance of meeting face-to-face. Periodic physical gatherings foster a culture of trust. Gallup found that 60-80% of off-site work is the “sweet spot.” Greater or less than 60-80% of an employee’s time spent out of the office has been shown to reduce their engagement. This optimal 4:5 ratio suggests that a remote worker should spend about four days a week away from the noise and distractions of the office and designate one day for interacting face-to-face with colleagues. As with a good diet, balance is key.
Here’s the rub. I’m pretty sure the idea of another set of policies to manage makes you cringe. But for better or worse, successful remote work requires communication policies. Let me say that again, communication policies, not remote work policies. These policies are made up of principles demonstrated from the top-down. They reflect the equality of remote and on-site employees, the significance of community and social cohesion, and the shared vision of the organization. The professional landscape is changing. Like continents colliding, remote work will shift the ground beneath us. Whether or not we’re ready.