Remote work is a popular subject in 2020, but conversations have veered largely toward day-to-day efficiencies: how to create a professional background for videoconference calls, what to communicate via low-bandwidth channels like email and chat versus Zoom meetings, what the etiquette is for internal versus external conferences, and so on.
Remote work, however, offers bigger challenges, including the loss of passive knowledge sharing during downtimes, emotional disconnection, and disintegrating work cultures. This last one, in particular, can affect morale and motivation. In some cases, in fact, productivity is hampered. MIT called this out in a recent highlight of remote work hurdles, observing that "as team members operate from physically distanced desks and possibly even in different time zones, opportunities for disconnect abound."
For those who have been riding the remote work train for years, this isn't news. Harvard Business Review spotlighted the issue back in 2017, conducting a poll to see how then-remote teams felt about their work interactions compared with those in physical offices. The results were telling:
We polled 1,153 employees, and 52 percent said they work, at least some of the time, from their home office. And when they do, many feel their colleagues don't treat them equally. Remote employees are more likely to report feeling that colleagues mistreat them and leave them out. Specifically, they worry that co-workers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without telling them in advance, lobby against them, and don't fight for their priorities.
MIT pinned some of this on the lack of in-person physical and visual cues that provide context for our communication, but there is also an undeniable sense of isolation that leaves one feeling like they're lacking broader support within their team and company.
So how do you address this? As remote work becomes more widespread and a more permanent reality for many, it's important that CEOs and managers foster healthy communication and, concomitantly, a richer work culture. Here's how:
1. Spend time emphasizing employees' influence on business success.
This can be as simple as reiterating their role in specific projects or as elaborate as pointing to all success metrics (ROI, revenue, profits, site traffic, etc.) positively affected by their work.
2. Offer video and low-bandwidth channels for casual catch-ups and chat.
Not everything needs a formal meeting, but telecommuting is often highly dependent on structured audio or video calls. In an effort to offer channels for "hallway chat," create spaces where informal conversations can happen -- separate video chat rooms, collaboration tools like Slack, or internal IM networks.
3. Encourage employees to consult one another for advice and guidance.
The top-down approach to instruction and guidance-giving has its place, but many problems and questions can be addressed among your employees. Encourage them to work with one another to find solutions and answers; this builds bonds that otherwise remain weak.
4. Ask your employees to provide rationale for meetings with ample context and clear agendas.
Meetings are, of course, important from time to time. Ensure they are successful by providing all participants ample context and a full agenda so they can come prepared to engage -- instead of feeling out of the loop.
5. If your team is split between onsite and remote, make sure onsite employees are folded into regular meetings via video.
In other words, try not to play favorites -- make sure there's engagement happening among all employees, regardless of remote work status. This can take the form of optional "happy hours" via video, Slack channel conversations, or time that you set aside for employees to conduct one-on-one meet-and-greets.
6. Experiment with companywide newsletters.
These can be print or digital, but should highlight the work of teams across the company while also folding in profiles of employees (remote and onsite).