As the remote workforce has grown -- fueled by technology improvements and the battle for top talent -- so too have the stereotypes surrounding them.

The common narrative is that remote workers are isolated, disengaged and cut off from their company’s culture. 

A new survey from Ultimate Software suggests that many of these assumptions are outdated, but challenges remain.

While remote workers report less stress and solid career growth, the survey highlights how miscommunication between managers and virtual employees is still an issue.

Remote workers are nearly twice as likely as in-office employees to feel "frequently" misunderstood or misinterpreted in the workplace, and one-third (33%) of remote workers say this happens often.

Meanwhile, they’re facing burnout trying to prove their worth to their teams. Seventy-six percent of remote employees report working beyond their set hours on a weekly basis. 

The real disconnect

But managers report giving the same amount of feedback to their remote and in-office direct reports. So where’s the disconnect? Perhaps it’s not the frequency of communication, but the quality of communication that’s important to engaging remote workers. 

To help answer these questions, I sat down with Vivian Maza, chief culture officer at Ultimate Software, an HR software provider that conducted the study.

“As the report finds, a top concern among managers is monitoring the productivity of remote workers. But remote employees themselves are reporting high levels of productivity on a given day,” says Maza. “So there’s definitely miscommunication taking place. The challenge is helping remote workers translate that productivity back to their managers, and providing tools that enable managers to listen more effectively."

How to better engage remote workers

Maza explained that while remote workers have come a long way, consistent feedback from managers is essential to closing the experience gap between them and in-office workers. About 40% of Ultimate Software’s 4,000 employees work remotely. Maza shared her insight into what managers can do to better engage these employees. 

1. Avoid micromanagement.

A lack of facetime makes it tempting for managers to micromanage remote workers, which is why Maza recommends a "team communication and operating agreement.” This plan guides managers and employees on things like how often to provide status reports, preferred communication channels, and what information needs to be communicated to whom. Clear guidelines can ease the anxieties that lead to micromanaging, while instilling a greater sense of accountability among remote workers. 

2. Create space for collaboration.

One common problem remote workers face is that they can feel "out of sight, out of mind" to their teams and managers. To avoid this, Maza urges managers to "adopt a mindset that focuses on remote workers' potential to contribute both to important business goals and company culture." Managers should ensure there’s room at the end of a team meeting for collaborating with remote employees or even simply trading water-cooler chat. Virtual space that allows for this kind of connection can go a long way.

3. Understand remote workers' unique needs.

"There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership," says Maza. It’s important to understand each of your team member’s unique needs, including remote workers. Hold frequent check-ins that get to the heart of how employees feel about their work -- both day-to-day experience and long-term goals. Then, "hyper-personalize" management tactics based on their feedback. "The world is increasingly hyper-personalized," says Maza, "and employees are beginning to expect this level of personalization in the workplace, too."

Helping managers to succeed

While it’s up to managers to engage remote workers, Ultimate's survey also sheds light on the ways companies need to support them. While managers agree that consistent communication is the most important step, nearly one-third of them said they'd like a larger travel budget for more face-to-face time with remote workers. 

Technology shortcomings may also be hindering their management tactics. The majority (57%) of managers would like more regular communication channels, while 31% want software that would allow them to better understand remote employees' feelings.

"Remote employees may have different goals, challenges and communication preferences than their in-office colleagues, and, therefore, require different management styles," says Maza. In order to ensure remote worker stereotypes fall by the wayside, managers must maintain consistent feedback and communication.

Published on: Aug 22, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.