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What your remote workers aren’t telling you

Even the most considerate employers will find it difficult to know what their employees are thinking and how they are feeling. This is only made more difficult when employees work remotely and is further exacerbated when they are based internationally. With the many acknowledged benefits of hiring remotely – including access to great talent, increased productivity and greater diversification – it is unsurprising that employers are encouraging the transition toward remote work and that 50% of employees around the world are working remotely at least 1 day a week. 

It is unclear whether the trend toward remote work stems from companies’ cutting costs, employee demand, or a combination of the two, but what is apparent is that both sides like what remote work has to offer. In an attempt to find out a little more, I spoke to Nikki, one of my colleagues at Shield GEO who has been working remotely full-time and managing a fully remote team since March 2018.  I’d been wondering if the hype around remote work was justified and wanted to get the perspective of a worker and leader in a remote environment.

When asked about the benefits of remote working, here’s what Nikki had to say:

“I have a better, more organised balance to work/life ratio due to the flexibility. More time with my husband and children, and other family members.

I can work from anywhere if necessary and get a change of scenery. I also have the flexibility to get some personal errands/chores done during day, do the Nursery runs for my 2yr old, and attend her activities without having to keep booking days off.

It allows me to live my life all the time rather than just in the evenings or on weekends.”  – Nikki

The ability to work wherever she wants and around her own schedule seems to be invaluable. But is it all beer and skittles?  Apparently not.  A 2017 Harvard Business Review study of 1,100 employees identified some key challenges in remote working.  In particular, remote workers tend to feel shunned and left out. They specifically worry that their co-workers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without telling them, and don’t fight for their priorities. 

It’s almost a paranoia that their lack of a physical presence in the office means there is an emotional absence in the eyes of colleagues and possibly their manager.  It makes sense when you think about it – imagine joining a work call from your computer while a group of your team are in the office together. It would be difficult to interject, to share your ideas, or even keep up with the conversation. It would be easy to feel left behind in the conversation or as though you’re inconveniencing everyone else as they stop to repeat things for you. Alternatively, when communicating through digital messenger streams, it can be difficult to gauge the tone of a colleague you don’t know well personally. This can easily lead to miscommunication and sometimes suspicion between colleagues.

If no one is complaining, there’s nothing to worry about, right?  Wrong.  Assuming that unhappy people articulate their issues is naïve and there’s a real danger in thinking unhappy employees will be forthcoming with their feedback and that you’ll get the opportunity to take action.

So why aren’t you hearing about some of these concerns? When it comes to talking to superiors, remote workers aren’t always forthcoming about the issues they’re having and I suspect there are two reasons for this: 1. They feel like they are lucky to be working remotely and don’t want to do anything the jeopardize the opportunity, and 2. Remote work is still very new to many companies and so remote employees aren’t aware of the solutions and help that can be made available to them, or that the struggles they’re facing are common among other remote employees.

I spoke to Nikki about her experience managing a remote team and researched remote teams in external companies. From this, I’ve identified 4 common things your remote employees aren’t telling you, and some potential solutions you might like to implement or at least have in your toolkit:

4 things your remote workers aren’t telling you and how you can help

1. They’re lonely and feel left out

This comes first on the list for a reason. A struggle to maintain social connections or a sense of teamwork with colleagues is a significant challenge for remote workers and it should be the focus for any employer trying to better manage their remote employees. A less than ideal relationship with managers can limit the motivation, loyalty, and advancement of remote workers, which may lead to unwanted turnover.

 “The relationship I have with my team that I have met over those I haven’t, definitely has a different feel to it, slightly more personal.” – Nikki 

How to stay connected with your remote workers:

  • Prioritize relationships by going out of your way to form personal bonds with your remote employees. This could involve designating team meeting time just for “water cooler” conversation. And remember to make it two-way: they want to know their managers from a personal perspective as well. It is difficult for this to happen organically over video calls, so you need to be a little proactive about it; There’s nothing like a bit of self-deprecating humor to break down barriers.
  • Document events and outings using social media tools such as Instagram or a specialized Slack thread. Spending time noting what was said, done and learned as well as sharing photos and videos with remote workers will help them feel included and keep them in the loop on office references or jokes that might pop up during a call or chat.

2. They want more interactive communication!

This is the best way to reduce miscommunication which is a win for both sides. Note: 20 people talking through a microphone on one end is not effective and the poor individual on the other side won’t catch a thing. Being a good listener, communicating trust and respect, and enquiring about workload and progress without micromanaging will set an exemplary model of these behaviors.

How to communicate with your remote workers

  • Default to video communication tools like Zoom or Google Hangouts as often as you can so that conversation is natural and organic without room for misinterpretation. Being clear and direct about expectations and directions will result in happier teams and effective output. But nothing will ever beat face to face so consider an annual meet up to promote team solidarity.

“Not being able to see my team all the time, and having to constantly use technology all the time to see how they are doing or if they need anything. I’m worried it loses the personal touch. I think there should be a chance for everyone to meet at least once face-to-face annually. The benefit of face-to-face is massive.” – Nikki | ShieldGEO

  • Conduct a thorough onboarding process that involves an orientation of communication streams, an introduction to team members, setting clear job expectations, and ensuring they have the tools and equipment they need.
  • Outline discussion and call protocols such as each speaker introducing themselves (aside from the chair or the person holding a significant role running the meeting). This works for all parties on the call; no one wants to be left guessing who is speaking and then miss the whole point of their input. 
  • Join group calls remotely! At Shield, in an effort to have everyone enjoy a consistent experience during a con call, we will all jump in remotely – even if we’re in the office. At first it might seem to make sense for those in the office to join together in the same space. However, we recommend you find your own space, chuck in your headphones, and join the call. This means everyone is facing the same challenge of communicating through a screen. It will improve video communication skills and keep everyone on an equal playing field.

3. They want a sense of community and care

Remote working is a new concept for many companies and the workings are still being ironed out. It is important to understand that a remote worker is not like an in-house employee and the issues they face are fundamentally different.

How to support your remote workers

  • Consider tailoring benefits for your remote employees. These may include benefits that get them out of the house: think gym membership perks, co-working space credits (discussed below), or networking opportunities with industry groups.
  • Connect remote workers with other team members living in the same region. Knowing someone nearby, even just the same time zone, can be a huge help in removing that sense of isolation. It also enables them to collaborate or engage in discussions about projects they’re working on more easily. Three of our UK remote workers happen to live in the same area and like to catch up for a weekly lunch.   

4. They’re having trouble getting away from work

Working at an office, we take for granted the ease of switching on and off and the value of our commute to and from work every day, allowing us to get in the mindset for work and wind down for home time. For a remote worker at home, their office is a mental construct: can they ever really switch off? This is even more common when working in a different time zone than the HQ office and they feel an obligation to be constantly available.

How you can help your remote workers switch off

  • Fund the use of co-working spaces like WeWork or IWG. Giving remote employees the option to opt into a co-working space can help on three levels: 1. they help employees separate work and home life, 2. they build a level of consideration and care that non-remote employees feel in their office, and 3. they offer opportunities for users to interact and build a sense of community.
  • Consider an element of your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) to fund counselling from an external entity to help provide direction on ways to break unhealthy work habits.

It’s very clear that along with the positive aspects of remote working there are some negative considerations that are crucial to the success of these arrangements.

Remember that employees are often unwilling to speak up about these issues because they don’t want to be perceived as “weak” or high maintenance. On top of this, the feelings they are having are often intangible and difficult to articulate.  How do you tell your manager that you are feeling disconnected and lonely? But there are solutions: and it’s critical that these challenges are raised early as potential issues and that there are solutions available. As we’ve covered here, there are several ways that you can improve your management style to meet best practice and improve the level of motivation of your remote employees. Investing and making changes that support your remote people will prove invaluable to your team and company. If you work remotely yourself, there is nothing better than leading by example. If you don’t, start with the little things: engage your RW and create a safe space to talk.  

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