Remote workers feeling excluded: Study

Consistent communication with manager one way to alleviate distance
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/11/2017

Off-site workers are more likely to feel overlooked by their on-site colleagues, according to a survey of 1,153 workers in the United States, as physical isolation contributes to virtual isolation. 

Remote employees are more likely to say their colleagues “don’t fight for my priorities,” “say bad things behind my back,” “make changes to a project without warning me” and “lobby against me with others,” found the study published in the Harvard Business Review.

Overall, remote employees find working through and with others becomes more challenging. Workplace politics are more pervasive and difficult, and they have a harder time resolving conflicts when they arise, according to the study.

Off-site workers also reported larger, negative impacts to these challenges, including productivity, costs, deadlines, morale, stress and retention.

“(Today), we have relationships where we are supposed to get high-trust, rapid-turnaround, collaborative work done with people that we’ve never met before,” said Joseph Grenny, co-founder of VitalSmarts, a corporate training company in Salt Lake City, and one of the study’s authors.

“What we know is distance decreases feelings of trust and reciprocity; managers have to over-compensate for distance.”

Recommendations

After questioning more than 800 of the respondents about what makes a good manager, the study’s authors identified seven best practices:

•Check in frequently and consistently.

•Use face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact.

•Demonstrate exemplary communication skills.

•Make expectations explicit.

•Be available.

•Demonstrate familiarity and comfort with technology.

•Prioritize relationships.

Managers can alleviate the distance by fostering more of a personal relationship with remote workers, according to Grenny, who recommended sending “a personal note, checking in on family, trying to just make a personal connection.”

As well, effective supervisors should schedule one-on-one meetings and add time to scheduled interactions.

“Don’t just get through your 15-minute agenda, make it a 20-minute plan,” said Grenny, and talk about something personal.

“The tendency when we have a scheduled call is to try and get our work done; what you miss out on is the unplanned interaction that happens the five minutes before the meeting or the five minutes after the meeting — that usually is the substance of personal connection.”

By checking in, managers can facilitate workers discussing any potential concerns, said Alex Panetta, head of sales at Collage, an HR technology provider in Toronto.

“We have remote workers in another province, and for us it’s super important that I connect with them on a daily basis, even if it’s a quick five-minute phone call or using one of our chat systems, just to see if anything’s going on,” he said. “It lets the remote worker feel as though they are being heard, and that’s the most important thing.”

“The luxury of being a part of a bigger office is that you can vent — whether it’s frustration or vent a success — or just express yourself in real-time,” said Panetta. “As a remote worker, a big challenge that we face is that they will kind of bottle it up until they get that moment where they check in with somebody.”

A weekly message to the team, something that makes them feel part of the group, is a good way to establish that personal connection, according to Susan Hamade, director of operations at Segal, an accounting firm in Toronto.

“Share photographs of each other, make sure that IT has technology (where) you can do a team meeting where somebody can dial in and you can see their physical presence in the room. That to me is vitally important.”

“If you structure yourself in a way that people can reach out to each other, where a couple of times a year you put people face-to-face where they at least get a sense of who that person is, you develop relationships,” she said.

When considering the benefits of setting up remote employees, many companies “greedily anticipated” cost savings — but bringing workers together is a best practice to establish good relations, said Grenny.

“Trust and reciprocity are the immune systems of an organization: They are what inoculate you against politics and pettiness and conflicts — all the things that tax an organization’s ability to get things done,” he said.

“If there is no personal connection, if I have no sense of social obligation to the group that I am working with, you can expect minimal retention and minimal engagement.”

It’s about more than just remote workers; it’s about managers making sure everybody’s feeling part of a team, said Deb LaMere, vice-president of employee experience at Ceridian in Minneapolis.

And regularly planning face-to-face meetings is crucial to continuing that connection, said Henry Goldbeck, president of Goldbeck Recruiting in Vancouver.

“You have to make an effort: You either have a system or you have to make an effort,” he said. “It’s so easy to not include them because ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’… You have to make an effort to regularly schedule contact.”

The meetings can be social or work-related but “make sure they are included and make sure it happens regularly,” he said.

“It shouldn’t just be social; there should be reasons to contact and it should be consistent.”

Employers would also do well to bring teams together in the same room on a regular basis, said Grenny.

“It pays an important dividend if you invest in bringing everybody together in a region on occasion.”

The role of HR

HR can also play a role in creating monthly activities to keep people engaged, said Panetta.

“I’ve seen remote offices doing speed-date, random hangouts with employees at HQ,” he said, which was “very effective in keeping people involved.”

HR’s role is to make sure that communication is regular, consistent and people are not checking up on people, but checking in on people, said Hamade.

“Sometimes, you have to make the investment and put people in the same room: Put them on a train, meet halfway, do a team meeting off-site where everybody gets to come.”

It’s the responsibility of an HR professional to help managers with those tools and give them the coaching and guidance they need, said LaMere.

“If you’ve got a person who is a brand new manager and they’ve got a team that has a lot of remote workers to it, there’s some training to put them through so they know how to work with the remote workforce and be able to engage them in other ways.”

Establishing the culture of connection must begin early when setting up remote workers.

“If you let it go within the first few months — without making it a priority — it makes it much more difficult to those two different cultures,” said Panetta, but it’s about “just being as inclusive as possible from a cultural perspective, and it doesn’t have to be anything over the top, but really involving them in a lot of decisions you make on a day-to-day (basis).”

And corporate values can be nurtured despite the physical distances.

“When you think of culture, it’s not just what’s happening in the workplace itself — workplace experience is so much beyond that. It’s ‘What is your value set? What do you believe in as an organization? What is your corporate social responsibility?’” said LaMere.

“It’s not just what’s happening in the workplace, because workplace culture can be at your own desk, in your own home, that you are feeling connected to the organization; it’s a mission that you want to feel passion for, that you believe in, and you want to strive to make it the best company ever.”

“From a culture perspective, if you’ve got that consistent culture, it shouldn’t matter where you are at; you should feel part of it and passionate for it.”

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