How to address the pitfalls of remote work

The ability to work remotely is an important job feature for many candidates. The 2019 State of Remote Work report published by social media management platform Buffer found that 99% of respondents want to work remotely at least part of the time for the rest of their careers. Another survey by Staples released in February 2019 found that 64% of employees work remotely at least part of the time and that 67% would quit if their workplace became less flexible.

But, even though remote work is popular, it’s still not perfect. Remote workers face key challenges that can affect engagement, satisfaction, and productivity, says Hailley Griffis, head of public relations with Buffer. In fact, another 2019 survey by digital workplace solution provider Igloo found that seven in 10 of these workers face challenges they wouldn’t face in an office setting.

“One of the things people miss out on the most is that communication and connection, especially in a situation where you have a company that has both office workers and remote workers, because they might not be considering this,” Griffis says.

Being always on

While in-office employees have the physical separation of an external workplace as well as the psychological cues of shutting down work and leaving the office, people who work from home may feel like they never leave work. That can lead to reduced productivity and burnout. The Buffer survey found that 22% of workers struggle with disconnecting from work.

At Buffer, where the entire workforce is remote, employees publish their work hours on Slack and on their Google calendars. If someone tries to schedule a meeting outside of work hours, they’re alerted to that fact. The company also has rules about communication channels like Slack.

Managers also keep an eye on correspondence time stamps. “Having leadership lead by example and then having colleagues sort of look out for one another and be like, ‘Hey, isn’t it 8 p.m. where you are? How come you’re still online?’” Griffis says. It’s one thing if a remote team member is working late because they took advantage of their job flexibility to take care of something else in the afternoon. But there might be a problem if it happens regularly, she says.

Feeling lonely and disconnected

And while they may feel a nonstop connection to work, they may be lonely, too. The 2019 Buffer survey found that roughly one in five do. And left to their own devices, remote workers can respond more negatively about work than in-office peers. A 2017 study by leadership training firm VitalSmarts found that 52% of remote workers didn’t feel as though they were treated equally by their colleagues. Forty-one percent of remote employees thought coworkers said bad things behind their backs versus 31% of onsite employees.

At Seeq, an industrial-process software company with more than 100 virtual employees, building personal connections is a priority. The company uses videoconferencing to host everything from Halloween parties (yes, they dress up) and baby showers to company book club meetings. Each day, team members can participate in “sharing time,” where one team member spends 15 minutes presenting on a topic of interest related to their life outside of work. Getting to know each other on a personal level overcomes many of the challenges of remote work, says Michael Risse, Seeq vice president and chief marketing officer.

“You’ve got Slack, you’ve got Zoom, you’ve got email, you’ve got Vox, you’ve got some internal tools that we built for virtual officing, and those enable all the communication. But then it’s putting a structure and plan in place to ensure you’re communicating about the nonwork parts of life,” Risse says. He says Seeq employees know more about their distributed coworkers than they did about previous coworkers who worked in the same office.

Missing out on key insights

Remote workers may also miss out on impromptu meetings and conversations where important information is exchanged. The Igloo report found that 57% say they miss out on important information because it was communicated in person, while 55% say they were excluded from meetings or brainstorms because of their remote location. This can affect productivity and effectiveness.

That’s a concern for Alex Chamberlain, marketing group manager at ERA Environmental Management Solutions, an environmental software and consulting company. Chamberlain works remotely, supervising a team of four employees in the office. He says there’s a lot of “organic” conversation and information exchange that happens in the office. He has to work hard to be sure he’s not missing anything important.

To overcome the information gap, he holds brief daily and longer weekly session with his team members to get up to speed, the latter to review what was accomplished that week. The team uses Skype to stay in contact throughout the day, and Chamberlain tries to get into the Montreal office where his team is based at least twice a month for face time and meetings. The need for communication also affects his hiring decisions.

“Part of what I consider my job as the manager is, especially when it comes to the HR and hiring and bringing people into the team, is we put a lot more focus on culture. So, making sure that the people that we’re bringing in are really communicative,” he says.

Falling off the career path

While some remote workers fear that out of sight means out of mind when it comes to advancement, those concerns may be unfounded. An August 2019 report from HR software firm Ultimate Software titled “The Remote Workforce Becomes the Empowered Workforce” found that remote workers are 40% more likely to have been promoted within the past year. They’re also 27% more likely to feel there is opportunity for growth in their current job, the report found.

To quell those fears, remote workers need to be informed of performance expectations and the opportunities for growth that exist, says leadership expert Kevin Eikenberry, author of The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. For managers, that’s a concern when it comes to retaining talent.

“[As a leader], I’ve got to understand it as the leader or as the manager what my team members’ longer-term goals and aspirations are. Because that’s one of the things that people want. They want to know that they’re being looked out for. They want to know that they have a boss who cares,” Eikenberry says.

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