Unsupported, harassed and ignored – why remote employees are feeling more isolated

Working remotely is a highly sought-after job perk. Having the flexibility to live and work where you please, regardless of corporate headquarters, often draws people to take one job over another.

But while popular and convenient, the latest research from VitalSmarts the American affiliate of The Human Edge, corporate culture experts based in South Africa, shows that not everything comes up roses when working remotely. Often, “out of sight” really does mean “out of mind.”

VitalSmarts asked its newsletter readers what it’s like to work from home. Of the 1,153 that responded, 52 percent work, at least some time, from a home office.

However, this is a luxury which creates some animosity and is often frowned upon. “Respondents lamented that when they do work from home they felt their colleagues didn’t treat them equally. Specifically, remote employees felt their onsite colleagues don’t fight for their priorities. They found that there was negative gossip about them behind their back, that changes to projects were made without warning, and they were often lobbied against by a group of employees,” says Helene Vermaak, The Human Edge business director.

When they experience these challenges, remote employees have a hard time resolving them. “In fact, the majority (84 percent) say they let the concern drag on for a few days or more, while 47 percent let it drag on for a few weeks or more.”

“And these problems don’t just affect relationships. Remote employees see larger negative impacts from these challenges than their onsite colleagues on results like productivity, costs, deadlines, morale, stress, and retention,” adds Vermaak.

But since working remotely isn’t going away, how can we compensate for the toll that distance takes on relationships? According to the research, the success of remote teams hinge on the quality of communication – most importantly, the manager’s ability to communicate with both remote and onsite employees.

“To identify the specific communication skills integral to co-located teams, our partner asked survey respondents to describe a manager who is especially good at managing remote employees.

“We received 853 accounts detailing specific management skills characteristic of the most successful co-located teams. Managers who use these seven skills will find that not only are their teams happier and healthier, they are also more successful,” says Vermaak.

Top 7 Skills for Managing Remote Employees 

  • Frequent and consistent check-ins.Nearly half of respondents (46 percent) said the most successful managers checked in frequently and regularly with remote employees. Check-ins varied from daily to bi-weekly to weekly but were always consistent and usually entailed a standing meeting or scheduled one-on-one.
  • Face-to-face or Voice-to-voice.One in four respondents said managers who insisted on some face time with remote employees were more successful. Make a visit to remote employees or schedule a mandatory in-office day once a week, month, quarter, or year. Use this time for team building. If in-person meetings are not possible, use video conferencing technology or pick up the phone to ensure colleagues occasionally see one another’s face or hear one another’s voice.
  • Exemplify stellar communication skills.Respondents emphasised the importance of general, stellar communication with co-located teams. The most successful managers are good listeners, communicate trust and respect, enquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of over-communicating.
  • Explicit expectations.When it comes to managing remote teams, being clear about expectations is mandatory. Managers who are direct with their expectations of both remote and onsite employees have happier teams who can deliver to those expectations. People are never left in the dark about projects, roles, deadlines, etc.
  • Always available.Successful managers are available quickly and at all times of the day. They go above and beyond to maintain an open door policy for both remote and onsite employees—making themselves available across multiple time zones and through multiple means of technology (IM, Skype, email, phone, WhatsApp, text, etc.). Remote employees can always count on their manager to respond to pressing concerns.
  • Technology maven.Successful managers use multiple means of communication to connect with their remote workers. They don’t just resort to phone or email, but are familiar with video conferencing technologies and a variety of services like Skype,  Adobe Connect, and more. They often tailor their communication style and medium to each employee.
  • Prioritise relationships.Team building and camaraderie are important for any team and co-located teams are no exception. Good managers go out of their way to form personal bonds with remote employees. They use check-in time to ask about their personal life, families, and hobbies. They allow team meeting time for “watercooler” conversation so the whole team can create personal connections and strengthen relationships.

“There was a study conducted two years ago that showed that the South African economy could be boosted by R17 billion annually. But there are plenty of other benefits to remote working, such as a reduction in traffic congestion, increased productivity, improved morale and even work-life balance. If managers can keep up with communication and get remote and on-site employees on board and co-operating positively, the advantages could benefit more than just the remote worker,” adds Vermaak.

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our Crucial Conversations public training workshops in a city near you.