Remote working has become the rule rather than the exception, due to the pandemic and there is a consensus to say that the shift towards it is irreversible. In my last article on the future of work, I explored some of the opportunities offered by distance work, for companies as well as employees, in both developed and emerging countries. This time, I’d like to focus more on some of the challenges organisations face when remote working becomes the rule or when they cease to have a central physical location and become only a network of people working together from different locations.
Many of the challenges related to distance work, such as the possibility of feeling isolated, the danger of working too much or the opposite, the bridging of different time zones, successful on-boarding of new employees, efficient team communication or the difficulty to monitor employee performance and productivity are well identified and abundantly addressed. Even the important question of how to foster a sense of belonging and create a solid common culture is something that is recognised and for which solutions have been proposed (better organization and information, planned social interaction, regular feedback, etc.). However, there are three areas that do not get that much attention and can be critical for success:
Development and mentoring of junior employees
Apprentices or young graduates without prior work experience have a greater demand for social interaction, supervision, coaching and mentoring, not only directly related to their function, but also to the rules of interactions in a work environment, the codes and customs, etc. They are often not able to work autonomously and also need to exchange, compete and bond with their peers to find their place in the organisation and the greater society. This presents a formidable challenge when everybody is working remotely and could damage their career permanently as they miss some of the basics.
A lack of contextual information leading to less informed decisions
Even if one is connected via videoconferencing and other technical means and exchanges regularly with teammates and stakeholders, there is a lot of information that is normally gathered “along the way” when interacting with colleagues in a physical location (we hear conversations around us, we can see the activity in and around the building, we exchange with people from other teams at coffee breaks or lunch, walk through the factory, etc.). This contextual information provides us with a wider picture and the clues we gather can help us make better decisions. In a situation of remote working, these subtle signs are not visible and there is a tendency to focus only on one’s direct responsibilities and tasks. Thus all team members lose a little bit of information, sometimes with dire consequences. In the past, these issues could arise when decisions were for example taken by one country for another country with insufficient consideration of local circumstances, culture or client behaviour, but the problem now grows to include employees at all levels and in all locations.
A lack of emotional understanding leading to misunderstandings
Misunderstandings between co-workers arise daily: we ask ourselves why a certain teammate has worked alone on a project we were supposed to do together, why the tone of an email we received seems aggressive, why we were not consulted for a certain decision, etc… Being in the same physical location gives us an opportunity to address these issues in an indirect way, maybe beginning a casual conversation about some other topic and then discussing the issue once trust is re-established, or to see that our colleague has had other issues unrelated to ourselves that might have affected their way to communicate, etc. In this way, a lot of misunderstandings can be cleared before they grow to become actual “elephants in the room” with dire consequences on team spirit and productivity.
While there are no magic solutions to these issues, there are ways to mitigate them. First of all, it is clear that some “physical” interaction is and will remain necessary in spite of ever improving technology (many companies are working on creating virtual office environments or improved videoconferencing solutions allowing “near-physical” interaction, for example with holograms, and clearly, state-of-the-art IT-infrastructure at both ends is an important part of any solution). Where it is not possible to meet in large groups, smaller teams may meet or there can be bilateral encounters. When physical meetings are too few or completely impossible, there are still some things that can be done to mitigate, such as:
- Transforming mentoring/coaching of young employees into a very structured process, rather than something that is just a side activity. This also means giving employees in mentoring roles more time and discharging them from some other duties
- Provide specific peer to peer interaction platforms reserved for the group of trainees, apprentices, etc.
- Provide opportunities for junior employees to compete in a playful way and make themselves visible (why not also consider using “gamification”?)
- Consciously organize exchanges between departments and functions in the company that would not normally formally interact frequently
- Increase the sharing of information about the company, its projects and its culture (values, expected behaviours, etc.) with employees, while encouraging feedback and comments
- Consciously and systematically use a certain amount of time (for example at the beginning of a meeting) for informal discussions and sharing of everyday life and feelings
- Always use the video in calls when possible, take pains to greet and consider everybody even more than under normal circumstances
- Organize teambuilding events and common activities like training (physically or online)
- Constantly give feedback and provide the rationale for decisions taken and actions pursued, including always contextual information
In short, invest the time gained as a result of the higher efficiency of distance work to strengthen the human interaction and the bonding within the group rather than going for the highest productivity at all costs.