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Keep culture top of mind... even if workers are out of sight

Steps you can take to ensure remote workers feel connected and part of the team.
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Keep culture top of mind... even if workers are out of sight

Keep culture top of mind... even if workers are out of sight

20 August 2019

Technology is enabling more and more employees to work from home or at other locations remote from the central workplace. It may be tempting to just leave them be, but what can you do to encourage and support a strong work/team culture?

If culture is ignored, you may find the advantages and drawbacks of working remotely can cancel each other out. The advantages are obvious: many employees find that they are much more productive when not in a central office, and there may be big time gains for them from removal of commuting time, “get ready” time, etc. But on the other hand, a bunch of employees who work remotely may find it very hard to get to know each other and learn what each other actually does. It will be harder to create and maintain a sense of “team” and shared purpose. 

Once employees have experienced working from home, most seem very reluctant to return to a more regimented office routine, so it is important to ensure that the arrangements will work effectively long-term.

Improving connections

As with any culture-building program, the first step is to evaluate the existing culture. To what extent do remotely-working employees identify with each other, with the overall organisation, and with being a “team”? What gaps (eg in communication and demarcation) and overlaps exist? Is there important information that is not reaching some employees? Do employees fully understand how their role interacts with others? And for that matter what their role contributes to the organisation mission and goals?

Setting “common time”

In most cases, there will need to be some degree of face-to-face communication built in. The challenge is to do it without disrupting the benefits gained by employees from working remotely.

Some possible steps include the following:
  • If all employees live relatively nearby (eg in same city or town), set an agreed time each week or month when everyone needs to be present in the central office. If that is impracticable, a compromise is to have as many as possible in-house and the rest in contact at the same time, eg via Skype.
  • If they are geographically dispersed, set a time when everyone has to be available online and able to converse with each other using face-to-face technology. Teleconferences are not the solution, as someone can hit “mute” and not participate.

Consult with all team members who work remotely and seek agreement on some rules regarding the above. Take the time to understand each employee’s individual requirements and preferences, and accommodate them as much as possible. Review the arrangements periodically to ensure they are meeting needs.

Building one-on-one relationships

Another important aspect of maintaining connections is to foster a sense of “belonging” to the organisation – sometimes easy to overlook when you seldom encounter the employee face-to-face. 

This requires diligent attention to keeping everyone “in the loop” with work communications. Regular one-on-one discussions with each employee are recommended, and should include asking questions such as the following:
  • What’s the best way to keep you connected with your other team members?
  • What do you believe brings out the best in you at work?
  • What do I need to do (as your manager) to help you do your best?

Create and maintain a shared team purpose

Work teams require a clear and shared purpose. This can be created via consultation with all team members and reference to the organisation’s vision and mission statements. 

From there, each employee needs to understand how his/her individual contribution helps to achieve that purpose. In turn, that will establish clarity and accountability. 

The above is of course fundamental whether employees are working inside or outside the central workplace. But it may require some extra effort with employees working remotely, again because of the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” risks.

Other initiatives

Finally, it is important to include remotely-working employees as much as possible in team-building initiatives that are provided to in-house employees.

Actions can include:
  • Ensure they are invited to on-site social events and celebrations of successes.
  • Include them in activities such as sports tipping competitions.
  • For important events such as “state of the nation” addresses by the CEO, either invite them to attend in person, listen-in/watch from home, or send a copy of proceedings afterwards (plus the opportunity to comment and ask questions).
  • Arrange occasional “meet and greet” on-site events for employees who would otherwise seldom or never attend the central workplace.
  • Ensure they have reliable access to support services, eg in-house IT, to help deal with issues that may arise while working remotely. 
Some line managers may require training and coaching to effectively manage employees who work remotely. “If I can’t see them, maybe they aren’t working” is still quite a common mindset, as is the attitude that if someone is not prepared to come to a central workplace “where the action is”, then maybe he/she “lacks commitment”. A role for HR practitioners to identify when these prejudices exist and help the managers to overcome them.

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