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Young boy with can and string to his ear, highlighting the principles of remote working

The communication principles that will make your remote workforce happier

  • 6 min read

Research shows happier employees are more productive, but this can be a challenge for companies adopting agile working.

Pilar Orti is the director of Virtual Not Distant, which works to help organisations transition to a more ‘office optional’ approach. She works with organisations and their managers to help introduce remote working or agile working in their organisations. Her consultancy services blend coaching, training and facilitation.

The drive to introduce remote working in UK firms shows no sign of slowing.

Firstly, it’s fulfilling a desire to save on real estate costs, with firms introducing remote working to save on desk space.

Spiralling rents and business rate increases have meant property costs have become a real burden for many.

Aligned with this shift, there is a growing trend for the more progressive organisations to explore how remote working can support wellbeing and happiness.

Remote workers have the flexibility to work where and when they like, which can often make them more productive than office-bound employees.

A commute in heavily packed public transport of 90 minutes every day can also mean that employees start the day with a feeling of stress; arriving home with only enough energy to crash out on the sofa.

Giving the choice to cut this commute by working remotely – whether full-time or even for just the odd day once in a while - can potentially decrease a person’s stress. Just having the choice to work away from the office can increase an employee’s sense of autonomy, which is often linked to satisfaction.

However, there are potential pitfalls to working away from the office.

Staying connected

One of the most common questions I am asked is how to address happiness and connectivity among remote workers.

This all starts with the acknowledgement that there are things that happen spontaneously in the physical workspace, like bumping into someone in a corridor and catching up on a project, or glimpsing someone’s computer screen and spotting that you have some data that could help with what they’re working on.

There are ways of facilitating this sort of interaction for remote workers too.

If people can tell when their colleagues are online and willing to be interrupted, they can give them a virtual tap on the shoulder using Instant Messaging (IM) or a Push To Talk system, where it’s really easy to hop on an audio or video call.

Another place where social interaction can take place is in online meetings.

In the office, meetings that don’t focus solely on the work are often seen as an inefficient use of time, but in the online space, the social component becomes just as valuable.

A common practice is to spend the first five minutes on a call catching up with each other, sharing mood and context.

No agenda

Another way to facilitate social connection is to schedule a weekly ‘virtual coffee’, where colleagues can grab a drink, switch on the video camera and just talk with no agenda.

These meetings are valuable because they remind you that you are working with real people, not just with text on a screen.

When you hear a person’s voice, it allows their personality and sense of humour to come out - something that doesn’t always happen when you are communicating by text.

Informal Learning

Another aspect that is often lost when people work apart from each other is informal learning: picking up bits and pieces of information that can be useful at some point.

This can be addressed by what I call ‘Latte and Learn’ - regular informal sessions where the aim is to share learning.

We pick up a lot of information during our working lives, either through formal learning opportunities such as attending conferences, or informally, like coming across an article in a newspaper.

In the office we would share that informally but online, if we don’t create an opportunity to share, it gets lost.

So, if someone has been on a course or learned something interesting on a client call, ‘Latte and Learn’ gives them the opportunity to share their new knowledge, and for that knowledge to cascade throughout the team.

Employees who are most engaged are those who work remotely 60 to 80 per cent of the time

Building relationships

Very often, people are uncomfortable speaking up about how well they are doing at work because they don’t want to appear to be boasting, but equally they can also worry about their career progression and that their work is being overlooked.

Workers often want informal recognition from colleagues that they are doing a good job, and remote teams need to create a space for that. Software company Convert has something called a “bragging channel” in their collaboration platform, where staff can post when they have done something they are proud of.

At the same time, employees might be worried about their career progression being harmed because they are not visible in an office. Organisations should take this into account when creating talent management programmes and performance reviews.

It’s also up to the manager of a remote team to regularly catch up with their team members on a one-to-one basis and advocate for their people across the organisation.

There is still a place for occasional physical meetings too.

Research by Gallup found that those employees who are most engaged are those who work remotely 60 – 80 per cent of the time.

Strikingly, engagement drops not only for those who work remotely all the time, but also for those who are always in the office.

Here are my top five principles to guide you when supporting effective remote team working and helping remote workers stay happy in their job.

  1. Agree your boundaries
    Make sure you agree how you are going to communicate and when you are going to be available. Set expectations around reply times to messages and working hours.

  2. Keep your online appointments
    All too often, I find that people don’t give a web-video meeting the same importance as a physical one and there is a tendency to postpone or cancel it if they are busy, but these meetings are important for maintaining connectivity just as much as work.

  3. Use a variety of media
    Different people like different things, so use a mixture of video, audio, short-form written text like SMS and long-form text in collaboration platforms so no one is left out.

  4. Double check understanding
    In written communication, it is very easy to misinterpret someone!

  5. Make your work visible
    Have a regular way of communicating what you are working on, not to let people know that you’re working, but so that colleagues can benefit from what you are doing, or offer help.

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