working remotely
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Nick Thompson, Director, ENGAGE, discusses why working remotely can be good for business during these uncertain times

It’s understandable that the latest threat to our working and personal lives is under ever-increasing scrutiny. Coronavirus is not only placing our daily routines into question for the sake of our health, but it’s also posing a growing challenge to the way we conduct business on a global scale.

One of the most pressing challenges that organisations are facing is how to quickly and seamlessly enable a remote, home-based workforce.

As more companies encourage their teams to stay away from centrally located offices, there is much to be learnt from those businesses who have already embedded a remote or home-working culture. Having to adopt this model in a time of crisis isn’t easy – but there are a lot of positives that can be reaped as a result.

Embracing virtual teams

Of course, not every business can support remote working. But those that can are in the best position they’ve ever been in to embrace it.

The remote and home working model is already promoted by many forward-thinking organisations who want to tap into the best employee base, embrace diversity and stimulate innovation, all without being restricted by simple geography.

Many more organisations already have the capabilities in place to move to this model, but haven’t yet adapted to it. Sceptics among them may question whether this really is a model for long-term business success.

Much of this resistance boils down to trust, or rather the lack of it. Indeed, one of the most significant barriers to adoption is senior management resistance: either aren’t comfortable with this style of working because people aren’t under their nose, or they’ve had a previous bad experience.

When circumstances dictate that remote working simply has to happen, this barrier is removed – and opens up new opportunities for the entire business and its workforce.

Engagement doesn’t rely on location

There is an ongoing belief that management is best conducted with managers and team in close proximity to each other, and a view that success is best achieved when managers are physically embedded within their teams.

However, our research tells a different story.

An increasing number of our own engagement clients now provide us with an identifier showing whether the individual who fills in the survey is locally managed or remotely managed.

The early evidence from the data we’ve obtained so far is compelling – and delivers reassurance to those employers who are not experienced with a home-working culture:

  • Remotely managed employees (RMEs) are no less engaged than locally managed employees; if anything, they tend to be a little more engaged.
  • RMEs tend to receive a good level of ‘management’; the employee-manager relationship doesn’t necessarily suffer just because individuals are not physically together.
  • Regular structured check-ins between managers and employees are more likely to happen with RMEs, resulting in good quality conversations including a personal check-in as well as project-related barriers and successes, developmental progress and a review of key downward and upward communication.
  • If a check-in needs to be cancelled, it is almost always re-scheduled so rarely missed – less so than if locally managed.
  • Videoconferencing is one of the most popular tools for check-ins, and delivers a much more personal, interactive experience for RMEs than voice calling.

Remote workers are empowered

When we dig beneath the surface of our research qualitatively, we find further evidence that remote working can be good for business.

Remote employees enjoy the way they work and relish the fact that they aren’t being micro-managed.

They feel empowered and trusted by their managers to do their job, without needing constant physical supervision. This does require managers themselves to be organised about what they need their teams to do, and forces them to consider individual workloads and circumstances more rigorously. But that seems to be a naturally positive outcome of a remote working approach.

In fact, in many organisations we’ve worked with, the engagement levels of remotely managed employees are higher than those of centrally located teams. Further in-depth research we’ve conducted here has revealed that not only are they more engaged, they are also more likely to:

  • Be advocates of their organisation
  • Be more loyal to the business and their manager
  • Score higher than non-remote workers across most survey dimensions.

Overall, our findings correspond to those of other survey agencies, which report that remote workers are happier, feel more valued, are more connected, and show less turnover.

Productive, positive management

Of course, not everything is perfect.

One of the key challenges for those working from home is a loss of team camaraderie and support, particularly if there is no opportunity for social contact with colleagues and managers.

This is where positive organisational and leadership culture and behaviours are critical. Organisations who are only now embarking on a home-worker-based model, or who are advising sections of their workforce to work remotely, need to consider how they are going to communicate and connect with their teams.

Our statistical analysis shows that, for RMEs, the organisation’s leaders play a much greater part in their overall engagement than they do in the lives of non-RMEs.

To successfully manage a remote workforce, even if that’s on a temporary basis or just an element of the wider employee base, leaders and managers must share and role-model a positive approach to the concept of remote working.

And this comes back to the issue of trust: believing in and empowering employees to do what needs to be done rather than constantly providing oversight.

Implementing best practice

This is where our research paints a positive picture – RMEs receive a better quality of management than non-RMEs in three key areas:

  • Delivering the basics – including regular check-ins, keeping employees informed, enjoying a productive working environment
  • Creating an emotional connection – employees feel empowered, trusted, cared for and that their opinions are valued
  • Support to develop and grow – including career development, connections, recognition and fair evaluation.

Our research fits with wider existing academic research that supports the theory that managerial monitoring strategies can be what makes or breaks remote working effectiveness.

In essence, this delivers five core pieces of best practice for organisations to take forward:

  1. Don’t be scared of remote working

It can be an asset to your business and you may find new, improved ways of working. Remote managers do a great job with their distributed workforce, and can also help to improve the way in which centralised teams work by sharing techniques for more structured and organised management. They can also serve as a reminder of how to get the basics right, and how to form emotional connections with teams as well as focusing on individual development.

  1. Remote management can have organisation-wide impact

The success of many remotely structured teams should prompt questions about how managers are recruited, where they should sit, and how they should be trained. What does success look like as organisations expand and adapt to the changing needs of their workforces?

  1. Senior leader behaviours are critical

They have a measurable impact on the engagement of remote staff. It’s important to understand that employees without a local manager are much more dependent on higher level leadership to create a broader, engaging environment on a day-to-day basis.

  1. Mangers must achieve a careful balance

Regular check-ins at a team and individual level are critical to empowering your workforce, but you have to be careful not to micro-manage. Have a clear business agenda, but make sure you leave space for the ‘water cooler chat’ – we are, at the end of the day, social beings.

  1. Use all the tech at your disposal to stay connected

Regardless of location, relationships rely on communication. There is a wealth of technology available that can help bring the human element to the remote employee-manager relationship, and it’s critical to remember that any form of the videoconference is better than none.

With the full impact of Coronavirus yet to be felt, how well organisations can adjust their approaches and attitudes to a distributed, remote workforce will be a key contributor to their ability to weather the storm.

In the longer term, it will be interesting to see how remotely managed employee bases expand, and whether organisations continue to implement distributed teams out of necessity – or whether they do so because it makes good business sense.


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