In a distributed office, how do you maintain culture and support remote workers?

Remote work has become a common aspect of modern corporate life, bringing with it a new set of challenges when it comes to building organizational culture. Some organizations still struggle with the idea of some employees not being physically present in the office, even as they embrace their newfound ability to recruit talent from around the world and reduce their office footprint. Others eagerly adopt the remote work ethos, but then struggle to provide equal support and opportunities for coworkers who are not physically present.

As novel as remote work sounds in modern organizational discourse, in some respects, it’s been going on for quite a long time. In the past, many organizations with products or services to sell employed remote workers to travel around the country on sales trips.  They had a salesforce that worked in various regions and who operated with a great deal of independence.

In some parts of our economy, and in some aspects of the workspace, physical presence doesn’t matter at all. But in human terms, personal contact is still an important part of the work we do. Many leaders, when considering a move to a more distributed workforce, ask questions such as:

  • How do we keep our employees connected?
  • How do we make sure they’re getting work done?
  • How do we provide them with the same opportunities for professional advancement and connectivity as their in-office counterparts?

As challenging as these questions seem, businesses can address them with careful planning, supportive leadership, and a commitment to the organization’s purpose and values.

Setting expectations and accountability with remote workers.

A few years ago in our own company, one of our client managers was preparing to move and wanted to split time between working from home and making trips to our home office. We valued the employee and we wanted to make it work, so we started drafting up a list of requirements to make sure they could complete their work from a new location.

As we began the planning process and started developing a list of standards and expectations for the employee, one of the questions I began to ask was: are these the same standards we hold our people to in our home office? It started to become clear that we were trying to manage the employee based on our own internal assumptions (if you are not here where we can see you – you might not be working as hard or on the right stuff).  We were creating a list of things to increase our comfort with the situation, not based on the expectations that we have for every other employee who worked onsite.

It’s clear that there must be accountability in terms of what remote workers are expected to do. If a remote employee is supposed to complete a project by a certain time and misses their deadline, it will cause problems. That is true for any employee regardless of where they work.  However, the danger for many remote workers is that they will end up out of the loop on some of their tasks, that their deadlines won’t properly be communicated, or that they’ll end up overburdened with work with no one around to see how stressed they are. When employees aren’t physically present, communication becomes critical to the success of all involved.  What can be shared as you are passing by a colleague in the same office requires a proactive reaching out in a virtual setting.  The good news is that there are many tools at the dispose of employees today to keep people informed, clarify expectations and provide regular feedback.

However, if trust issues do arise, it’s important to treat remote workers in a way comparable to that of in-office staff. How do you hold the workers who are physically present accountable? If there’s an error on a project in your office, how do you handle it? When there are unmet expectations, to what do you attribute that misunderstanding?

Providing equal opportunity for promotion and professional growth.

Finally, remote work can be especially tricky with younger generations, who are both more likely to want to work remotely, and yet also focused on career path and promotions. While remote work often offers these employees more flexibility in the work they accept, it can also leave them stranded on the corporate ladder, with less visibility and perhaps fewer opportunities for advancement.

This is because most of us are more likely to favor the coworker we see every day in the office over the one we video chat with once a week during the all-team meeting. The additional contact with our in-person colleague can result in a stronger working relationship, even if the remote worker is equally qualified.

However, the danger for organizations is that, if they fail to provide opportunities for their remote workers to advance, these individuals will leave to work elsewhere. This can deprive an organization of some of its key talent, as well as costing them resources in the recruitment and retraining of new employees.

Leaders must make a conscious effort to consider remote candidates for promotion. There will be some roles that must be done onsite, and in such cases an employee may have to choose between the flexibility of working remotely or being present on a regular basis.  It is important to thoughtfully and objectively evaluate the ‘work’ that needs to be done and then considering who is best suited for that work.  In many cases ‘where’ the work gets done will be negotiable, but having employees committed to the organization’s purpose and goals – and living by the values of the organization should always be among the non-negotiables.

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