hen it comes to virtual teams, if you’re out of sight, you’re also out of mind. While more and more people are working remotely, our recent study suggests that unless we take extra measures to build trust and connection with colleagues, we pay dearly for doing so.
Long gone are the days when most teams not only worked physically side-by-side but also lived in the same cities, ate at the same restaurants, and even had kids who attended the same schools. Now, teams are spread out across different sites and geographies. Many people work with colleagues they have never met face-to-face or even spoken to on the phone. In these settings, relationships are often mediated by technology, and it can be tough to build trust. Our latest research shows that remote workers, and the managers tasked with keeping them focused and engaged, face inherent challenges that cannot be ignored.
We polled 1,153 employees, and 52% said they work, at least some of the time, from their home office. And when they do, many feel their colleagues don’t treat them equally. Remote employees are more likely to report feeling that colleagues mistreat them and leave them out. Specifically, they worry that coworkers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without telling them in advance, lobby against them, and don’t fight for their priorities.
Overall, remote employees may enjoy the freedom to live and work where they please, but working through and with others becomes more challenging. They report that workplace politics are more pervasive and difficult, and when conflicts arise they have a harder time resolving them. When remote members of a team encountered common workplace challenges, 84% said the concern dragged on for a few days or more, while 47% admitted to letting it drag on for weeks or more.
And these problems don’t just affect relationships. Remote employees report larger, negative impacts of these challenges than their on-site colleagues on results, including productivity, costs, deadlines, morale, stress, and retention.
While managers may be tempted to respond to these findings by ending remote work programs and bringing everyone back to the office, we don’t recommend that. Instead, they should encourage habits that lead to feelings of trust, connection, and shared purpose.
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We asked our survey respondents to describe a manager who is especially good at managing remote teams. Most were able to, but a few said they’d never had, heard of, or seen one. We asked respondents to share positive stories and describe specific skills these managers practiced to facilitate productive working relationships with remote workers. From over 800 informants, we identified seven best practices:
Check in frequently and consistently. Nearly half of respondents (46%) said the most successful managers checked in frequently and regularly with remote employees. The cadence of the check-ins varied from daily to biweekly to weekly, but they were always consistent and usually entailed a standing meeting or scheduled one-on-ones. Don’t leave your remote employees alone; make sure you are in touch with them often.
Use face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact. One in four respondents said managers who insisted on some face time with remote employees were more successful. Make a visit to remote employees or schedule a mandatory in-office day once a week, month, quarter, or year. Use this time for team building. If in-person meetings are not possible, at a minimum use video conferencing technology or pick up the phone to ensure colleagues occasionally see one another’s face or hear one another’s voice.
Demonstrate exemplary communication skills. Respondents emphasized the importance of stellar communication with their manager and their co-located colleagues. The most successful managers are good listeners, communicate trust and respect, inquire about workload and progress without micromanaging, and err on the side of overcommunicating, all while modeling the same behaviors for others on the team.
Make expectations explicit. When it comes to managing remote teams, being clear about expectations is mandatory. Managers who are direct with their expectations of both remote and on-site employees have happier teams that can live up to those expectations. People are never left in the dark about projects, roles, or deadlines.
Be available. Our respondents said successful managers are available during remote employees’ working hours, no matter their time zone. They go above and beyond to maintain an open-door policy for both remote and on-site employees — making themselves available across multiple time zones and through different means of technology (IM, Slack, Skype, email, phone, text). Remote employees should always be able to count on their manager to respond to pressing concerns, no matter where they work.
Demonstrate familiarity and comfort with technology. Successful managers don’t just resort to phone or email; they are familiar with video conferencing technologies and a variety of services like Skype, Slack, IM, Adobe Connect, and more. They often tailor their communication style and medium to each employee.
Prioritize relationships. Team building and camaraderie are important for any team, but good managers go out of their way to form personal bonds with remote employees. They use check-in time to ask about their personal life, families, and hobbies. They designate team meeting time for “water cooler” conversation so that the whole team can create personal connections and strengthen relationships.
Our research shows that a lack of close contact with people inhibits the formation of trust, connection, and mutual purpose — three ingredients of a healthy social system. However, managers who practice these seven types of intentional behaviors can increase the likelihood that “out of sight” does not lead to being left out.