No commute. A quiet workspace. A flexible schedule. Working remotely offers these and other unique benefits. Today, nearly 4 million adults in America, about 3 percent of the workforce, work from home occasionally – a figure that has grown by 115 percent in the past 12 years.
While a remote work environment is a perfect situation for some, many individuals and companies believe that it is isolating. Leveraging technology, such as instant messaging and video conferencing, can help keep team members connected and engaged. But while efficient and scalable, there is a perception that relying solely on technology to collaborate with colleagues leaves workers feeling disconnected from humanity.
This is not a trivial issue. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, social isolation and loneliness could become a more serious hazard to public health than obesity. With almost 40 percent of adults in the U.S. reporting feelings of loneliness in general, understanding the reality of remote work is not just about profits and losses, but about people's lives. But that reality may not be what you think. Ultimately, an effective remote culture can create much more connection for employees than a traditional office arrangement.
The key to helping employees strike a good balance between high productivity and a healthy social outlook lies in company culture. First, it's about putting steps and processes in place that ensures remote workers feel valued and part of the larger organization. Second, it involves fostering an environment where employees have high-quality interactions that matter, which many workers value more than empty watercooler chitchat.
Although technology can play a role in creating the disconnect some remote workers experience, it also provides innovative solutions that can boost feelings of connectedness. Regardless of whether some or all of your employees work remotely, there are ways you can better integrate remote workers so they feel more valued and involved – and less lonely.
4 Strategies to build a socially positive remote work culture
If the company culture doesn't cultivate connectedness between team members – whether all of your employees work remotely or are split between remote and an office – these employees are likely to feel like afterthoughts within their companies. Fortunately, any business can easily combat this. Here are four ways to develop a positive remote culture that alleviates employees' feelings of isolation.
1. Use digital social tools to build and fortify relationships.
Sitting alone in front of a screen all day may be the root of isolation, but that's also where you find some of the most powerful tools to bring people together. In a survey of executives conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute, the vast majority reported that their companies were putting social technology to use, and 74 percent said these tools were being integrated into employees' work. As more workers go remote, this movement will continue.
Being supported and acknowledged by teammates goes a long way to enhance connection. Social tools on computers and phones improve communication and provide new avenues for being recognized publicly. Regardless of which engagement app you use, make sure you give employees the ability and impetus to recognize, connect with and congratulate their teammates for individual accomplishments.
The team members offering congratulations also get a boost. Letting someone else know that you value them is a great bonding experience. This helps keep the virtual high-fives going, as it motivates employees to pay it forward.
2. Enhance communication through video meetings.
Misreading the tone of an email, IM or text is all too easy and far too common. Because a lot of communication occurs through body language and is relayed through tone of voice, as we all know instinctively, it can be hard to interpret words just by reading them. To maximize clarity – especially when our employees are not all in the same room – we hold video meetings at our company.
In terms of minimizing loneliness, video helps in two ways: First, face-to-face conversations and meetings reduce the disconnectedness caused by miscommunication, which can damage working relationships and increase feelings of isolation. Additionally, when remote workers can establish a real presence in meetings, it improves their level of engagement and provides all employees – both on-site and off – with a sense of team cohesion.
Driving remote employee engagement has become one of the top five factors for many other organizations that have invested in video solutions. The prioritization of video happened organically for us at Acceleration Partners, and it has since become a crucial strategy for us. By investing in a video content management system, you allow your team members in other cities or countries to see their colleagues face to face during presentations, discussions, and meetings.
3. Create hiring hubs so remote groups can meet in person.
Even if your business is 100 percent remote like ours, your teams don't need to be remote 100 percent of the time. Another strategy that naturally developed in our organization was the founding of “hubs.”
Because we are entirely remote, we initially hired people wherever they were. In the last couple of years, though, we've shifted to hiring people in fixed geographies and specific metro areas. These hubs allow the employees working within those boundaries to meet if they want to collaborate or just interact socially with their colleagues.
In addition to planning around hubs when we hire, we also budget for them. Each hub has money set aside to support group get-togethers. Whether employees want to work in the same physical location, organize a volunteer day, or grab drinks after work, the resources needed to make it happen are available to them.
When remote workers meet with some regularity, it helps decrease feelings of isolation during the stretches in between. You may not be able to hire all of your remote employees in specific cities, but you can make a plan to keep them concentrated in a few key areas. Workers that aren't near a hub should be encouraged to meet with team members in other cities if they travel. You might even offer to pay for their transportation to a certain hub so they can attend important meetings and team-building events.
4. Hire the right people.
When hiring remote employees, in addition to their skills and values fit, companies must take into account their personal needs. People right out of college who look to their job for socialization will feel isolated in a remote environment no matter what you do; however, people who have established social networks or families often have different needs and are often not looking to their job to satisfy their need for social connection.
Working alone doesn't have to mean feeling alone. An effective remote culture uses technology to connect remote teams and provides opportunities for those workers to meet in person, too. In this way, an otherwise isolating situation can actually enhance employee connectedness and engagement.