Are remote workers being called back into the office? It depends on who you ask. Many companies are favoring telecommuting to cut costs and expand the talent pool. However, that’s not the case everywhere. IBM, an early champion of remote work, just this year issued an ultimatum to thousands of remote workers in the U.S.: Begin working in regional offices or find a new job. Other businesses are taking similar approaches.
What’s with the change of heart? While business leaders have their own reasons for reversing telecommuting policies, many cite poor collaboration and productivity as the top reasons for doing so. I get that. Here at the Remote Leadership Institute, we discuss those issues a great deal. Communication is harder across distances, and when communication is lacking, productivity absolutely takes a hit.
That said, low collaboration isn’t just a problem reserved for remote, virtual or hybrid teams. In fact, according to Queens University of Charlotte, 39% of surveyed employees worldwide believe that people in their own organization don’t collaborate enough. So, the answer may not be to simply put everyone in the same building.
Rather than rush to pull people back into the office (or prevent them from ever working from home in the first place), follow this advice to improve collaboration on your team:
Hire for all the right reasons
Even the most experienced, credentialed, wow-inducing candidates can fail miserably when they are taken out of the workplace. Some need social interaction. Others don’t have the discipline to work extra hard without the watchful eyes of a supervisor (or the daily recognition for a job well done). Still others struggle to adopt new technology and means of communication.
When you’re hiring employees for remote positions, vet people who already have experience successfully working in a virtual environment. Ask them to describe how they overcame problems, what steps they took to work out issues or conflicts with team members, and what specifically they did to boost collaboration and teamwork.
At the least, consider hiring a person with little to no virtual teamwork experience on a probational or temporary basis before you extend a full offer. That way you can test the waters and evaluate whether the arrangement will work for both of you.
Ensure that it’s possible for people to collaborate
One of the biggest benefits of virtual teams is that you can overlap work hours across time zones and potentially build a team that is essentially working around the clock. From personal experience, I love working with west coast clients because I can start my day at a normal 7-8 a.m., but complete and have assignments to them before they’ve even woken up. It’s a great benefit to them, without requiring me to pull crazy hours.
However, some time differences prove too much of a hurdle. For example, the time difference between Perth, Australia and Richmond, VA is 12 hours, so there’s just a small window where collaboration is reasonable, and it still requires at least one person to connect outside “normal” business hours, often well into the night or very early in the morning.
Now, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider employees from disparate time zones, but keep your expectations in check about how much collaboration can take place and how quickly communication will occur. Also make sure you are being as fair as possible when you set meetings, and don’t always expect people to connect during the wee hours to meet your schedule.
Teach employees how to proactively communicate
You should not be the end all, be all when it comes to addressing problems, sorting out confusion and clearing the air. Nor should any of those things wait for your next formal meeting. Teach your employees to take the initiative to contact one another or you when they are facing a challenge, have an idea or a question comes up.
Hold employees accountable for working together. Make collaboration and proactive communication something you discuss during informal feedback sessions and during performance reviews. Employees need to understand how much value you place on both, and for some people to commit, you may need to grade them on it.
Last but definitely not least, you must be the type of leader that is open to collaboration. That means that you welcome new ideas, encourage employees to speak up when they disagree with something, and ask for their advice. If you consistently quiet them, shoot down their ideas, or expect them to simply follow your lead, they won’t collaborate because they feel nothing will come of it. Bottom line: It won’t be worth their time and energy.
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