Authored by Drew Beckley
Want to recruit the best talent, reduce overall costs, and lower overhead at the same time? Building a remote workforce checks most of those boxes. But maintaining a strong company culture with people spread across the country—or the world—can bring up many unique challenges. So how do we continue to engage our people and show them that they are valued when we don’t get to spend time face-to-face in the office?
Companies that truly value their employees will invest in finding new ways to engage their remote workforce and make them feel valued, as if they were local. Cultivating that engagement is an ongoing process as both your business and your workforce change. There’s no one solution to engaging a remote workforce, rather a series of challenges to confront and opportunities to improve.
Why build a remote workforce?
As companies grow, they start looking for ways to be creative with hiring and to reduce overall costs. In certain markets, it’s incredibly difficult to hire high-end, specialty employees focused on specific areas of technology. So the option is to either contract out to other firms, which may increase your overall costs, or to look for remote workers in areas where it is easier to hire: The world becomes your job market.
A benefit of building a remote workforce can also be a reduction in spending. You have the ability to hire in areas that have a lower cost of living, which enables you to pay salaries that are in alignment with that reduced cost.
Challenges of managing a remote workforce
However, choosing to build a remote workforce shores up a new set of challenges: from maintaining your company culture to increasing travel costs to building and maintaining client relationships. These challenges compound if they aren’t addressed early on and continually. Establishing and grooming a connected culture is key. You must continue to build relationships within your company and cultivate an environment where people want to show up (or log on) for work every day.
The connection conundrum
In a world driven by social media, we often overlook the value of spending time face-to-face. We rely on Slack channels, video chat, text messages, emails, and the plethora of tools we can find to bridge the distance gap. However, when you’re working 8-10 hours a day, this communication approach can carry over into everyday life—we’ve become trained to “connect” mostly virtually. That could mean, if you aren’t living with anyone, then you don’t get any true face time throughout the day.
Why does this matter? Studies have shown that we experience a dopamine release when we receive a response on social media or other electronic forms of communication. This quick chemical response makes us feel good in the moment, and ultimately creates an addictive response pattern, but with very little lasting emotional reward.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, spending time face-to-face and laughing together triggers an endorphin release, which is proven to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. That’s why sustained amounts of actual human-to-human contact can have far longer-lasting benefits than digital dopamine.
What this demonstrates is the value of encouraging employees to spend time around other people throughout their workdays, whether that’s meeting up to collaborate with other local employees, or even spending time in a co-working space where you have the potential to engage with others.
Historically, companies have had a difficult time encouraging their employees to work anywhere other than a typical onsite office or home office. If you want to buck the trend of a discouraged remote workforce, you must embrace the idea of an office being wherever the employee feels the most engaged. You can also reinforce your company culture by finding ways to foster real-time connections between employees whenever possible. This may mean flying people to a central location for quarterly meeting, fronting the cost for a remote meetup, or providing remote coworking spaces. The only way to discover which approach is best for your teams is by engaging all employees in a conversation about it.
Fostering continuous conversation
Perhaps you already have a remote work policy in place, and maybe it’s working well for you now—but don’t expect that you won’t need to revamp or improve it. You might start with a small group of people at one remote location then expand into other locations. As you continue to grow, blind spots also appear. More people brings diverse perspectives, opinions, and needs. If your initial plan was tailored to a single remote location, that means it isn’t actively inclusive of remote workers in other locations, effectively alienating them by inaction. This prevents the cultivation of a cohesive culture between offices and furthers the feeling that if you’re not in the main office, you aren’t a core part of the company.
The way to combat this is by creating a regular feedback loop to understand what’s working and what can be improved. Being intentional in asking these questions during frequent meetings with remote workers engages the company in the conversation and encourages an ongoing discussion.
Once this conversation is encouraged, you need to be aware that you will get a full spectrum of feedback. It will be necessary to groom the feedback and prioritize which concerns should be acted on immediately, versus what is simply food for thought. This feedback loop also allows you to empower your employees to come up with ideas on how to improve. As with any feedback cycle, it’s important to encourage your employees to come to the table with potential solutions and not just complaints. For instance, if people are feeling devalued because they don’t have some of the amenities as those in an office, ask them to come with a proposal about what types of things they would need in their home office to match what’s in the main office and what the approximate cost would be for those items. This empowers the remote workers to feel like they’re enacting change, instead of just dropping complaints and expecting others to solve it for them.
A study by Harvard Business Review showed that empowering employees made it so “they felt a greater sense of autonomy or control in their work, they felt that their job had meaning and it aligned with their values, that they were competent in their abilities, and that they could make a difference.” Making employees active participants in your company strategy can foster lasting engagement and longevity.
A culture of continuous improvement
One of the keys to success in managing a remote team is proactively tackling engagement challenges in order to continually improve. If you lay out a singular approach that’s set in stone, you’ll end up failing in epic fashion. What works for the Ukraine, might not also work for India, Pakistan, Singapore, and Mexico—If you believe your remote work policy will transcend geographies, without taking cultural diversity into account, you’ll end up alienating parts of your workforce. Anticipating problems before they become toxic to your culture requires ongoing active listening. The key to building a strong culture in a remote-working company is to be open and responsive to continual feedback and proactive about addressing challenges.