With Google announcing work-from-home plans through 2021 and other giants like Facebook, Twitter and Slack telling employees they can work from home permanently — not to mention the many PR agencies shuttering their own offices for permanent work-from-home plans — it’s clear that remote work is not a passing trend.
Many employees enjoy remote work, but they also want to maintain a healthy work-life balance and to feel connected and informed, according to a survey by the software platform Smartsheet. As the leader of a communication agency that has been virtual since its founding seven years ago, I’ve learned a lot about what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to building a thriving remote culture. Here are five of the biggest challenges and tips to address them:
Challenge: Striking a work-life balance
When your office is in your home, lines between work and life blur, and it’s easy to over-work. Surveys from employee-engagement company Glint found that from March to April 2020, employee comments regarding burnout increased from 2.7 percent to 5.4 percent, suggesting a growing threat to worker productivity and engagement. Boundaries between work and life are crucial for mental health and overall happiness, so successful work-life balance should be a priority to help companies and their employees thrive.
Solution: Designate set times and a place for work.
Having a separate workspace in your home (ideally with its own door) helps you focus during office hours and then mentally disconnect from work at the end of the day.
One benefit of remote work is that it provides some flexibility to help employees balance their professional responsibilities and personal lives. Employees can work when they’re most productive but can also take time during the day (depending on company policy) for personal priorities, like family commitments and exercise.
It helps for teams to share a calendar or schedule on which all members post their work hours. Better yet, tools such as Sococo and Slack (which we use at my firm, Belle Communication) provide visual representations of who’s currently working and what they’re working on.
Leaders should set an example for a healthy work-life balance. Take time off to recharge when you need it, and empower team members to do the same. Discuss strategies for establishing balance at work, including prioritizing, time management and calendar blocking.
Challenge: Preventing lost communication and collaboration
Clear, concise and respectful communication is the cornerstone of any company culture, but it can make or break a remote workplace. Without the ability to pop into someone’s cubicle or catch up over coffee, colleagues lose visibility into projects. Efficiency, collaboration and trust can erode.
Solution: Consistent and proactive communication between teams is always necessary, and especially so in remote-work environments.
When working from home, we have to communicate early and often about our availability, project updates and deadlines to our teammates, and to show that we’re reliable. At Belle, one of our “Core Belle-iefs” is to “Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.” The repetition is intentional. When all members of the team operate this way, information flows freely, issues are addressed and collaboration flourishes.
Challenge: Building teams remotely
Interactions between co-workers don’t occur as naturally in remote-work arrangements, making it harder to build teams.
Solution: Video and phone calls help foster a sense of connection for people working from home.
Leaders can hold weekly check-in meetings with their entire teams and regular one-on-one meetings to touch base with team members directly. At Belle, we wrap up each week with a virtual team hangout that sometimes includes activities or discussion topics but mostly provides an opportunity for free conversation.
Challenge: Remembering we’re all human
All teams are made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds, opinions and life experiences, but remote teams have the added challenge of being physically separated. Without body language, shared experiences and quick life updates from co-workers, it’s easy to lose our empathy, leading to miscommunication, mistrust and conflict.
Solution: Foster connections with co-workers by sharing and celebrating major life events such as birthdays and (virtual) baby showers.
At Belle, we recently snail-mailed every team member a temporary tattoo and personalized note on National Tattoo Day, a gesture meant to say, “Hey, even though we’re apart, we’re still one team.”
Remembering that we’re all human also means encouraging face-to-face communication via video whenever possible. When traveling becomes safe again, consider gathering teams in person once or twice a year to mix business and fun. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Belle team typically took two trips together every year.
Challenge: Replacing micromanagement with empowerment
In remote work environments, we don’t see our employees or co-workers in action, which can feel like losing control and lead to micromanagement.
Solution: To avoid micromanagement and build a company culture of empowerment instead, make sure that the team has the right people in the right roles, and then equip them with tools and processes to succeed in this new, virtual way of working.
Remote teams need simple, efficient tools for communication, collaboration and project management. It’s worth the investment and will help empower team members to own their roles.
Empowerment also relies on context and clarity. Provide enough information and direction when delegating to allow your teams to run with their tasks. If you’re the one being delegated to and you don’t have all the information you need, then ask for it. Lack of clarity around responsibilities and expectations equals more interruptions and inefficiency.
Empowered employees should manage and share their own productivity. It helps to have a “work buddy” who you share goals with every day, and then to hold each other accountable for your progress. Teams might also implement a “check challenge” Slack channel to share updates such as “Shooting for 5 tasks finished by noon,” and then count down as each task is checked off the list. Employees can cheer one another on and celebrate their productivity together.
Adapting to working from home involves many challenges, especially when combined with disruptions from delivery men or noisy kids in the background. But by prioritizing communication, connection and community-building, leaders and employees can overcome those challenges to create a thriving remote-workplace culture.
Kate Finley is founder and CEO of Belle Communication, an award-winning PR, influencer, social media and creative strategy firm based in Columbus, Ohio. Since launching in 2013 as a remote company, Belle has grown to a team of 16 across six states. Belle has been recognized as a top place to work by PR News, and was named twice in Inc. magazine’s list of “Best Workplaces.”
Illustration credit: menara grafis