We’re over 11 months in to 2020 – the ‘rollercoaster year’ of building resilience and adapting to changes – and I believe we almost can’t remember how life was like before remote working.
By now, most of us employees, employers, or managers, would have learnt to adapt to telecommuting and working remotely from home and having countless amounts of virtual meetings to sustain business operations.
Some of us may actually enjoy remote working or WFH, but I do know for a fact that there are employees, or even managers leading virtual teams, who still struggle with remote working. But the good news is, these remote working challenges faced are common across the board, and it is definitely not unsolvable.
In today’s article, we’re going to go through some common top challenges personally voiced out by remote working employees from all around the world. And in line with each challenge faced, we will also be highlighting some effective solutions to resolve these key challenges – that we hope will help you who’re reading this too!
Challenge #1: Social Isolation
What remote working employees say:
- “The main challenge I face as a remote worker is isolation. Although, the benefits are that I can more or less work my own hours (pressing deadlines aside) and from any location, the fact that I work alone (as a sociable person) is something that I’ve had to overcome. When I worked in an office back in Australia, my colleagues were also my friends. We would socialise often, particularly for that great institution of workplaces around the world: Friday night drinks.”
- “Working from home has its share of advantages and disadvantages. While it’s great to not worry about time wasted while traveling or getting ready for work, the downside is the isolation that you can experience. Working remotely gets lonely as you don’t get to meet and interact with people as a part of the job.”
Feeling lonely due to the lack of human interaction and socialization is one of the most common complaints about remote working, with employees missing the informal social interaction of an office setting. Most may assume that such a challenge might only befall the extroverted employees in the short run, but it is shown that over a longer period of time, isolation can cause any employee to feel less “belonging” to their organization, and could even result in an increased intention to leave the company.
How to resolve the challenge of ‘Social Isolation’?
An essential step that a manager leading virtual teams can take is to structure ways for employees to interact socially (meaning to have informal conversations about non-work topics) while remote working.
The easiest way to establish some basic social interaction is to leave some time at the beginning of team calls purely for non-work items (e.g. “We’re going to spend the first few minutes just catching up with each other. How was your weekend?”)
Other methods include virtual pizza parties (in which pizza is delivered to all team members at the time of a videoconference), or virtual office parties (in which party “care packages” can be sent in advance to be opened and enjoyed simultaneously). Although these types of events might sound artificial or forced, experienced managers of remote working employees have reported that virtual events are proven to reduce feelings of isolation, and promote a sense of belonging.
Challenge #2: Lack of Face-to-Face Supervision
What remote working employees say:
- “For me, the biggest issue that comes up in remote work is communication. A lack of clarity from my home office often means extra work for me because I either didn’t do what my boss had intended and I have to redo it, or we have to go back and forth by email until I’m clear on what is wanted. While this may seem like I’m dense, the reality is many managers don’t know how to communicate in writing or other virtual options exactly what they mean.
- “As a founder of my company, I supervise staff daily. Not only do I work remotely, the majority of my team works remotely as well. Our staff was becoming disjointed, unguided, and didn’t understand how their tasks helped the business. There was little opportunity to converse.”
It is common that both managers and employees express concerns about the lack of face-to-face interaction. Supervisors or Managers worry that remote working employees will not work s hard or as efficiently (through research indicates otherwise, at least for some types of jobs). And the remote working employees, on the other hand, struggle with reduced access to prompt managerial support and communication. In some cases, employees feel that remote managers have become out of touch with their needs, and present themselves as being neither supportive nor helpful in getting their work done.
How to resolve the challenge of ‘Lack of Face-to-Face Supervision’?
There are many successful remote managers that establish a daily call with their remote working employees. This could be in the form of a series of one-on-one calls, if your employees work more independently from each other; or a team call, if their work is highly collaborative.
The important thing to note is that these calls should be regular and predictable, so that this becomes a forum in which your remote working employees know that they can consult with you, and that their concerns and questions will be heard.
Challenge #3: Lack of Access to Information
What remote working employees say:
- “One of the biggest challenges is not being about to directly communicate with my co-workers when I need information. I have to send e-mail/Slack messages and wait for a response. Oftentimes, I have to send multiple reminders and requests to get the information I need.”
- “The other issue is coordination when many people are involved. I’ve been told to deal with something in two different ways depending on the person I’m talking to. I’ve been instructed to take care of something that managers knew needed to be done for months, but I’m assigned it days before it’s due.”
Employees that recently transitioned to remote working are often surprised by the added time and effort needed to locate information from co-workers. Even getting answers to what seem like simple questions could now feel like a large obstacle to a worker who’s now based at home.
This phenomena extends beyond purely work tasks, and could result in interpersonal challenges that emerge among remote working colleagues. Research has found that a lack of “mutual knowledge” among remote workers translates to a lower willingness to give co-workers the benefit of doubt in difficult situations. For example, in the past if you know your office mate is having a rough day, you will view a brusque email from them as a natural product of their stress. However, if you receive this email from a remote working colleague, with no understanding of their current circumstances, you are more likely to take offence, or at least begin to think poorly of your colleague’s professionalism.
How to resolve the challenge of ‘Lack of Access to Information’?
To rely on communication via email alone while remote working is insufficient. Remote employees will greatly benefit from having a “richer” technology, such as video conferencing, that will give participants many of the visual cues that they would have if they were interacting face-to-face. Video conferencing has many advantages, especially for smaller groups: Visual cues allow for increased “mutual knowledge” about co-workers and also help to reduce the sense of isolation among teams. Videos are extremely useful for complex or sensitive conversations, as it feels more personal as compared to written or audio-only communication.
However, there are also certain circumstances when quick collaboration is more important than visual detail. For these situations, it will be useful to provide mobile-enabled individual messaging functionality (like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) which can be used for simpler, less formal conversations, as well as time-sensitive communication.
If your company doesn’t have technology tools already in place, there are inexpensive ways available to obtain simple versions of these tools for your team, as a short-term fix.
Additional note: It will be helpful to consult with your organization’s IT department to ensure there is an appropriate level of data security before using any of these tools.
All in all, it’s a new challenge for everyone around the globe that’s been ‘forced’ to adapt to remote working ever since the pandemic hit in early 2020. Our final tip to remote managers reading this, is to offer encouragement and emotional support to your remote working employees when possible.
Especially given the context of employees needing to adapt to the abrupt shift to remote working, it is important for managers to acknowledge stress, listen to employees’ anxieties and concerns, and empathize with their struggles. If a newly remote working employee is clearly struggling but not communicating stress or anxiety, ask them how they’re doing. Even a general question such as “How is this remote work situation working out for you so far?” can elicit important information that you might otherwise not be able to hear. Also, once you ask the question, do make sure to listen carefully to their response, and briefly restate it back to the employee, to ensure you understood correctly. It is important to be mindful to let the employee’s stress or concerns (rather than your own) be the focus of this conversation.
There is research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion that has shown that employees instinctively look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations. If a manager communicates stress and helplessness, this will result in what Daniel Goleman calls a “trickle-down” effect on employees.
Effective leaders and managers often adopt a two-pronged approach, both acknowledging the stress and anxiety that employees might feel in difficult circumstances, but also making sure to provide affirmation of their confidence in their teams, using phrases such as “we’ve got this”, or “this is tough, but I know we can handle it,” or “let’s look for ways to use our strengths during this time.” With these forms of support, employees will be more likely to take u the challenge with a sense of purpose and focus.
On a final note, we would like to offer a word of encouragement to managers leading remote working teams for the first time: You’ve got this.