Remote workers’ guide to team dynamics5 min read . Updated: 15 Jan 2019, 08:28 AM IST
Endless remote working can make employees lose empathy. Here are a few things employees and organizations can do to ease things
Ninad Kawale, 37, enjoys his job as a data analyst, is a devoted father, and loves writing music. Things were slightly far from perfect four years ago when Kawale was spending about five hours daily commuting to his office and back. Eventually, he worked out a remote working deal with his then employer, an arrangement that he has with his current employer too. “Remote working brought back my inspiration for proactive work, writing music, and most importantly, opened up time I could spend with my daughter," says Kawale, senior manager, analytics and consumer insights (APAC) at Sony Music Entertainment. Now, he says, he will find it tough to give up this arrangement. One reason why Kawale is able to work remotely is because his current team is largely based in Hong Kong and Singapore. “In any case, I am a remote worker. Whether I am in an office or at home, the team dynamics are not impacted," he explains.
Working remotely—from home, a café, a co-working space or just by the virtue of being in a remote location while an employee’s co-workers sit elsewhere—is still a nascent concept in India. The numbers are fast-changing, though. A 2016 survey by HR service provider Randstad reveals that 53% of Indian professionals prefer telecommuting, if given the option .
Respondents of another 2017 survey by Harvard Business Review (HBR) believe that a good manager played a huge role in the success of remote-workers. The survey said such managers are good listeners, have great communication skills wherein they outline expectations explicitly and invest in having a great working relationship with their direct reports.
Smells like team spirit
However, working away from colleagues daily does away with the ability to communicate and brainstorm in person. Even those who love solitude, for the most part, crave some human interaction once in a while.
Or do they?
“Yes and no," says Ipsita Ray, 27, who works with a Singapore-based financial startup from her home in Chennai since the past three years. “In a startup where most of the work is a team effort, things can sometimes get heavy-handed when everyone is on the scene. I am grateful to be working remotely since it helps create boundaries," she explains. Ray communicates with her colleagues in Singapore and elsewhere daily on email, phone and new-age collaboration technology software such as Slack, and rarely on WhatsApp. These tools help her stay well-connected with her team in real-time without a need for constant face-to-face interaction.
Divided we fall?
Professionals considering remote working stints must be cognizant of a few things. Working in isolation with negligible human interaction and the ensuing loneliness is not something everyone is equipped to handle. In fact, S.V. Nathan, partner and chief talent officer, Deloitte India, believes that working in a silo for too long may not be the best idea. “Endless remote working can make employees lose empathy, a contact sport where people have to be present face-to-face to feel it," he says. To combat this, he feels workers should come to the office at regular intervals, collaborate, bond and make it easier for creativity to flow naturally.
Ray points out that colleagues with a certain kind of personality could be at a disadvantage to work remotely, especially with the heavy use of technology to interact through. “There can be a seeming lack of fraternity and for those not outgoing enough to make their presence felt through technology, it can create an imbalance," she says, adding that this may not be a desirable long-term side effect for some employees. Personally, however, she feels well-connected and comfortable with her current set-up.
In Kawale’s case, the organization, where team members end up working across locations, organizes off-sites or conferences where everyone can meet up. He believes this is especially important for employees who have just started a new job. “New employees can feel lonely and isolated without a chance to understand colleagues better. Face-to-face interactions once a month, at least for meetings, brainstorms or conferences at a common location, helps put a face to the email ID," he says.
Ray, too, meets all her team members about three to four times a year and looks forward to it. “Remote working can be isolating, especially if there’s no face-time with co-workers from time to time," she adds.
The trust factor
Kawale believes that it is the remote worker’s job to pre-emptively gain team members’ and bosses’ trust. “Companies and colleagues will not be too forgiving of frequent excuses such as ‘my home location has bad network’ or ‘my internet is acting up’. It is best to invest in good infrastructure to prevent an outage," he says.
Nathan echoes this sentiment on behalf of organizations. “It isn’t difficult for remote employees to goof off if they want to. If someone wants to pretend to work by just keeping their laptop and phone on, there is hardly a way of knowing. Remote working requires maturity," he says. Individuals getting wind of a colleague taking advantage of remote working arrangements can lead to a breakdown of valuable trust within a team.
It is important for managers, too, to check in on their employees without micromanaging or overt interference. This way, employees feel motivated to work and managers aren’t doubtful of colleagues who are out of sight. Nathan explains, “Getting business leaders aware of the advantages of remote working and getting them to experience it themselves helps remote working become a success." Having your leadership buy in to the idea is key. It also helps if both, employees and managers, are available on the phone or Skype in case of a crisis. This isn’t to say that being available must come at the cost of personal time in the day, but just the knowledge that either party is around in case of any professional trouble helps assure that it doesn’t matter where the employee is located.
The tough life of a remote worker
■ Over 52% of remote workers surveyed believed that their colleagues don’t treat them equally
■ Around 84% remote employees felt that disagreements or contentious issues dragged on for days while 47% said some concerns went on for as long as a few weeks.
■ The same respondents believe co-workers say bad things behind their backs, make changes to projects without telling them in advance and lobby against them.
■ Workplace politics also negatively affect remote employees’ productivity, deadlines, morale, and retention.
—Harvard Business Review survey on remote working in 2017