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How to optimise remote workforces while tackling loneliness

Remote working is very common in tech companies and IT departments. How can it be managed to optimise productivity and keep employees socially connected to their companies?

There has been talk for years now about how the adoption of ever more flexible and remote styles of working is changing the nature of employment.

Being able to work flexibly or remotely is now considered not so much an employee perk as an expectation, we are told. In a tech world racked with skills shortages and diversity challenges, it offers an obvious means of addressing both, it is said. Such approaches also boost productivity as people can work at times that suit them best, thereby boosting job satisfaction and engagement, experts declare.

But despite the fact that most companies have some kind of suitable supporting policy in place, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Cross-sector insights on enabling flexible working report reveals that a huge 89% of UK jobs are not advertised as flexible, with the most common form of such working still being traditional part-time hours (just over a quarter). Unsurprisingly then, the “number of people working flexibly has plateaued over the last decade”, the study says.

Lizzie Benton, founder of company culture consultancy Liberty Mind, agrees that take-up of flexible working still tends to be in pockets rather than the norm, although she says adoption in the tech and digital sector has risen overall.

The same is true of remote working, she points out, which is generally limited to specific roles that are subject to skills shortages. It likewise tends to be more common among small rather than large employers (that can afford co-working spaces) and in areas outside of the UK’s big cities, which often struggle in recruitment terms. “It’s a very mixed picture,” says Benton. “While both are becoming more popular, there is still some resistance.”

Much of this resistance boils down to trust, or rather the lack of it. Nick Thompson, director at leadership and employee engagement consultancy Engage, explains: “One of the most significant barriers to adoption is senior management resistance as they either aren’t comfortable with this style of working because people aren’t under their nose or they’ve had a bad experience with it.”

In terms of getting it right, he points to the need for IT leaders to manage by outcomes rather than hours, something he describes as a “more sophisticated form of management”, which involves trusting and empowering employees to do what needs to be done rather than constantly providing oversight.

Tackling loneliness and social isolation

Another key issue that has started growing in awareness terms lately is the fact that feelings of loneliness and social isolation can have a negative impact on everything from employee engagement to productivity and, therefore, are a significant risk factor if not handled effectively.

A white paper from healthcare charity Nuffield Health points out, for example, that while working remotely can have a positive impact on staff wellbeing if people do it for up to two and a half days per week, three or more days of not being present in the office can lead to a deterioration in the quality of co-worker relationships and lower productivity.

This finding is significant because, according to a second study among more than 10,000 workers from 131 countries conducted by The Myers-Briggs Company, positive relationships with co-workers are the leading contributor to workplace wellbeing (7.85 out of 10), ahead of both meaning (7.69) and accomplishments (7.66). Workplace wellbeing is important, meanwhile, as it correlates with higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment to the organisation, increased discretionary effort and, ultimately, better staff retention.

So in order to compensate for a lack of physical interaction with colleagues, particularly if teams are distributed geographically around the UK or even the world, Benton advocates that IT leaders “champion a culture of communication”. This includes everything from ensuring they have regular check-ins with team members via video-conferences or webinars to ensuring channels, such as Slack, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams, are put in place to enable informal conversation between colleagues.

Other examples of activities that can help consist of encouraging remote workers to engage with one of their colleagues each morning and afternoon and conducting a virtual team meeting every morning.

Read more about the future of work

As Kalpesh Baxi, senior partner at specialist staffing organisation SThree, says: “Out of sight shouldn’t equal out of mind, so it’s important to have clear objectives in place so remote workers understand what’s expected of them and what they can expect of you.”

This philosophy also applies in relation to burnout, which can be a particular problem among remote workers as they tend to work longer hours than their in-house colleagues. This means, says Baxi, that it is necessary to “put guardrails in place to protect workers’ time, aligning internally on realistic and fair expectations for how much time employees are expected to contribute each week, regardless of where and when the work is getting done”.

Put another, says Thompson, from a management perspective, it is about “doing the basics well”. This involves setting clear expectations and transparent goals that are revised regularly. It also entails ensuring clear communication mechanisms are in place and that people can see their part in the bigger picture.

“Managers have to be more organised as things need to be planned and structured more carefully – and it’s also important to be realistic about just how much time it all takes,” he says.

Case study: RBS – flexible working

For the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), enabling employees to work flexibly is part of its wider staff wellbeing agenda.

The bank first introduced its global RBS Choice flexible working initiative in 2006 as a way to reduce property costs, but has since changed the scheme’s emphasis to focus on supporting cultural change, which includes providing staff with more control over their work-life balance.

As part of this process, in 2014, the organisation became the largest participant in the pilot of social and collaboration platform Facebook at Work, which has since been rebranded as Workplace from Facebook. The platform, which is now used for “much of the bank’s communications and activities”, has since been rolled out across the entire business, which includes the digital channels team, led by Craig Hoey, that managed the implementation.

“Speaking for my own team, we are based across multiple locations, so the desire to ‘work smarter’ and with more flexibility has always been there,” he says. “Desk space can often be limited in such a large organisation, so it’s a reality that some colleagues will need to work remotely – even if they don’t have immediate needs to travel further.”

Feeling connected

But working “from wherever you need/want to be on a given day” does not simply suit individuals’ requirements for flexibility. “I can honestly say my own team have never felt as connected as they do now,” says Hoey.

But he acknowledges there are “definitely challenges” around making sure this is the case. As a result, he says, it is imperative to proactively create a “more social element”, which includes checking in on colleagues regularly and ensuring members of the team collaborate on an informal basis.

Moreover, when rolling out tools to “support such endeavours”, he advises being “mindful of how broad the adoption journey needs to be – you need to be flexible enough to cater to everyone’s pace and learning style. You can’t simply force it on everyone”.

But the most important lesson learned is that to make flexible working a reality at the team level, there must be an appetite for it within the wider organisation. “This does mean leadership must not only lead by example, but truly trust their staff, shifting the focus to what gets down rather than how,” he says.

Case study: Gitlab – remote working

“With a remote working culture, you have to really think about your social interactions and your organisational structures. You have to work at it and put the effort in as it doesn’t happen organically – it requires discipline,” says Sean McGivern, engineering manager at Gitlab.

The open source-based DevOps lifecycle tool developer’s founders adopted a remote working approach almost immediately after setting the business up in 2013 and the company’s 1,000 employees are now spread around the world. This situation enables it to recruit from a much wider talent pool than would otherwise be the case.

While McGivern acknowledges that not everyone is suited to this kind of working style, he indicates that staff tend to “self-select because they want more autonomy and don’t like having someone looking over their shoulder”. When hiring, the company also looks for evidence that they are “remote-capable”, which includes having already worked with people from different backgrounds, cultures and time zones.

This is important, particularly as a manager, he says, because “individuals have different ways of learning and processing information and that is amplified with different cultural backgrounds”, especially if English is not their first language. As a result, managers need to think carefully about how they communicate and the kind of language they use, says McGivern.

Another component is having enough patience to “restate and reinforce” information and to make “small, easily digestible changes” to how things are said and done should employees fail to understand first time round. One thing that can help here is to communicate in a number of different ways, ranging from informing someone of something in a one-to-one meeting to mentioning it in a team-wide meeting and also including a link to the company handbook in a team chat scenario.

Output not hours

A further vital management consideration, meanwhile, is to focus on “output, not hours”, says McGivern. This involves not only documenting everything clearly but also “thinking more carefully about what you want your team to accomplish and being explicit about it, which is harder but definitely has benefits in terms of outcomes”, he points out.

Another thing that can prove difficult but that also reaps rewards is “spending time on the human side of things”. As McGivern says: “If you don’t, it’ll reflect eventually in output – only by the time you notice, it’ll be too late.”

To this end, Gitlab has put a number of structures in place to enable remote staff to come together and feel as if they are part of a wider team – but only if they wish to, as all activities are optional.

For example, employees, managers, and even randomly assigned colleagues, can schedule informal, non-work-related, get-to-know-you “coffee chats”. Money is also made available so that workers can travel to regular local meet-ups with colleagues, while a company-wide conference takes place each year in different locations around the world.

“Not everyone wants to get involved all the time, but the point is to build relations and bonds and to create a feeling of connectedness. It’s really important,” says McGivern.

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