Credit: Andrea Mongia
Ideas Made to Matter
How to keep remote workers from feeling disconnected
Until the pandemic, Linda Aiello was the only remote worker on her Salesforce team. When it came time for a meeting, her 13 colleagues would gather in a San Francisco conference room while she was on a screen broadcasting from London.
“If I wasn’t the first person to speak, I would get lost,” Aiello said at last month’s EmTech Next conference, hosted by MIT Technology Review.
Last year many workers joined Aiello on their respective screens, as organizations ordered employees home amid the pandemic. But as offices reopen and employees return to their desks, workers remaining remote might find themselves feeling lost.
Aiello, the executive vice president of employee success at Salesforce, was joined by other corporate leaders during the EmTech event, and they shared insights and suggestions to ensure remote workers are seen and heard among a hybrid team.
Mixed reality spaces and “gateways” for collaboration
According to a 2020 Cisco survey of executives and employee experience experts, 98% of all meetings going forward are expected to include at least one remote participant.
“As we move forward, conference rooms are going to be optimized not just for the people in the room, but for people that don’t happen to be in the room that shouldn’t feel like second-class participants,” said Jeetu Patel, Cisco executive vice president and general manager for security and collaboration business units.
According to a 2020 Cisco survey, 98% of all meetings post-COVID are expected to include at least one remote participant.
In terms of outfitting conference rooms, that likely means saying goodbye to the one flatscreen TV mounted to the wall, and instead welcoming new technology like intelligent cameras that zoom in on the people in a room, Patel said. There might be four people physically in a room, but they’ll appear in individual boxes on screens similar to their remote teammates. This allows everyone participating to better see facial gestures and read body language.
Patel suggested virtual presentations could be more immersive and conversational — similar to a weather forecast with a meteorologist presenting in front of a green screen.
Jordan Goldstein, principal and global director of design at Gensler, a global architecture and design firm, said organizations need to consider outfitting their conference rooms and other collaborative areas for “mixed reality meetings” between colleagues who are in the office and those who are remote.
These meetings bring people together “in a way that actually creates that equity and supports the interactions of those individuals, even though they’re not in the same place,” Goldstein said.
Around the office this could include sensor technologies that measure usability and performance of a space, Goldstein said. For example, a sensor might track how many trips employees take up and down a particular flight of stairs over the course of a day.
In Gensler’s U.S. Workplace Survey 2020, more than half of the 2,300 workers surveyed said they would prefer a mix of working from home and the office. So, workplaces will need areas that promote hybrid working.
These “gateways” need to be places where onsite employees can connect with remote colleagues. Goldstein said these gateways could be supported by digital interfaces that show team member locations, available desks, and conference room reservations. They might also have department and team dashboards, digital whiteboards, and integrated screens for work between in-office and remote team members.
Strategies for staying connected to remote workers
Aside from the physical office space, organizations can make changes to be more inclusive to remote workers, and there are steps managers can take to strengthen relationships with their team members.
For larger companies, Aiello said, it’s “making sure you’re tailoring some of your communications to really represent what’s going on in each different part of the world, and being unique and really personal so that those individuals don’t feel left behind.”
A company statement or decision related to something like a COVID response, for example, is going to look different city to city.
For managers, be intentional about making time for career conversations with remote workers, but also for socialization among team members. An opportunity to strengthen personal connections can also strengthen professional ties.
And ensuring an even playing field between remote and in-office employees helps prevent those remote workers from quitting in favor of a job with an all-remote workforce, said Christie Lenneville, GitLab vice president of user experience.
GitLab moved its more than 1,300 employees to an entirely remote workforce in 2014. And while that model might not work for every company, Lenneville suggested as companies start to plan their returns to the office, they set up meeting models where if one person is remote, then everyone is remote — even if that means some co-workers are sitting right next to one another in an office, but in front of their individual screens.
“Otherwise what you’ll find is that it’s much easier for certain voices to dominate the conversations — usually the ones that are in the room,” Lenneville said. “And that’s a shame because it limits the great ideas and varying perspectives you might otherwise hear.”
A 2021 study from LiveCareer showed that for 37% of remote workers, communication was a significant challenge of working outside the office, while 36% said it was collaboration.
Drawing on GitLab’s experience as an all-remote company, Lenneville also recommended:
- Breaking down tooling silos. It can be hard for different teams to know what each is doing, if no one has access or information about how they do things — for example, project management.
- Documenting everything. Past Quartz surveys found that 44% of remote employees said they missed out on important information that was shared in person. Consider a written document like a Wiki that’s constantly being updated.
- Brainstorming asynchronously. Invite your team members to come up with ideas on an online whiteboard, and assign someone to evaluate those ideas and decide which to move forward on.
- Holding remote open office hours. Set a regularly recurring time where a team representative is available to answer questions and engage with anyone in the company. For a big company change, consider an “Ask me Anything” option with leadership where anyone in the company can share their thoughts and ask questions about the upcoming change.
- Recording videos to support asynchronous communication. Post the videos somewhere where remote workers can get the same information everyone in-person received.
- Being intentional about informal communication. Setting aside this time builds trust among managers and employees, and each side can learn a lot from the casual interactions.
Regardless of what an organization or manager implements, be prepared for some hard work, and results that don’t happen overnight.
“Change is hard, it’s different, it’s hard to change your mindset,” Lenneville said. “It takes time to settle in, even something that’s positive and good takes a little while to get used to.”