Remote work was on the rise even before COVID-19 lockdowns, with many companies calling it a game-changer. And why not? Going remote gives your business access to the world's top talent, results in higher employee productivity, and can even save you money.
Yet, for all its benefits, managing a remote team comes with its own challenges—from overcoming “virtual distance” and effectively engaging employees to helping them minimize distractions and deal with loneliness.
You’ve probably experienced some of these challenges of remote work if your team currently works from home. You’re not alone. In fact, leaders in all remote work setups—whether they consist of teams working remotely from different offices and/or of employees working from their homes—deal with these challenges every day.
Here are 4 key challenges of remote teams and how to address them:
- Virtual distance and cultural barriers
- Working from home attracts more distractions
- Too many video meetings leading to Zoom fatigue
- Remote work can make employees feel socially isolated
Challenge #1: Virtual distance and cultural barriers
Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, describes virtual distance as a sense of psychological and emotional detachment that begins to grow unconsciously when most experiences are mediated by technology.
Unsurprisingly, this is an increasingly common form of disconnect in distributed and remote teams. Dr. Sobel-Lojeski and her colleagues measured and analyzed virtual distance in teams around the world. Their data shows that left unmanaged, high virtual distance can have adverse effects on business:
- Innovative behaviors fall by over 90%
- Trust declines by over 80%
- Cooperative and helping behaviors go down by over 80%
- Role and goal clarity decline by 75%
- Project success drops by over 50%
- Organizational commitment and satisfaction decline by more than 50%
Here is how managers can minimize virtual distance and bring their remote teams closer:
Educate your team on cultural differences
Tackle the affinity virtual distance problem by educating your team on how to succeed in a multicultural environment. Make them aware that what they're saying might not be instantly clear to the people they're talking to. Encourage them to ask questions if something isn't clear. For Fernandez, the easy solution was to share a book called The Culture Map.
Set the right expectations around communicationGet everyone on board with your communication policy and request team members to share their availability with each other. This will help bridge the physical virtual distance.
Invest in the best tools for remote teams
Find the best communication and collaboration tools and train your employees to use them. This is key to managing both physical and operational virtual distance. Not to be too modest about it, but Flock has everything your remote team needs to collaborate more effectively.
Challenge #2: Working from home attracts more distractions
Nearly everyone can admit to feeling distracted while at work. While distractions in a traditional office setup (chatty coworkers or the general office noise) can be different from the distractions remote workers face (think kids, cats, and everything in between!)—the result is the same: low productivity.
Distractions can actually be much worse in a remote team as on top of everything else, you have a non-stop barrage of work updates from all your different tools—incoming emails, chat notifications, workflow app alerts, calendar invites, and whatnot. Don’t forget Netflix. Distractions are, in fact, one of the top three struggles of remote workers.
While you can't eliminate distractions for your remote employees, you can certainly help minimize them. Here’s how:
Encourage daily work routines
When Ctrip, China's largest travel agency, conducted a 9-month long experiment to test a work from home policy, productivity increased by 13%. The interesting part? Employees working from home followed the same general routine they used to in the office!
A daily routine helps protect your time from everything you shouldn't be using it for, and it is a great defense against distractions. So encourage your remote employees to create and follow a routine.
Offer training to improve focus
Studies show 7 out of 10 employees think training can help people get better at blocking out distractions and achieving focus. Invest in training to make your employees aware of their distractions and give them the tools they need to overcome them.
Offer a home office setup allowance
Encouraging your remote employees to create a home office is another great way to minimize distractions. With your support, they will be able to build a "distraction-free” zone in their homes. Many remote-first companies like Buffer offer a home setup allowance. Here at Flock, when we switched to working from home in March, one of the first things we did was to ensure every team member had a decent home office setup—a stable internet connection, an ergonomic chair, and a sturdy desk are a must.
Source: Buffer Careers
Challenge #3: Too many video meetings leading to Zoom fatigue
Mostly, managing newly remote teams requires that you default to overcommunication. Engaging in informal chit chat with employees, connecting over frequent video calls, and keeping engagement levels high—all of this is simply a way to ensure everyone stays connected and no one feels out of the loop. Yet, despite being a great medium for remote work, extensive video conferencing can wear your team out and deplete momentum when it’s time to get actual work done. Zoom fatigue is real.
From fewer non-verbal cues and lack of visual breaks on video calls to multitasking and being hyper-aware, extensive video conferencing can be taxing on the brain. The solution: tweak your team’s workflows to balance async communication with real-time virtual check-ins.
Stop meeting when you really don’t need toAs any remote team manager will tell you, overlap hours—the few hours each day most, if not all, team members are online and available—are precious. Keep this mind when prioritizing tasks and organizing meetings, and cut unnecessary meetings from your calendar; encourage your team to do the same.
Implement a no-meeting day for your business
Take it a step further and implement a no-meeting day—one day each week without any scheduled meetings—so employees can stay focused without interruptions. No-meeting days also make it easier for them to achieve a ‘state of flow’ so productivity goes up, and employees are actually more engaged in meetings the rest of the week.
Prioritize collaboration tasks for overlap hours
Coming back to those overlap hours: reserve them for planned meetings and tasks that require real-time collaboration. In other words, encourage team members to use non-overlap hours for deep work and individual tasks such as content creation and data analysis. They should feel free to use Flock’s Do Not Disturb (DND) mode when they need to focus on a task in non-overlap hours and by saving collaboration tasks for overlap hours, they don’t have to work odd hours to sync with the rest of the team. It also keeps redundant team meetings to a minimum.
Challenge #4: Remote work can make employees feel socially isolated
Working remotely also means working mostly alone. When you factor in the ongoing pandemic, lockdowns, and the scarcity of in-person interactions in general—social isolation can make team members feel lonely or demotivated. These adverse health effects aren't just horrible for your employees but they also take its toll on the workplace, where your employees need to be healthy and happy to do their best work.
Here's how managers can proactively address these remote team challenges:
Connect with no agenda
Arranging informal chats between your team members is another great way to beat this remote work "loneliness." Companies like Zapier and Buffer routinely arrange 10-15 minute buddy calls that give their remote employees some invaluable face-time with each other and help them feel more connected.
Talk about mental wellness
Opening up about the psychological impact of remote working is the first step toward overcoming this challenge. Encourage your employees to talk about mental health. The remote team at Doist doesn't just talk about it openly—they also encourage employees to take sick days if they aren't feeling well (mentally).
Source: Doist Blog
Offer and encourage paid vacations
Vacations are great at reducing stress, improving focus, and achieving a great work-life balance. In short, you need your employees to take time off to do great work. Remote companies that understand that vacations improve the mental health of their employees offer lots of paid leaves. Some even go as far as incentivizing employees to take vacations!
Basecamp, for instance, offers a one-month sabbatical every three years along with a bunch of other paid days off every year.
Proactively address your remote team’s challenges
Remote work comes with its own challenges. But small steps such as sharing a good book on cultural expressions, giving a one-time home-office setup allowance, setting up a no meeting day, or offering paid leaves (and encouraging your employees to take them) can make a huge difference to how your remote team performs. Proactively address your remote team's challenges to build a happy, healthy, and productive workforce that grows your business.