Since March 2020, when Covid-19 shut down many offices and gave businesses a big push into the era of remote working, various studies have indicated that productivity isn’t much different than before. Daily check-ins, frequent remote social interactions, and an outpouring of social support and connection were tactics used by remote managers early in the pandemic to connect with their teams. But two and a half years later, remote managers continue to struggle to lead remote and hybrid teams – as evidenced by trends such as “silent resignation” and “silent firing” – which are catching fire and workforce work suffers from low engagement and retention rates. A recent Microsoft study found that 85% of executives say the shift to hybrid working has tested their confidence in employee productivity. And as companies use technology to track employee activity, it has led to “productivity paranoia.” So how can leaders figure out how to become better remote and hybrid managers once and for all?
Widespread remote working has upended the traditional idea of ”the workplace as a place,” especially for tech industry employees who typically don’t need to be in the office five days a week, according to Joe Du Bey, co-founder and CEO of Eden, the all-in-one HR and work experience platform that helps businesses run smoothly. Their survey of 1,000 tech employees found that 84% of respondents said hybrid working was their top preference. In fact, when asked why workers stayed in their current positions, flexibility was more important than salary. Yet Du Bey readily admits that studies consistently show that this new normal comes with a serious engagement problem.
He told me that when his company first went remote in March 2020, it didn’t have a system in place to effectively manage remote team members. They used to see each other daily in an office, and their “town hall” was the physical location of their headquarters in San Francisco. “Like so many companies, our past work policies didn’t work well in a remote world,” Du Bey said. “So we had to change some standards and add new tools to enable the success of the remote team.”
Du Bey described how his company began by developing a strong writing culture. Any meaningful project needed to have a written outline before it started to level information access for remote and in-person colleagues. While they kept their San Francisco office open, their “town hall” moved from a physical location to a digital location. At the same time, they implemented a new set of tools to enable success for their employees in a remote reality. “Beyond extensive writing in Notion and Slack, we’ve started leveraging tools like Zoom and Loom to facilitate video chats and instructions,” he said. “We found that wasn’t quite enough, so we got to work and created our own software to create hybrid office management tools such as our office booking product and our office booking suite. people success tools to facilitate performance reviews, employee surveys, and even one-on-one managers and direct reports.”
From his experience at Eden, Du Bey learned that unless managers pay attention to fully remote workers, it can lead to a lack of information flow and missed opportunities to build critical relationships. It highlights five key strategies for giving remote workers the same benefits as in-person employees:
- Run performance management processes that capture 360-degree feedback so managers know how a remote colleague can positively or negatively impact others and they don’t suffer from “out of sight, out of mind” or be shortchanged for their accomplishments.
- Establish frequent check-ins so that the flow of critical information is going to the right people and there are opportunities to build relationships with senior team members to compensate for the loss of closeness in the office.
- Mitigate the “proximity bias” in which in-person workers gain additional career advantages over remote workers because they form close interpersonal relationships on-site and their contributions are more observable.
- Provide praise and constructive feedback on an ongoing basis throughout the year to shape a remote team member’s professional development seamlessly.
- Collect feedback from remote employees about the business, usually in the form of long engagement surveys or shorter impulse surveys, so the business can address any issues that are negatively impacting the experience of remote workers.
Microsoft’s previous study found that the risks of “productivity paranoia” make hybrid and remote working unsustainable, recommending that leaders make three pivots to create a more sustainable remote work culture: (1) end to “productivity paranoia” by not caring whether employees are working sufficient and help them focus on the work that is The most important (2) make concerted efforts to rebuild social capital and strengthen team bonds by bringing workers back to the office for in-person time (3) re-recruit employees by prioritizing learning and development and bringing the right resources into the workflow to close the skills gap and help both workers and the business grow.
Perhaps the hardest secret sauce to building a sustainable remote work culture is earning employee trust and loyalty, concludes Du Bey. “The hardest thing about managing remote employees is building rapport, trust, and commitment,” he says. “This matters because employees who are less engaged are far less likely to be retained, and an environment where work becomes more transactional is bad for a company’s culture and long-term performance.”