After working remote for more than seven years, the link between work relationships and remote employee engagement has never been more clear to me.
A little bit about me: I’m Jake Bernstein, I’m a Senior Business Development Manager at Bonfyre, and, by this point, I know the challenges of remote work in and out.
By all accounts, I’m what you might call an “engaged” employee. As one of Bonfyre’s first hires, I’ve been fiercely dedicated to our company mission since day one. I also care a lot about the culture we’ve built here. In fact, I earned myself the nickname the “Culture Carrier” because I strive to make personal connections with the many talented people we’ve brought onto the Bonfyre Team, welcoming them into the company and helping them navigate early challenges.
But believe me when I say that working remote makes forging these connections difficult. See, it’s not just that these work relationships are important to me. As global engagement authority Gallup puts it, engagement comes mostly from relationships, and I’d say that goes double for remote employee engagement.
Research consistently demonstrates that when employees have strong relationships with their coworkers, employee engagement rises, and brings all the other benefits you can think of with it. Gallup’s most notable data point demonstrating this is that employees who report having a best friend at work are seven times more likely to be engaged.
Building relationships for remote employee engagement isn’t easy
Working remote puts a strain on an employee’s ability to build bonds (and remote employee engagement). I would know–even though I have a more flexible situation than many remote employees, it’s still a struggle for me.
I have the fortune of being able to split my time between my home in Chicago and Bonfyre’s home base in St. Louis. When I’m in St. Louis, building that camaraderie with my coworkers occurs as a natural byproduct of my situation. But it also means that when I’m away, it becomes more difficult in contrast.
When I’m remote, I miss out on team building gatherings, collaboration opportunities, and those impromptu, but often important conversations you have when you’re in the office from 9-5. That’s all hard, but I’ve also had to get used to losing the “social proof” element of communication–in other words, the immediate nonverbal signs people display that tell you you’re saying and doing the right things.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent extra energy into interpreting the punctuation of colleagues’ messages, like the difference between a period and an exclamation mark. Even when your team is full of good communicators, this is just something you do when you’re remote.
I am not isolated in my experiences. In the past six years, remote employment grew significantly, but remote employee engagement has not.
According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace 2017 report, 31% of the U.S. labor force performs remote work for 80-100% of the time, with another 44% working remotely 20-80% of the time. So today, broadly speaking, a little less than half of the entire U.S. labor force works remote at least half the time.
The numbers on remote employee engagement are less positive, however. A recent study gauging the state of remote work culture found that two-thirds of the remote employees surveyed were not engaged in their positions. On top of that, about a third of the survey population said they received almost no face time with their team members whatsoever, despite 40% reporting it would help them build relationships with each other.
The phenomenon this data documents has a formal name: social distance. As workplaces adopt flexible and remote working arrangements more and more, they will discover with increasing frequency that social distance is the biggest challenge preventing remote employee engagement.
Related: How to build company culture for remote employees
What is social distance?
Its other name–psychological distance–might key you in that this phenomenon is more than just FOMO. Social distance refers to the emotional connections that teams and colleagues make. When colleagues are working out of the same space, establishing those connections comes naturally. It’s easy to get a sense for processes, work preferences, and team dynamics because communication barriers are minimal.
But as those employees take up remote employment, the social distance between them lengthens and finds all sorts of ways to interfere with progress. Its potential impact is so significant that Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley called it “one of the greatest barriers to effective teamwork.”
When the social distance on teams is great, it’s hard to align on work priorities. It’s not that people aren’t working on what they’re supposed to, it’s that team members aren’t working as well together as they could. Barriers in communication–be they physical or psychological–make it difficult for teams to get on the same page.
Consequently, employees experiencing social distance spend more time than necessary thinking through a work process or determining how to accomplish a task. Its worst effects arise in the absence of strong connections between teammates. But even when those ties are strong, a physical distance will still have an effect.
Now a label like social distance has a tendency to conjure images of loneliness, isolation, and silent despair. That’s not entirely what it is. Plenty of remote workers, myself included, operate out of coworking spaces and socialize with people in similar arrangements. But those connections aren’t the same because they don’t ladder back to your work experience–those people more often than not don’t even work for the same company.
Even an employee taking advantage of their company’s flexible work policy can feel social distance. Just by virtue of being out of the office and being separated from your colleagues, you’re missing out on those watercooler chats that help build camaraderie.
This is not to say organizations shouldn’t have flexible work arrangements. On the contrary, flexibility doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. If anything, it’s going to become the new norm as businesses gain a firmer grasp on their remote work policies. That means that in order for remote employee engagement to be achievable, organizations will have to provide employees with the resources needed to break down these barriers.
How I overcome social distance for remote employee engagement
Everyone has their part to play in mitigating social distance. Leaders have a responsibility for building company culture inclusive of remote workers. But remote employees–I count myself in that statement–need to leverage every tool they can to bridge the divide.
Neeley says we have a habit of assuming mediating technology (tools like email, Skype, or anything you use to communicate at work) are neutral and benign. In reality careful, curated use of our tools “can decisively shape relationships,” as she puts it, across teams.
Work technology is changing all the time, and notably in ways that help reduce feelings of social distance. Even personally, I’ve seen remote employment change dramatically in the seven years I’ve been doing it.
Video, enterprise social and team communication tools, and the whole world of push notifications and “digital nudges” hardly used to have the presence in work that they do today. Now, I’m leveraging them all for better communication with my colleagues, and even making remote work fun and rewarding in the process.
A big part is learning that not every technology medium is right for your message. Even though we default to the communications channels we like the most–real-time productivity tools, in particular, are big on remote teams–they might not be best for full transfer of meaning and information.
To get around the punctuation problem from earlier, I’ve found myself using video chat a lot more. Any remote employee will tell you it’s no fun being just a voice on the other end of a speakerphone. With video, I not only feel I express myself more but also get the visual, physical feedback I need from other parties to communicate better. Now I’m even including video messages in my emails!
It helps, too, that digital communication has evolved to become more “fun”–and that workplaces in general are more accommodating of it. It’s easier to evoke emotion beyond just plain text now thanks to how much we’ve streamlined the sharing of photos, videos, GIFs, and emojis.
To that end, it’s also nice that the diversification of team communication tools has created boxes for us to put different categories of communication into. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we use the Bonfyre platform at Bonfyre. The company-wide community we created helps me keep current on our latest culture happenings from far away. That space has also relieved any pressure I would have felt to try and start those conversations over a productivity tool. Tools for work can expressly stay just for work.
There’s even something about the accountability element of technology tools that helps me feel closer to my team. If you didn’t see me active online for a full eight-hour workday, clearly I’d be taking advantage of a generous situation. On the flip side, those online status markers make it easy to show when you’re putting discretionary effort and burning the midnight oil. Especially if I see someone else is doing the same, I like to think it’s a sign that says, “Hey, I’m in this too–albeit 300 miles away.”
Social distance will always be a problem for remote employee engagement, but we’ve already made great progress in closing the gap. When remote employment, originally called telecommuting, first began in the 1970s, personal computers had only just been invented and weren’t widely used as they are today. For however bad our issues with social distance are today, they were way worse back then.
Today, we know social distance an issue and, if the way my experience has improved is any indication, we are constructively working on solutions. Tomorrow–well, no one knows exactly where we’ll be, but the gap is sure to be smaller.