A perspective on The Future of Remote Working – Challenges & potential solutions

I have been recently invited by Gaper, an IT company based in New York, to take part of a podcast about The Future of Remote Employment and talk about the challenges that nowadays we are facing because of social distancing during this ongoing pandemic or even in general, if we are part of virtual teams. You can choose to listen to the podcast or read the article below. I hope you will enjoy both versions and that the content will give you “food for thought”.

https://www.podbean.com/ew/pb-gzq2t-da3f2d

My personal experience with remote employment

I’ve started working from home since I started my own business consultancy company, called Insightful HR Business Solutions in November 2019, I do not have employees, but I collaborate with 10 Freelance IT Recruiters – part of them already have a full-time job and some of them are fully Freelancers and depending on how much time they have free, they can chose to work with me on one or several projects. Not all of them are from Cluj, the city where I live, but we have a weekly status meeting on Skype or other video conference platforms. 

Related to hiring remote workers, I do have this experience, as my Portofolio includes both onsite and remote job openings and it is a long story that I would tell you about the difference in hiring a remote versus an onsite programmer, but I can make it short for you. The remote working programmer has a bit of a different psychological profile, a different mindset, different ways of working, different income and benefits or even downsides of their work. Even though they have a significant larger income for working remotely, they work more, they do not have the benefits that a regular employee would have my working onsite and having a labour contract (e.g. health insurance, performance bonuses, meal tickets). Plus, they lack the support on creating a career path and having developmental opportunities, they cannot interact with senior people on a regular basis like the face to face interactions that you always have at hand while working on site with the whole team. So, employers have to compensate at least a part of the downsides of their job. It is a challenging working environment on a very competitive market. 

Several personal takeaways from my own remote working experience

As an employer, you have to show that you care for your employees, no matter that they are working onsite or remotely, on a labour contract or as a Freelancer on a collaboration contract. You have to show that you trust them and you acknowledge their potential. You have to be more in contact with them, communicate more, take advantage of all the communication channels, stay in touch to preserve the teamwork spirit. We are lucky that we have information technology, that offers the potential for team members to participate without regard to temporal and spatial impediments. Of course, there is considerable debate among managers as to whether technology fosters or hinders teamwork in the workplace at the global, and even local, level. 

The clear preference would be face to face interaction for most managers and executives as it conveys the richest information because it allows the simultaneous observation of multiple cues, including body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, providing people with a greater awareness of context. It is a crucial factor, especially in initiation of relationships and collaborations as people are more cooperative when interactive face-to-face and they have this feeling of being “in-sync”. 

There are situations when face to face communication is the best modality of teamwork – for example, when facing with complex problems, innovative ideas, but there are also exceptions – when it is a creative task or you have to brainstorm.

Major roadblocks and challenges of remote working. Facing ongoing pandemic context.

One of the biggest challenges for remote working is the group identity or cohesion and “we-feeling”, which is consistently lower as studies have shown (Bouas & Arrow, 1996). This aspect is extremely important for the success of virtual teams due to its impact on cooperation, motivation, commitment to decisions, and levels of trust (Kramer & Brewer, 1986).

In addition to this, a challenge for productivity is coordination of effort – how to get people to work together compatibly and  productively. For a transnational team to work well, we need clearly chared goals, well-articulated team members roles, shared values, and agreement upon performance criteria. Thus, the more deliberate planning centered upon these factors, the better.

Another downside is the loss of informal communication  – we do not have the opportunity to chat in the hall or by the coffee machine, we miss the spontaneous exchanges that occur outside of formal meetings.Plus, greater distance tends to block the corrective feedback loops provided by chance encounters. It is harder to detect issues and respond quickly. 

Another aspect that I have noticed is the loss of informal modeling and by this I refer to the casual observation of others performing – we would like to watch successful project managers enact their roles, to learn from them.

It happened to me that I sometimes felt left out while I was working in a global team in a corporate environment. We had meetings, but I felt ignored by the person on the speakerphone, I missed thousands of chances to express my opinion. In addition to that, I have noticed that if we had a conflict within our team it was expressed, recognized, and addressed more quickly if we worked from the same office. 

There is also another problem, the problem of conveying emotion via email communication. It is easy to send a message when social norms are not present, you are more risky taking. In this situations, you are prone to flaming or other negative interpersonal behaviors because you might feel isolated. You have to be more self-aware not to react with less politeness, empathy or inhibition. 

Another difficulty is the increased time to make a decision. Virtual teams take 4 to 10 times longer to reach a decision than face to face groups.

Perspective on how future of remote employment may look.  What can we do differently to make it even better and more effective?

I am trying to see the bright side from everything. I want to make the most out of virtual interactions. I will give you an example that is related to status inequalities. In face to face interactions, people do not contribute to conversation equally, those with higher status tend to talk more. There is an interesting shift in social behavior when it comes to virtual teams. Power and status differences are weakened, so decision making occurs on the basis of task expertize, rather than status (Eveland & Bikson, 1989). Email also acts as an equalizer because it is difficult for high status people to dominate the discussions. 

Technology can be empowering for woman. I have found surprising results of a study (McGuire, Keisler, & Siegel, 1987) – when a group of executives meet face to face, the men in these groups are five times more likely than women to make the first decision proposal, but when the same group meet via computer, women make the first proposal as often as men. Additionally, another dynamic happens, when interacting via email, people respond more openly and conform less to social norms, so they can focus more on the content of the task, so it is a more democratic forum, less hierarchical. 

In order to foster team identity, increase satisfaction and motivation of team members, we can try on-line team buildings and trainings or start with face to face interaction to insure social bonding and later engagement. Bringing together team members for a short, face to face experience is often used by companies who want to lay a groundwork of trust and communication for later teamwork that will be conducted strictly electronically. This humanizes people and creates expectations for team members to use in their subsequent long-distance work together. Another easy to implement idea is to introduce via videoconference new team members to develop trust and relationships before doing teamwork electronically. People need to attach a face to a name. 
There is a concept called “schmoozing”, which means superficial contact between people that has the psychological effect of having established a relationship with someone. We are social creatures so we need to do this. There are a lot of strategies like exchanging pictures or biographical informations or simple get-acquainted e-mail exchange. Work needs to be fun sometimes, not always task-related. So, before getting down to business, let’s try some low cost, but efficient strategies like I already mentioned. Start by describing yourself, your passions and this will lead to better business relations. Keep in mind that this won’t go naturally and you have to show interest in others; this is an excellent way to search for points of similarity.