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Active Management Needed to Make Remote and Hybrid Work Successful

July 23, 2021 Digital Workplace
Mark Feffer
By Mark Feffer

Remote employees often feel isolated, buried in technology and at odds with coworkers, hindrances that will be with employers and their HR departments for a while.

Even though businesses have been preparing to bring many workers back into the office, the spread of COVID-19’s Delta variant is touching the brakes on efforts to get back to normal. On top of that, many employees, imagining life in a more desirable area or with less commute time, are toying with the idea of relocating while keeping their job.

If nothing else, the pandemic has been a test bed of human behavior during periods of reduced human contact and self-motivation. And while many companies have been pleasantly surprised by how well their remote workers have performed since the pandemic gained steam in early 2020, the challenges of effectively managing dispersed teams have become steadily more apparent.

Disconnection and Frustration on the Rise

For example, the ratings and review firm Clutch found that nearly two-thirds of employees (63 percent) spend less time socializing with colleagues either in person or online since businesses moved employees to remote work. Videoconferencing may have gained traction as a way to collaborate and stay in touch with teams, but many workers say their corporate culture has taken a beating.

And while employers have provided greater access to communications tools, they’ve failed to maintain the sense of camaraderie and cohesion they had before the virus appeared, Clutch said.

“Unless you have proactive plans for building trust and accountability within your workforce, and unless you have a robust digital infrastructure to tie individual effort to high-level business strategy, your tech solutions will only take you so far,” wrote Laura Butler, senior vice president of people and culture at Lehi, Utah, management software provider Workfront

Not only that, remote employees are overwhelmed by workplace technologies and that’s affecting their productivity. According to Beezy, a San Francisco provider of communications and collaboration solutions, just over half of workers struggle to feel connected to their work in all-virtual settings. 

Meanwhile, 41 percent are overwhelmed by the number of tools and technologies they’re required to use, while 58 percent believe frequent application notifications decrease their productivity. Problems like spotty Internet connections or slow transmission speeds cause frustration and wasted time.

But there are some bright spots: Beezy’s 2021 Digital Workplace Trends & Insights report said employees have gained hours each week because of suspended or reduced commutes.

Related Article: Why Collaboration Analytics Is Crucial to the Employee Experience

Focus on Collaboration

When it comes to remote workflows, communications and knowledge sharing, “the cracks are deepening” under everyone, Beezy said.

“After a year of remote work, employees are more burnt out than ever thanks to an abundance of meetings, hundreds of notifications and little sense of belonging to their company,” said Beezy Chief Marketing Officer Mike Hicks. “It’s on business leaders to fix these disjointed digital workplaces, especially as we enter a new era of hybrid-virtual work.”

Hicks pointed at outdated company intranets, poor communication practices, limited knowledge sharing and inefficient digital processes as being particular problems. “At this point in the technical lifecycle, there’s no reason these tools should be working against you,” he said.

Indeed, technology is supposed to make life better anyway you look at it, in terms of productivity, experience, quality or pretty much wherever it’s applied. But a separate study, this one by the UK-based digital work platform Qatalog and the Ellis Idea Lab at Cornell University, reported that, in fact, the impact of digital tools at work isn’t so positive.

Employees waste an hour a day trying to find information buried within their apps, the study found. Six in 10 people say it’s hard to know what colleagues are doing at any given time, and 43 percent say they spend too much time switching between apps. Productivity software, it seems, is cheating workers out of time, focus and creativity.

Meantime, despite all the talk about “connection,” people are uncertain about what work has been undertaken on the platforms used by other teams. For example, a branding team might rely on a project management solution while the content team organizes its work in a wiki and the sales team tracks its efforts in a CRM. About 61 percent said it can be hard to figure out what others are working on, while 44 percent said siloed tools make it difficult to know whether work is being duplicated.

That may be one reason accounting firm KPMG found signs of wear among the workforce. About a third of workers (34 percent) said their relationships with colleagues have taken a turn for the worse, the firm said. Some 35 percent said the same thing about their team’s ability to collaborate. And even though many reported better experiences, 41 percent said their happiness at work has slipped and 35 percent believe culture has worsened.

Related Article: Can You Create 'Water Cooler' Culture in the Virtual Workplace?

Actively Manage Team Dynamics in Remote and Hybrid Work

Remote work may impact an organization’s culture in insidious ways, eroding trust, social cohesion and information sharing. To ensure the workforce continues to operate efficiently, creatively and productively, employers must actively manage changes to team dynamics.

Researchers from the Advanced Workplace Institute in New York City and the Center for Evidence Based Management in the Netherlands reviewed 35 studies and 10 analyses covering some 715 academic papers. They determined that dispersed work affects the frequency and quality of team communications, levels of consensus and conflict, and the amount and quality of social interaction. This, in turn, affects team performance and outcomes.

Trust, social cohesion and information sharing are subject to the most strain in the world of remote work, the report said. So, they must be proactively managed if remote work efforts are to succeed. Managers must understand the differences in how employees react to working virtually as opposed to on site, and help team members respond to those differences and operate in ways tailored to their remote work environment.

Finally, the report notes that every member of a virtual team has the potential to be a leader: “Home-based employees respond well to more transformational management styles,” researchers said. The report recommended creating a strong team structure and involving team members in goal development and decision making.

“Organizations increasingly need to harness their knowledge resources as opposed to controlling and ‘managing’ them,” said Andrew Mawson, managing director of the consulting firm Advanced Workplace Associates, which founded the AWI.

“When we are working in a more virtualized model, old models become more difficult and we need new understandings and practices to deliver success in a virtualized world.”

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