The definition of ‘remote working’ has changed over the past ten years. Where once it referred to non-desk-based roles, such as hospital porters or railworkers, today it also encompasses those 4.2 million people who work from home or somewhere other than the office – but the communications challenge remains unchanged. If appropriate safety nets are not in place, remote working can have a detrimental effect on an employee’s sense of belonging.
Isabel Collins, founder of consultancy Belonging Space, explains: ‘Remote working has a massive implication for belonging. The possibilities for disconnection are quite high. Therefore, organisations have to work quite hard to make sure to maintain that sense of belonging, into the little communities as well as the big communities.’
Sharon O’Dea, co-founder of digital communications and collaboration consultancy Lithos Partners agrees. ‘We assume work happens in the same kind of way in a different place, but actually we need to think differently about the ways that we communicate, we connect, we share. How do we motivate each other? It has an impact on things like status. How do we define teams and motivate them through that relatedness and competence? We need to make sure people can sustain those same behaviours without feeling isolated.’
Isolation is one of the biggest challenges. ‘Camaraderie is hard to replicate without physically being in the building together,’ says Collins. ‘Quite a lot of valuable stuff happens in the bumping into each other that you miss when you’re remote. It’s massively possible given the busyiness of modern business to skip over and realise that half a year’s gone by without you properly seeing somebody. You might be risking isolation for some people and feeling isolated or excluded can massively affect someone’s productivity.’
Collins believes the solution comes in two parts: operational and emotive. Operationally speaking, it is about making sure everyone has access to the same system, whilst confidentiality, security and the ability to collaborate are also important considerations. The emotive element, however, is a much tougher nut to crack.
‘You need to think all the time about how your people belong to the whole company, to their team, to other teams,’ she explains. ‘You definitely need a way to make clear what employees are a part of, what the guidelines are on how you connect with that, and how you make that clear for everybody. And then you need some functional tools that allow people to share knowledge from wherever they are.’
It might be as simple as a WhatsApp Group, she suggests. ‘They are very quick, immediate and good for informal exchange. Technology can do that well: it’s the little thing that bings in your pocket after a difficult client meeting Hope it’s gone well. That’s a really important part of belonging. It’s using technology to provide what would have otherwise been the high-five in the corridor or the gentle hand on the shoulder, saying Don’t worry about it, it happens to everybody.’
However, making communications accessible does not mean blanket coverage across all platforms and spaces. Benjamin Ellis, chief executive of Social Optic, points to the idea of the ‘third space’ for non-office-based workers. These are the spaces between working and not working, such as canteens, where communicators might sense an opportunity to reach out but which might prove counter-productive.
Ellis explains: ‘There’s this thing about whether you get to control what’s being communicated to you. If you’re in a job where you don’t get to control whether you go to the toilet or not, then having information shoved in your face when you don’t want to receive it is really disengaging and disempowering.’
Social Optic’s Remotely interested? report, which surveyed seven organisations where remote workers comprised more than 60 per cent of the workforce, found that, of non-face-to-face channels, print magazines are viewed as the most interesting source of information while noticeboards are seen as the second most useful, although only 14 per cent found them to be accurate. Two in three respondents found TV screens and text messaging neither informative, accurate, useful nor interesting.
The survey found that posting a staff magazine to a home address is not viewed as intrusive, as an employee can choose when or whether to read the publication, while putting information on a digital screen in a canteen is viewed as intrusive, because that space represents a chance to unwind and connect with colleagues. Employees then either switch off the screen or swap to another channel.
Ellis adds that ‘inappropriately timed communication’ occur because internal communications teams are unaware of their employees’ schedules and, consequently, the points in the day when it might be a good opportunity to communicate with them. ‘That understanding is incredibly important because it tells you what channels to use, when to use them and how to use them,’ he says. ‘It sounds basic and obvious but most organisations haven’t actually done that research, haven’t gone out and spent the time with their teams.’
Certainly, solving these issues is less about the tools themselves - of which there are now many, from Slack to Yammer to Workplace by Facebook - but rather the skills needed to manage people via those tools.
O’Dea adds: ‘The reality is that a lot of companies are approaching remote working from a technocentric angle. It doesn’t actually work that way. [Remote working] requires us to work slightly differently, particularly in terms of our relationships with other people. What really successful organisations do is to work with managers and train them on remote teams.’
She cites a company with many remote workers who found that employees who worked remotely were happy with workplace communication and collaboration, whilst their managers were actually finding it quite stressful. ‘There was a sense that they had to communicate things twice,’ O’Dea explains. ‘We need to think more carefully about setting up processes and channels so everyone feels included no matter where they’re working.’
Social Optic’s research also demonstrated the impact that poor management can have on communication. Just 36 per cent of workers believed their manager was an accurate source of information, whilst fewer than two thirds believed they had all the necessary information to do their job well.
Ellis explains: ‘Interestingly, across [all sectors], their manager was equally important, which is almost counterintuitive because you tend to think that, for somebody who is working in a lone environment, the manager wouldn’t have as much of an impact as in an environment where you’re working constantly throughout the whole shift with your manager behind you.
‘As it turns out, the manager and their communications style is critically important. There is a direct link between how communicative a manager is and whether an employee feels like they have the information to get the job done well. It even impacts on non-manager things, like the print magazine or how they receive the website. If their manager is a bit negative about stuff, doesn’t communicate well or miscommunicates things, then that actually impacts on all communications that employee receives. If they feel like the information they’re getting is inaccurate, it’s a question of who is right: my colleagues, my manager, the magazine? It impacts on trust in the organisation.’
In recent years, companies have increasingly turned to podcasting to reestablish trust within the workplace. ‘One of the challenges [podcasting] addresses is how to have a two-way conversation with your people,’ says Richard Lancaster, founder of Brand Conversation. ‘Rather than it being top down communications, how do you get people to trust what you say and have empathy with your leadership? That’s where radio is so good. It’s always been the most trusted of all media, perhaps because it is conversational.’
Podcasts also tend to have higher engagement levels than other channels. ‘On YouTube, a good result is something that’s viewed more than halfway through, but with podcasting, we see that 85 per cent listen from start to finish,’ Lancaster explains. ‘I think the reason for that is that it’s just so easy to do. Whatever you want to do, it doesn’t hamper your ability to do it, which is where the challenges are coming from for other channels. And certainly, if you’re a remote workforce, and you’re in a car or on location, a podcast can come straight to your phone wherever you are.’
He adds: ‘Think about it as an ongoing conversation. That’s the secret to it, otherwise you’re trying to build an audience every single time. If you get it right, it will start to have a cumulative effect. For an internal audience, yes you’ve got your serious messages and topics the CEO wants to talk about, but you’ve got to make the show entertaining, fun to listen to and about people to actually build a big audience and keep them there.’
Ellis believes that internal communicators need to think carefully about the needs of remote employees, and what information they really need to perform their role. ‘Do you have different groupings that need communicating with in different ways? Think more strategically about how you use your channels, thinking about them as a whole mix,’ he says. ‘Take stuff out. Our data showed that, where employees felt like they were getting irrelevant information, they felt like they weren’t getting enough information they needed to do their job well, even though they were possibly getting as much as others. It was just buried in other stuff.
‘Remember the effect of the line manager. Invest some time in getting line managers engaged, increasing their communication skills, helping them understand the channels you’ve built as well. If there is little time, sometimes employees can rely on their managers to signpost the important communications. They are a key stakeholder for the comms team.’
O’Dea agrees: ‘[Remote working] enables people to balance other areas of their life and that reduces levels of stress and so on. I think the best practice is thinking holistically and actually planning around remote working. It tends to happen by attrition, and as a result, companies end up learning their own ways.’
Ellis concludes: ‘There’s a myth about remote workers not being very engaged. That can be misleading because everyone we surveyed wanted to do a good job, for their customer or for their team. A lot of issues were really around whether corporates understood them. It’s not them, it’s you. A lot of potential can be unlocked if you tap into that.’