When we talk about the importance of building strong relationships with employees, there’s a growing contingent that we often neglect: those who don’t work in the main office.
This means not just the 31 per cent of Americans who work remotely four or five days a week but also the people in satellite locations, where workers can easily feel forgotten. I’ve experienced this problem both as a manager and as an employee. For instance, when I ran a start-up in San Francisco that was acquired by a company based in Toronto, I went from overseeing on-site and off-site employees to leading an entirely off-site branch of a faraway business. Being a remote employee myself, and having my entire team also fall into that category, forced me to think differently about how to build team culture and keep everyone engaged and motivated.
I travelled to the headquarters to meet the team, figure out the culture there and get a clear sense of who controls what. But even in my time spent at the main office, I couldn’t possibly learn all the dynamics of the company. And we weren’t able to have the entire staff of our newly acquired start-up make that kind of a trip. So in addition to overseeing our portion of the operation, I became a conduit, doing my best to build relationships between my staff and the folks at headquarters. But in many ways, they remained strangers, and that took a toll on the business, affecting employee satisfaction and productivity.
Employees want to feel connected to one another. In a recent Globoforce study about the value of work relationships, 87 per cent of respondents said they trust their co-workers and 93 per cent said it’s important to have colleagues think highly of them. These bonds stoke engagement and commitment to the company. Cisco found that face-to-face relationships in particular are a boon to effective collaboration, which improves productivity, efficiency and innovation.
Since leaving that first start-up and founding another, I’ve discovered — through research, advice and trial and error — that several actions are effective at bridging the divide between employees at headquarters and everyone else. Only about one-half of our small staff work in the main office. As we scale, we plan to use these techniques to keep remote employees feeling as connected and engaged as those of us who see one another every day.
Ensure equal participation in stand-ups
In stand-up meetings, or huddles, our team gets together to quickly go over key points, ask questions and share feedback. We do this several days a week, sometimes every day. It can be easy to fall into a pattern of leaving off-site folks out, since stand-ups often have an informal feel and don’t always start at the same time. That’s why you have to be disciplined about including everyone. We make sure our remote employees are equal participants. They join over video to enhance collaboration; they can see us and we can see them, and they participate as though they’re in the room. When people are on the road during these meetings, and can join only by phone, we’re careful to give them equal time and feedback.
Publicly recognise contributions
Too often, the contributions of remote employees go unsung. Leaders may simply know that something was done by a satellite office, rather than by a specific individual. I saw this happen repeatedly when my employees in San Francisco, or one of our off-site employees, did great work and never heard directly from the executives in Toronto. This can contribute to attrition. Gallup found that: “Employees who do not feel adequately recognised are twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year.”
To prevent this, make sure top executives know the names of the individuals responsible for the good work, so they can drop the employees a note congratulating and thanking them. This simple gesture can be very meaningful. Gallup found that while 28 per cent of employees said the most memorable recognition comes from their manager, nearly as many — 24 per cent — said it comes from a high-level leader or CEO.
But a private note from a higher-up is sometimes not enough, because it lacks an audience. At the main office, an executive might happen to walk through a room, see an employee and praise them in front of colleagues. Or the executive may take time to do so during regular staff meetings, where the on-site employees are in attendance. In the Gallup survey, many workers said the most memorable method of recognition is public acknowledgment. And as an added benefit, it “sends messages to other employees about what success looks like”. So when praising a remote or off-site employee over email, copy others. Even better, use general chat boards (such as Slack), or mention it during a company-wide staff meeting that people throughout the enterprise join by video.
Beware of scapegoating
Remote employees sometimes get blamed for things that aren’t their fault. It can happen when people at the main office want to avoid blame themselves and use those who aren’t in the room as scapegoats — but often they don’t know what went wrong and are simply speculating. Either way, trust suffers. In one survey, 41 per cent of remote workers said their colleagues bad-mouthed them behind their backs, compared with 31 per cent of on-site employees. And 35 per cent of remote employees said colleagues lobbied against them, compared with 26 per cent of on-site workers.
When I learned that members of my remote team in San Francisco were being scapegoated by people at headquarters, I found it very difficult to undo — because word spreads fast in an organisation. Now, at my start-up, any time someone blames an off-site employee for something going wrong, I instinctively speak up. I say, “Well, let’s check with so-and-so about what happened and what challenges may have come up.” And I try to regularly do post-mortems about things that went wrong, laying out the facts for everyone to know and weigh in on.
Double down when it’s hardest
The times when I’ve failed to reach out adequately to my remote employees have been when I’m putting out a proverbial fire or working under a tight deadline to prepare a new release. When your head’s down and you’re racing to get things done, you can feel that you don’t have time for “secondary things” like communicating with remote employees. But work relationships are never secondary.
In those crunch times, your remote employees may feel even more underappreciated than usual, or unappreciated altogether. Brian de Haaff, CEO of a start-up called Aha, has written that this is one of the biggest reasons remote workers feel left out: “An issue arises and action needs to be taken immediately. Company leaders gather the in-office team together and share the plan. Everyone marches ahead, getting busy; but no one tells the remote folks. Either because the team simply forgot or did not want to take the time to reach out.”
Hire for and grow EQ
Finally, fill your business with people who are good at building positive, supportive relationships. This means looking out for candidates with emotional intelligence, which includes relationship management. As a boss, I’ve learned to look for people who demonstrate self-awareness and empathy for others. Some of the questions I ask in interviews are aimed at getting a sense of this. And it’s important to help your employees grow their EQ — through scheduled self-reflection, for example.
There’s no magic tool for making sure your relationships with remote employees are as strong as they can be. Making a good effort requires being equally conscious of them and understanding the challenges they face. It means trying to replicate the experience of having them physically present with you. The more actions you take to show that you consider them full members of your team, the more likely they are to feel and act that way. HBR/GB