How to tackle challenges facing remote teams

Even though remote work is a game changer for businesses, companies need to address the very specific challenges of this format to boost productivity of scattered teams

Bhavin Turakhia
Updated: Apr 30, 2019 05:04:39 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

Remote work is a game changer for businesses. It gives them access to the world's top talent, results in higher employee productivity, and saves them money. All remote work setups, whether made of teams working remotely from different offices or of employees working from their homes, or a mix of both, face very specific challenges that need to be addressed.

In this article, we look at three challenges that every remote team faces and how to address them.

Overcoming 'virtual distance'

Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, an assistant professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, describes virtual distance as a sense of psychological and emotional detachment that begins to grow unconsciously when most encounters or experiences are mediated by screens/technology.

Not so surprisingly, this is an increasingly common form of disconnect in distributed and remote teams. Dr. Karen and her colleagues measured and analysed virtual distance in teams around the world. Their data shows that left uncontrolled, high virtual distance can have adverse effects on businesses like:

  • Innovative behaviour falls by over 90 percent
  • Trust declines by over 80 percent
  • Cooperative and helping behaviours go down by over 80 percent
  • Role and goal clarity declines by 75 percent
  • Project success drops by over 50 percent
  • Organisational commitment and satisfaction declines by more than 50 percent

The virtual distance model is made up of three factors: Affinity distance, physical distance and operational distance.

Affinity virtual distance is the distance that people from different cultural sensibilities face when communicating and interpreting messages (among other things).

Physical virtual distance, as the name suggests, is the distance between the physical locations of remote employees and their time zones.

Operational virtual distance concerns the logistics of remote work such as the number of team members, the degree of collaboration needed on projects, the different competencies/skills of team members, and more.

Here are a few ways you can bring your virtual team 'closer' and minimise the virtual distance:

Educate your team on cultural differences To tackle the affinity virtual distance, educate your team on how to succeed in a multicultural environment. Make them aware that what they're saying might not be instantly clear to the people they're talking to. Encourage them to ask questions if something isn't clear.

Set the right expectations around communication
Get everyone on board with your communication policy and request team members to share their availability with each other. This will help bridge the physical virtual distance.

Invest in the best tools for remote teams
Find the best communication and collaboration tools and train your employees to use them. This can be very helpful in handling both physical and operational distances.

Minimising distractions
While distractions in a traditional office setup (chatty coworkers or the general office noise) can be different from the distractions remote workers face (think kids, cats and everything in between!)—the result is the same: Low productivity.

This distraction problem can actually be much worse in a remote team as on top of everything else, it comes with a barrage of work updates happening on all the different tools—incoming emails, chat notifications, workflow app alerts, calendar invites and whatnot. Then, of course, there's Netflix, too. Distractions are, in fact, one of the Top 3 struggles of remote workers.

While you can't eliminate distractions for your remote employees, you can certainly help minimise them. Here are three ways to get started:

Encourage daily work routines
When Ctrip, China's largest travel agency, conducted a 9-month experiment to test a work-from-home policy, they found that productivity increased by 13 percent. The interesting part? Employees working from home followed the same general routine that they used to in the office. Encourage your remote employees to create and follow a routine.

Offer training to improve focus
Seven out of 10 employees think that training can help people get better at blocking out distractions and achieving focus. Invest in training to make your employees aware of their distractions and give them the tools they need to overcome them.

Offer a generous home-office setup allowance
Encouraging your remote employees to create a home office is another great way to minimise distractions. With your support, they will be able to find the most 'distraction-free' zone of their homes and work from there.

Helping remote teams stay healthy
Working remotely also means working mostly alone. This social isolation might cause some of your team members to feel lonely or demotivated. These adverse health effects aren't just horrible for your employees but also for your business, as unhappy employees aren't very productive.

Here's how you can proactively address these challenges:

Offer a co-working allowance
One easy way to tackle the loneliness part of remote working is to encourage your employees to work from co-working spaces. These spaces can give your remote employees a sense of community and belonging that they might miss when working remotely. In fact, employees who visit co-working spaces report a much higher 'thriving score', at an average of 6 on a 7-point scale.

Connect with no agenda
Arranging informal chats between your team members is another great way to beat this remote work loneliness.

Talk about mental wellness
Acknowledging and opening up about the psychological impact of remote working is the first step toward overcoming this challenge. Encourage your employees to talk about it.

Send them on paid vacations
Vacations are great at reducing stress, improving focus and achieving a great work-life balance. In short, you need your employees to take time off to do great work. Remote companies that understand that vacations improve the mental health of their employees offer lots of paid leaves.

Proactively address your remote team’s challenges
Remote work comes with its own challenges. But even little things such as sharing a good book on cultural expressions, giving a one-time home-office setup allowance, or offering paid leaves (and encouraging your employees to take them) can make a huge difference to how your remote team performs. Proactively addressing your remote team's challenges helps you build a happy, healthy, and productive workforce that grows your business.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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