Five paradoxes of global remote working

As workforces become more dispersed and global, it’s easy to assume employees can manage on their own and take charge of their working day. But, as Hannah Prince explains, there are a number of unexpected areas where HR may need to step in.

The traditional nine-to-five way of working – everyone sharing a central office space and taking communal morning tea-breaks – is a thing of the past.

Employees now ask for more flexibility to meet the needs of their busy lives. Combined with technological advances, this has led to increased demand to work off-site and across the globe, resulting in more virtual and global team working than ever before.

At Insights Learning and Development, we carried out a study to understand what it feels like to work in globally dispersed teams and explored peoples’ experiences working in different physical locations and time zones. In short, the research found that employees in these teams required much more than just a laptop and Wi-Fi connection.

What do employees need?

Our data revealed that the needs of globally dispersed employees fall into three main categories:

  • identity and belonging – to feel part of a team and connected to others;
  • trust and autonomy – to be trusted to work flexibly and to have freedom over working environment, location and hours; and
  • education and support – to be given the right backing, in order to feel a level of mastery over this new way of working.

These findings suggest that to create the optimal employee experience in a global and virtual environment, organisations must create a mutual sense of belonging, trust their employees to do their jobs and offer the right support to be successful in their roles.

But in addition to these needs, our research also uncovered five paradoxes – contradictions seemingly opposed to remote working, but which can help HR managers gain deeper insights into the issues affecting these employees.

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Paradox 1: They still need structure

Despite increased flexibility, employees still require some structure to their working day; they need a set working space away from home life and reasonable working hours to enable them to ‘switch off’ from work.

The brain likes habits. It associates different spaces with certain things – for example the office with work and the kitchen with home. As personal and work settings start to intertwine, it can be tricky to manage the balance.

Advice

If team members are working from home regularly, encourage them to have a separate space for working. Consider suggesting that employees simulate a short walk to work in the morning to mimic their morning commute.

A balance between remote and office-based working is ideal where possible. Respondents described being able to work both from home and the office as a great way to get the best of both worlds.

Paradox 2: Autonomous workers still need support

Employees need to have a sense of volition over their working methods, however they still require education and support to be able to work in such an autonomous way.

Individuals wanted to be trusted to get on and do their job, wherever, whenever they deemed necessary. Because of that, organisations need to accept that flexible working is required and trust that employees can manage their time effectively. At the same time, they should also provide the right framework for this to happen.

Advice

Ask individuals (regardless where they are based) how they would like to work, what suits their needs best, and then help them achieve this ideal. At the same time, give guidelines and support to enable them to work in various conditions.

For example, when working from home, offer support on how to deal with loneliness or distractions of a different nature. In a practical sense, make sure that all team members have fully functioning technology and know how to use it.

Paradox 3: Remote workers still need a sense of belonging

In order to feel a sense of belonging, employees in globally dispersed teams need face-to-face contact time, especially at project kick off. This enables relationships to be built and virtually sustained.

Regardless of where they worked, respondents expressed a desire for face-to-face connection – to be in the same physical space as someone else, as there is something powerful about seeing facial expressions and body language. This is something you don’t fully appreciate when communicating via email, or Skype. Close proximity to others is key not only for productivity but also developing empathy for others.

Advice

Where possible, encourage team leaders to have regular face-to-face contact built in, particularly at the beginning of a project – this doesn’t have to be in the office, but could also be socially, over coffee or lunch.

Paradox 4: Don’t assume technology will do everything

The reliance on technology is huge, however the technology provided and support on how to use it is paramount.

There was a clear expectation among respondents that better access to technology is needed, and that it is crucial that employees receive training to be able to use it, to communicate, socialise and problem-solve.

Advice

Where possible, make training around technology an important strategic and budgetary priority within L&D programmes. If you set it as a strategic priority people are more likely to take the time to attend training sessions and see it as core to company success.

Paradox 5: Include remote workers in social plans too

Work is often achieved through social interaction, so informal social interaction with colleagues should therefore still be considered work.

Respondents reported that often some of the best work occurs away from the corporate office environment through “water-cooler moments” or employees sharing ideas offline.

However, access to these social activities can be limited based on location. Individuals within our study mentioned that it is not commonplace to put remote workers or virtual colleagues “at the forefront of minds when planning tasks, events and social gatherings”.

Advice

Ensure that remote colleagues are not excluded from social gatherings just because they are physically distant and that inviting them is not seen as an afterthought. If remote colleagues do miss out, make sure you get their input and update them on important conversations, as well as acknowledge that they were missed.

Supporting the needs of a globally dispersed and virtual workforce will continue to be important for organisations to prioritise in order to get the best out of their employees.

By striving to optimise the employee experience in a globally dispersed environment, organisations can steward in a new era of flexibility, productivity and understanding in the working world. Acknowledging the required amount of trust, belonging and support is a great place to start.

Hannah Prince

About Hannah Prince

Hannah Prince is the business psychologist at Insights Learning and Development

2 Responses to Five paradoxes of global remote working

  1. Avatar
    Worksnaps 2 Aug 2019 at 5:04 am #

    Thank you for the detailed explanation of the different paradoxes of remote working, Hannah. The advice you gave along with it are very informative and helpful. Definitely sharing this, thanks!

  2. Avatar
    Sandra Pilson 2 Aug 2019 at 8:58 am #

    Some good food for thought here and insight for engagement with my globally dispersed projects

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