When you can’t maintain a connection with dispersed workers, you end up losing smart people.
Whether it’s the result of an acquisition, global expansion or the need to attract and retain employees with work-from-home options, more and more companies are maintaining remote, dispersed and global teams.
These new ways of working offer advantages, but they also create challenges. For the past 15 years, I have worked at companies with dispersed workforces, helping them find the best ways to keep their people happy, productive and connected. In my former role at Cigital, I helped the company grow from 35 to 500 employees, navigate an acquisition, integrate companies in England, The Netherlands and India and set up remote offices across the U.S. Today, as VP of Human Resources at Onapsis, I support a company with 300 employees equally distributed across three countries and time zones.
Having a connected culture with a dispersed workforce is a critically important issue, because when employees are happy, they collaborate, come up with new ideas and solve problems. If they are unhappy, they vote with their feet. When you can’t maintain a connection with dispersed workers, you end up losing smart people.
While I’m still learning how to get the balance right, the approaches below have helped my companies keep people engaged and build strong, unified cultures across the distances.
Be flexible, but not too flexible
Employees love the flexibility of working from home. Someone I managed years ago told me recently that working from home enabled her to watch her kids grow up. She could leave early to go to a soccer game and then catch up on work in the evening when the kids were in bed. That’s a great thing.
But I learned that too much flexibility comes with a price. I thought once taking away people’s freedom would be the wrong move, but I discovered that when they can work wherever they want, whenever they want, it hurts the culture. The office empties out, the camaraderie disappears, people feel alone and sad. Their best selves stop showing up at work.
At Onapsis, employees can work from home a maximum of one day a week. This provides some flexibility while ensuring that the office is still a lively place and the company culture stays strong.
Prioritize “face time”
Sometimes, companies don’t have an office in every employee location, and working from home is the only option. In those cases, managers need to find other ways to establish that sense of connection.
Providing an opportunity to connect on a deeper level sends the message that the remote employee is important and valued.
This may involve visiting the person at their location for a few days or meeting up on a regular basis. Even if it’s just a few get-togethers for lunch or coffee, it provides an opportunity to connect on a deeper level and sends the message that the remote employee is important and valued.
At Onapsis, we have also made it a company-wide policy to use videoconferencing instead of the phone for communication. By turning the cameras on, you can bring people face to face on a regular basis and ensure that employees benefit from being part of more nuanced interactions. Seeing someone’s facial expressions and body language—a smile, a frown, a shrug—can make all the difference.
We also hold what we call a “tribe hall” or all-hands meeting every four to six weeks. Our CEO speaks to employees at all three locations— Boston, MA., Buenos Aires, Argentina and Heidelberg, Germany—in simulcast for 30 minutes, after which each country holds a Q&A session in their own language. It gives the whole company an opportunity to get on the same page, despite the differences in language, culture, location and time zone.
And finally, try to get everyone together under one roof once a year, whether it’s a conference, a holiday party or a retreat. If that’s not practical, hold an event in each region and make sure the leadership team travels to each one to make an appearance and spend time with the team.
Ensure managers are hands-on
Although it’s a coveted perk, remote work can lead to disconnection and even depression. People who were thrilled with working from home can suddenly become disillusioned, so it’s important for managers to check in regularly and actively seek out ways to create meaningful connections.
When workers are no longer physically in front of them, managers have to work even harder to monitor and support their mental and emotional well being.
For example, we set up shared office space to give our remote workers a place to work together and offset the isolating effects of working from home. When the manager took the lead and coordinated schedules, the experiment was a success. But when employees were left to their own devices, the problem got worse. People showed up on different days and ended up sitting alone in a huge office, which intensified their feelings of isolation.
Every manager needs to understand that when workers are no longer physically in front of them, they have to work even harder to monitor and support their mental and emotional well being.
Cultivate cultural awareness
If your company is globally dispersed, cultural diversity adds yet another wrinkle. Different languages and different ways of doing business can create distance, misunderstanding and resentment. Something as simple as an email exchange can quickly deteriorate into confusion and anxiety because of differing communication styles and language barriers.
Different time zones can also be an issue, and it’s important to meet people halfway. I regularly wake up early to fit the regular work hours of my overseas colleagues and flex my day, so that they are not always hopping on a call after hours. It’s critical to ensure that you are talking on the phone with them, not just handling problems via email.
Here, too, video conferencing and other face-to-face interactions can be used to your advantage. Where an email is easy to misinterpret, an in-person meeting gives people an opportunity to see a friendly face and remind themselves that everyone is on the same team.
Putting the issue on every employee’s radar by talking about it is a helpful first step. Remind them of the effect that different cultural norms can have on communication, and encourage them to reach out and talk to each other when there’s friction.
Here’s the bottom line.
Dispersed workforces are increasingly common, but distance makes it harder to keep people connected. In my experience, creating more structure around remote work, maximizing the opportunities for face-to-face interactions (both on-screen and in person), scheduling frequent check-ins with remote workers and recognizing the need for cross-cultural understanding has helped to keep company cultures strong even as they continue to expand and adapt.