Virtual watercooler: how employees tap into workplace culture from afar
With more remote workers, managers are adopting strategies such as yearly meetups and chatty online journals to help employees feel connected.
New York—At more small businesses, any watercooler chat takes place in a messaging app. Staff meetings are held via Skype. There might not even be an office. Having a remote staff can be a good fit for many companies. Among the upsides: It expands the pool of job candidates, and lowers a company's overhead since there's no need for a big office.
But there can be downsides, including the risk of personal and professional isolation. And sometimes interaction isn't quite as effective as it is in person. "There is only so much that you can communicate through text," says Max Sheppard, CEO of TrustedPros, an online service that helps people find home-improvement workers. "This makes it difficult to gauge employee emotions, morale, and well-being."
Mr. Sheppard, like many other owners, uses messaging programs like Google Hangout and Slack that let remote staffers hold group or individual chats. He has six employees, all in the Toronto area.
Video services like Skype and Zoom are also popular. Many owners have at least one meeting a year that brings far-flung staffers together. Some, Sheppard among them, gather with employees for periodic dinners or other social activities.
Employees overall are doing more telecommuting, though it's hard to quantify how many work remotely and how many of those are at small companies. In a report from Gallup released earlier this year, nearly a third said they work remotely 80 percent or more of the time, up from nearly a quarter who said that in 2013.
Having some staffers work remotely while others are in one office can create separate cultures, and some remote employees may feel left out. At Todd Horton's software company, KangoGift, four staffers work together in Boston and six are remote, scattered in Europe and India. Communication can get problematic – some employees feel so distant they forget to keep everyone in the loop with them. "Information can get trapped in silos," says Mr. Horton, whose business helps companies send performance awards to employees. "If the European team gains an insight and doesn't share it quickly, the others will never know something happened."
Another wrinkle: Horton will sometimes take the Boston crew out for a business lunch, and the overseas employees do learn of it. "They know they're missing out," Horton says.
At H2O Media, an advertising agency based in Eden Prairie, Minn. where seven of 12 staffers work remotely, "We all try to look at the separation as a positive, and we make an effort to stay connected via team emails, calls and annual meetings," says Allison Baker, social media and marketing coordinator. But Ms. Baker notes that the remote workers include salespeople – a job that had employees working away from an office long before computers or telecommuting.
Timing may be key to the success or failure of a remote work situation, says James Celentano, managing director of EnterGain, a human resources consulting firm. If a company transitions from in-office to remote staffing, it can be a difficult adjustment. Startups, especially those with tech-savvy staffers, may find it easier."Those that do it well or have fewer issues are companies that embrace it from the get-go," Celentano says.
Owners need to be aware if working remotely is getting staffers down.
Kean Graham, who recalls getting cabin fever when he worked at home the first few years after starting his company, is mindful of the need for his staffers to sometimes see different scenery during the workday. "You have to be proactive and change your environment–go to a coffee shop or shared workspace or even go take a walk," says Graham, CEO of MonetizeMore, an advertising technology firm. He's based in Victoria, British Columbia, and has 80 remote staffers on five continents.
Managers need to watch for signs that workers are discontented, even depressed, Graham says. For example: anger, or withdrawal that becomes apparent from the tone of a staffer's voice, email or text, or a lack of communication. A remote employee's morale needs to be an important consideration when a boss makes any kind of communication, but especially a critique.
"If you don't word it correctly, people can take offense at something very simple. You have to be very pointed in how you ask questions or give feedback," says Michael Fry, president of Deepwater Subsea, a Houston-based company that inspects oil rigs and has 11 staffers in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee.
His solution: Pick up the phone. A conversation, which can also be done with video to see the other person, is not only more personal but can lower the risk of misunderstandings.
A good fit?
A remote job can be a dream for some employees, but a disaster for others. They can miss working with colleagues or find it hard to stay productive."Working from home sounds alluring and sexy, but what we've found is there are just some people that shouldn't work from home," says Bryan Miles, CEO of staffing company BELAY, whose 70 employees at its base of Atlanta all telecommute. "We've hired people and they've found, "Gosh I should really be in an office."Usually it's clear within three to six months whether working remotely is a good fit, Miles says.
With a remote staff, a company can lose some of the spontaneous chatter about sports, movies or news. Those moments help create a camaraderie that Andrea Goulet remembers from working in a traditional office setting. Her solution for Corgibytes, her software repair and revising company, is to encourage staffers to keep a daily journal in Slack about what's happening with them.
"If you neglect the entire human side of communication, then you don't feel that connection," Ms. Goulet says. Her Richmond, Va.-based company has 12 full-time remote staffers in states including Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
KangoGift's Horton finds that without colleagues nearby there's less of an ability to just bounce an idea off a co-worker and brainstorm. That can hurt communication, and affect people's creativity.
"I try to combat it," he says. "I'm always encouraging everyone to constantly share ideas using messaging tools."