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Is it possible to be truly engaged when working remotely?

Working remotely is becoming increasingly common, and it is projected that this trend will continue. But what implications does this have for employees, and in particular, for their engagement?
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In 2016, The Oxford Group carried out a survey looking at the attitudes of those working remotely. It revealed some interesting trends and results, for example, how almost every respondent agreed traditional working environments were better for effectiveness and productivity.

Interestingly, individuals felt very strongly about this, whilst more senior employees were not quite so insistent. We drew three main conclusions drawn from the survey.

Firstly, virtual or remote working is on the rise. Also, those with experience of working virtually are not quite so negative about it as those without experience; and regardless of their experience of working remotely, the majority of respondents thought face-to-face interaction made the job more enjoyable.

This brings about two challenges that need to be tackled head on:

Communication

As was suggested, most respondents preferred traditional workplaces for the face-to-face interaction. This strength of feeling surprised us, given that the technologies used for communication in the virtual workplace, such as Skype, webex, telepresence and social media are so ubiquitous these days both in and out of work.

Virtual senior leaders

Another finding from The Oxford Group survey was that the more senior an employee was, the more positive they were about the benefits of working remotely, with 39 per cent of C-suite respondents stating that virtual workplaces were actually better for efficiency, morale and productivity. Only 19 per cent of lower-level individuals felt this way.

Although this is not necessarily surprising, it is the first real confirmation we have found of this.

This discrepancy can be explained: the more senior an employee, the more experience of remote working they are likely to have had, and the more they are likely to have to rely on technology to conduct and maintain their working relationships with their peers who are probably dispersed nationally or globally. They are also more likely to give thought to cost efficiency.

But what impact does virtual working have on morale, loyalty and engagement? And if it is significant, is it a fair trade? Given our findings, we believe that this impact is of concern, and does need addressing. With this in mind, we have come up with five top tips to help people achieve the most from virtual working relationships:

(1) Allocate time to getting to know people and building relationships – remember that trust is the key when building relationships in the virtual world.

(2) Make sure you always set clear expectations of performance make it a two-way process so solicit the expectations your colleagues have of you.

(3) Understand the power of appreciation. More than ever, in virtual working environments, showing gratitude will go a long way when colleagues might feel isolated.

(4) Have a willingness to address issues directly – not by email but always over the phone.

(5) Try to recruit people who you feel have the resilience to maintain morale and perform well in virtual environments.

Recently, virtual workplaces have experienced an abrupt decline in engagement, particularly with lower-level employees. The good news is that there is a lot that can be done to combat this, and these five tips put in place consistently and sincerely can allow you to build employee engagement and make the most of virtual working.

Nigel Purse is founder of The Oxford Group

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