Despite being on my current team for a year and a half, I’ve never felt closer to my colleagues until the last few months. Previously, I was the lone remote worker. Today, everyone is working remote due to COVID-19, which evens the playing field in terms of team building activities.
It’s no secret that the nature of work changed dramatically for many during the COVID-19 outbreak. For those of us who were already remote workers, we knew the challenges our office coworkers would encounter making this transition. As a long-time remote worker, I’m grateful this dynamic highlighted many of the challenges remote workers face when the bulk of their colleagues are working from the same office. With offices opening up, I’ve collected a few potential cultural changes companies can adopt to help improve the experience for everyone.
Challenges For Remote Workers Pre-COVID-19
One obvious challenge for remote workers is they don’t benefit from the proverbial water cooler or any common area to interact with colleagues outside of formal meetings. While relationships are forged through collaboration on common tasks and projects, deeper relationships are often built during informal chats and interactions in the office between formal meetings. Without these common areas it’s difficult to have chance encounters to meet new colleagues and get to know people outside their immediate team.
Another area is large group meetings. Most group meetings take place in a single room in a single location, leaving a handful of people dialing in remotely. If rooms are not set up with video conferencing technology, the default behavior is to simply provide a dial-in number for remote participants. In many cases, remote participants have no visibility to the room or other attendees. This results in a few challenges:
It’s impossible to read body language or cues during the meeting, particularly if you are asked to present or lead discussions.
As a presenter, you don’t have the advantage of communicating through body language or cues, which can have a significant impact on how your audience receives opinions and information.
It is difficult to be part of the natural ebb and flow of discussion and commentary. Often, the room will engage in a discussion and at the end, simply ask remote participants if they have anything to add.
It can be difficult to make or reinforce connections with colleagues. The time before and after group meetings offers opportunities for conversations that remote participants generally miss.
Small group meetings generally suffer from the same limitations as the large groups. Those in the office, whether in the same room or not, simply default to audio calls. While small talk is naturally easier on smaller group calls, the lack of video for all participants can recreate many of the same disadvantages as large group meetings.
As the crisis unfolded, the balance between remote and non-remote workers shifted incredibly fast. And that shift normalized everyone’s work experience—we are all remote workers now.
Although I have strong relationships with the immediate circle I work with, there were obviously conversations I missed out on simply because I was not in the office. With everyone remote, these types of conversations can only take place on video calls, usually before the meeting kicks off. We also instituted virtual coffee breaks twice per week—everyone remote, everyone on video. This gives us all a chance to stay connected despite the lack of physical proximity to each other, and I personally feel more aware of goings on outside of my group since I am now part of the discussions that were reserved for lunch or cubicle conversations in the past.
Three Recommendations for Culture Changes
Our unintentional experiment over these last few months highlights a few things organizations should implement to minimize the experience gap between their remote workers and those who will eventually return to the office.
- Video by default: For meetings with remote colleagues, all attendees should join with video by default. Whether it is a large group meeting in a single location, or a call with in-office colleagues at their desks, turning the video on, unless there is a compelling reason not to, ensures a better experience for everyone. With the wide-spread adoption of software like Teams and Zoom, this is simple to do. And with virtual backgrounds available, even busy locations in an office can be accommodated.
- Video-friendly conference rooms: To facilitate video by default, rooms typically used for group meetings should be video-friendly. At a minimum, there should be connectivity so remote workers can be projected onto a screen where they can be seen. Just as important is the ability for remote workers to see their colleagues. This means dedicated webcams for each room that accompany the screens rather than relying on laptop cameras.
- Scheduled virtual coffee breaks: It would be unreasonable to try and include remote employees in every office-based conversation throughout the day, but scheduled team breaks via video are a great tool for remote workers to stay in the loop with their in-office colleagues. As with any other meeting, defaulting to video ensures remote colleagues can capture some of the proximity in-office colleagues naturally have to keep everyone across the team connected and engaged.
While COVID-19 impacted our lives in many ways, there are opportunities for us to learn from this experience. For the sake of remote workers, I hope many companies remember learnings from this time when planning future meetings and interactions. Work places may not be the same after the crisis, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Here are a few additional resources Maritz Motivation has published on how companies can navigate COVID-19: