The workplace is changing. Gone are the centralized offices where 90+% of an organization’s employees report to work each day. The past 5+ years has seen a dramatic rise in remote work, including work from home (WFH) and work from anywhere (WFA) arrangements.

Employees cherish the flexibility of remote work arrangements and report that they’re more productive when doing so. 

According to the CoSo Cloud Remote Worker Survey, 77% of respondents reported greater productivity while working remotely. In addition, 30% of respondents accomplished more in less time. 

According to Michael Fitzpatrick, CEO of ConnectSolutions, “Our Remote Collaborative Worker Survey suggests there are significant benefits to be gained by both remote workers and their employers with off-site employees motivated to work harder and more efficiently to protect both the personal and professional benefits of working remotely.”

While the flexibility of remote work results in more satisfied and productive employees, there are a number of factors for HR leaders to consider, including adjustments to communications, hiring, onboarding and retention.

Collaboration for distributed teams

In a SHRM article titled “Building and Leading High-Performing Remote Teams,” Karen Sobel Lojeski, founder and CEO of Virtual Distance International (VDI), describes the “sense of emotional and psychological detachment that builds up over time when people become over-reliant on technology to mediate their relationships,” a condition she calls “virtual distance.”

According to Lojeski’s research, when remote teams underperform, the geographic separation is not the root cause. Instead, the cause is this virtual distance — the greater the distance, the higher the negative impact on trust, job satisfaction and productivity.

“Team leaders can reduce virtual distance by creating an environment where team members feel emotionally and psychologically connected to one another and to the business,” says Lojeski. Part of the solution is open communications channels that allow employees to interact with each other beyond online chat, email and text messages.

The SHRM article references a Kenexa Research Institute finding that 50% of positive changes in communications are associated with social interaction outside the workplace (e.g., lunches or dinners, volunteering for nonprofit causes, etc.).

Remote teams also plan in-person get-togethers a few times per year, where the entire team travels to a destination for a week of off-site meetings, mixed with sightseeing and other fun activities.

Hiring for distributed teams

Remote work is not for everyone. Successful remote workers have a common set of tendencies and personality traits, such as being independent, assertive, collaborative and organized. An employee that falls short on these traits, and who worked in an office environment for the past 15 years, may take some time to adjust.

A SHRM article titled “How to Manage Remote Teams Effectively,” details the hiring approach of GrooveHQ, a company that has a remote team. GrooveHQ first targeted candidates with start-up experience. However, when the first set of candidates didn’t work out, they adjusted the hiring requirements to include people with prior remote work experience.

According to Alex Turnbull, founder and CEO of GrooveHQ, “Most people don’t have the organization, focus and motivation to be productive working remotely. Successfully working from home is a skill. It takes time and commitment.”

An article titled “How to Hire Remote Workers—and Keep Them Productive and Happy” described the screening strategy that Kaplan Test Prep used when hiring remote workers. The company looked for a willingness to ask for feedback and help when it was needed. 

In the absence of face-to-face interactions, it can be challenging for managers to see that an employee is struggling or unhappy. However, remote workers who speak up (when needed) help to short-circuit the process, identifying an issue for management to address. 

Onboarding for distributed teams

Since they’re not in the same location as you, onboarding remote employees can be challenging. Technology, such as video and web conferencing systems, can be helpful. During a remote workers first week, you can schedule 15-60 minute video meetings with key members of the team. For the new employee, existing team members can detail their background and job responsibility and discuss how they might work together.

Artificial intelligence (AI) tools can also be used to streamline the onboarding process new remote employees. AI tools can be used to select the necessary set of online forms for remote workers to complete and route those forms to the right departments. 

My Ally provides a solution to help streamline elements of the onboarding process. Recently, we announced the first AI-powered new hire onboarding solution for enterprise clients. Our solution helps new hires become productive sooner and provides customizable experiences based on employees’ seniority, function, and industry.

Retention for distributed teams

It takes a certain type of manager to lead and motivate distributed teams. A manager who successfully leads a centralized team may not always be well-suited to leading a remote team. In the previously referenced article, “How to Manage Remote Teams Effectively,” Laura Hambley, founder of Work EvOHlution, cited research from her organization that managers of remote teams need to be more intentional and more organized.

Compared to traditional managers, the leaders of remote teams need to focus more on establishing trust with their teams. According to Hambley, “You can’t get away with lazy leadership. You must proactively reach out to people regularly to create a sense of teamwork and community.”

To replicate the team bonding that occurs in the lunchroom or by the watercooler, distributed teams can use online tools to foster interactions. Zapier, a software company with a remote team, hosts weekly hangouts among team members and uses a “Pair Buddies” program that randomly pairs team members for short calls.

Success story: Buffer

Software company Buffer has a 100% distributed team of 70+ employees, with team members across several time zones and almost every continent. In a post on the company’s blog, Founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne shares the joys and benefits of working as a distributed team:

  1. Productivity
  2. Freedom
  3. “It feels like the future”
  4. Learning about different cultures
  5. Traveling the world to work together
  6. Extended customer support hours

Because Buffer’s customer support personnel are spread across many time zones, they can provide exceptional response times. According to Gascoigne, “We have more than a million users and we reply to 80% of emails within 1 hour. We couldn’t achieve this level of service without being spread across multiple timezones.”