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Remote work, once a rare and innovative strategy reserved for tech companies, is no longer a fringe business practice. The IWG 2019 Global Workspace Survey found that 3 out of 4 workers around the globe consider flexible working to be “the new normal.” This was before the coronavirus pandemic spurred even more organizations to implement remote work policies.
The remote work model offers many obvious advantages, from lower overhead and flexible schedules to reductions in employee commuting and increases in productivity along with lower attrition rates. It also brings obvious disadvantages, such as worker loneliness and burnout.
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However, decentralized teams also face other, often unacknowledged challenges that can have damaging consequences for an organization if they aren’t addressed: low-bandwidth communication, unnecessary meetings, and loss of passive knowledge sharing. Here’s how to overcome the three biggest challenges of remote work.
Challenge: Low-Bandwidth Communication
Face-to-face communication is considered high bandwidth because you can transmit and receive the greatest amount of information in a given time period. This is possible thanks to all the nonverbal cues and supplementary information those cues convey in a conversation. High-bandwidth communication results in more work getting done. For example, one study found that a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email.
One of the biggest downsides of remote work, then, is the loss of face-to-face communication as companies turn more heavily toward low-bandwidth communication methods like email and chat. Although written communication can accomplish a lot, it falls short compared with the information exchange and personal connection of face-to-face conversations. Additionally, it is asynchronous, meaning conversations aren’t necessarily happening in real time. The real-time benefits of face-to-face interaction are lost in the delayed replies and other interruptions sprinkled in between.
To compensate, video meetings have become the standard alternative for business communication, Forbes Insights asserts. And while remote team members may sometimes be shy about turning on their cameras, the benefits of this high-bandwidth communication method can’t be ignored. Leaders should turn on their own cameras and encourage everyone else to do the same.
For remote teams working in different time zones, recorded video messages are also a powerful tool. These can be watched on demand, accommodating different schedules and replacing emails with a personal and effective messaging medium that is much higher bandwidth.
Challenge: Unnecessary Meetings
One common mistake leaders make when trying to increase face-to-face communication among remote team members is overcompensating by scheduling more meetings. In fact, a study from Owl Labs found that remote workers attend more meetings per week overall, with 14% of remote workers dedicating time to more than 10 meetings per week.
While meetings can bring a team together for knowledge sharing and decision-making, if the only purpose of a meeting is to clock some face-to-face time, it’s probably not worth having. Unnecessary meetings are frustrating and costly. Employee time is an organization’s most valuable resource, yet 71% of senior managers report that meetings are unproductive and inefficient, and subpar meetings cost companies around $37 billion in annual losses.
To stem the tide of remote work meetings, try adopting catchphrases like “No meetings without an agenda,” “No unnecessary meetings,” or, an old favorite, “Could this meeting have been an email?”
Leaders can also limit the number of internal meeting hours allotted per week, which makes meeting time more valuable and worth conserving. Attendees will likely be more engaged, alert, and motivated to use their precious time wisely.
Lastly, keep in mind that regular, scheduled meetings often result in remote team members waiting until the next meeting to bring up a problem or question. Unlike in a typical office setting, where someone might ask a colleague at the next desk for ad hoc input on ideas and observations, between-meeting lags can gum up processes and makes businesses less efficient.
Ditch unnecessary scheduled meetings and encourage ad hoc conversations — quick video calls or chats — to work through issues as they come up. Make it clear that during work hours, team members are free to reach out to one another for real-time conversation.
Challenge: Loss of Passive Knowledge Sharing
Finally, remote work generally threatens the informal information sharing and open communication lines facilitated by shared physical spaces. Often, sharing experiences in the kitchen during lunch or overhearing conversations with customers reveals a new possible approach or inspires ideas. With remote work, these serendipitous opportunities disappear.
Informal information sharing like this is tricky, but not impossible, to replicate remotely. Set aside the perception that informal conversations are tangential, nonessential, or unrelated to the organization’s goals. Every thought and interaction may not warrant a text, but do encourage team members to include nice-to know information when sending need-to-know communication. Think of it as a recommended “P.S.” on emails and other messages.
Teams can also benefit from virtual gatherings and chats with no formal conversational structure or agenda. Think “watercooler chat room,” where team members can engage in non-work-related conversation as they would at the office. These unstructured conversations can reveal experiences and ideas that otherwise would have remained unexpressed — and keep team members connected on a personal level.
There is great value in knowing how team members think, what they’re working on, and what their challenges are. Facilitate informal conversations to open that portal and get a glimpse inside.
Staying Connected With Remote Work
Without the right approach, high-quality communication on remote teams can be hard to achieve. As team members operate from physically distanced desks and possibly even in different time zones, opportunities for disconnect abound.
To bridge the gap, organization leaders need to take an intentional approach. Substituting face-to-face interaction with video chats and recordings, encouraging communication outside of meetings, and allowing for informal conversation can all help unite a team and improve operations. With leaders’ willingness to replicate underappreciated, everyday office practices, it is possible to reclaim the ingenuity and motivation of the pre-remote-work world.