When Marissa Mayer took the helm as CEO of Yahoo in July 2012, the company was floundering. Mayer, the ex-Google wunderkind with an MS in computer science from Stanford, was hailed as just the person to revive the company’s flagging fortunes. She had the brains, the experience, and the confidence, many thought, to pull it off.
That optimism was to be short-lived. Tasked with cutting down on bureaucracy, perking up company culture, and generally getting the company back on track toward innovation and boosting its sagging profits, Mayer brought in a raft of sweeping changes, including an outright ban on something Yahoo had until that point embraced: remote work.
Remote employees were given three months to occupy a desk at Yahoo’s nearest office—or lose their jobs. Even those who occasionally worked from home were targeted.
Though Mayer’s edict initially sent shockwaves through the working world—pundits wondered if the very idea of remote work was over—more than six years on, it’s clear that it hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, today 70% of people globally work remotely at least once a week. Remote job openings have increased by 151% in the past year. Even Yahoo eventually softened its stance, allowing some employees to occasionally work from home.
With more and more companies embracing remote work, equalizing the experience for on-site and remote employees has never been more important. Indeed, a raft of tools and technologies have emerged in the past few years aimed at doing just that. Combine them with some operational tweaks and a focus on company culture, and there’s no reason why people stationed around the globe can’t work together to produce work that’s any less revolutionary than remote work itself.
While Mayer’s zero-tolerance policy was seen by many at the time as a step backward for remote work, anyone who has worked outside of a traditional office setting (or been part of a team that includes remote members) has likely experienced some of the frustrations she was trying to curb. You need a colleague’s timely input, but they’re never online when you need them. You’re pairing with a developer on some code, but you need a magnifying glass to decipher what they’re doing on your shared screen. You’re in the middle of an important meeting, and the audio drops out.
Communicating via technology is fundamental to the experience of remote work, but getting your message across clearly and without “technical difficulties” can be elusive—and problematic. According to researchers at the University of Michigan, these types of issues can lead to an “us versus them” mentality in partially distributed teams. “We found that the collocated people formed an in-group, excluding the isolates,” they wrote. “But, surprisingly, the isolates also formed an in-group, mainly because the collocated people ignored them and they responded to each other.”
Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley noted similar patterns of behavior, as well as significant differences in the way group members communicate. In a study that simulated an in-office/remote work environment, they found that within an hour, communication differences had emerged. The “remote workers” wrote longer, more positive messages, while the “in-office workers” were less likely to write messages that weren’t strictly necessary for the task at hand. “Not only are teammates located in a different location,” they wrote. “They also communicate using different norms.”
This kind of “proximity fosters collaboration” research is what drove companies like Apple and Facebook to redesign their campuses to maximize “collisions,” chance encounters and unplanned interactions between colleagues. It’s also a big part of why Mayer decided to ban remote work at Yahoo. But for all the buzz surrounding these utopian, collaboration- and innovation-sparking offices, the fact remains that the vast majority of people—99%, according to one study—would prefer to work elsewhere.
So how do you create an environment where employees can collide even when they don’t share a physical space? It starts with communication. In a virtual environment, where employees are often communicating primarily via email and messaging apps, it can be difficult to convey complex ideas and have productive, critical, and yes, innovative discussions. Considering that a whopping 93% of communication effectiveness is determined by non-verbal cues, it’s easy for meaning to get misconstrued, leading to confusion and conflict.
That’s why video conferencing, which gives participants the ability to observe body language, hear tone and inflection, as well as see what’s being talked about (a slide deck, for example), is an indispensable tool for remote teams. It facilitates a heightened level of communication and engagement, not to mention the “warm, fuzzy” benefits of building trust, connection, and unified purpose. In a 2017 global survey of thousands of workers, 92% of respondents said that video conferencing makes for better teamwork and higher-quality relationships.
Of course, not all workplace communications merit a video conferencing call. Simple, non-urgent matters—access to a shared document or what happened at the end of Tiger King, for example—are better suited to now-ubiquitous messaging apps. This might seem like common sense, but as the Harvard Business Review explains, “Many people instinctively default to their preferred method of communication, which can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and lost productivity.”
Being mindful about the medium you choose to convey your message can help improve communication effectiveness. Team messaging is great for casual conversations that foster connection and culture, but if you’re delivering feedback or dealing with sensitive topics, you’re better off jumping on a call. This is exemplified by a study where participants were given the exact same feedback by email, on paper, and face-to-face. While participants described the feedback as respectful when delivered in person, they used words like “impersonal,” “cowardly,” and “aloof” when it came via email.
The right communication solutions go a long way toward building a collaborative virtual work environment, but they can only be effective if companies create formal—and equal—expectations for using them. Take messaging platforms, for instance. Given that remote workers are by definition “distant” from their team, the prevailing wisdom is to communicate more in order to bridge that distance. As software engineer and blogger Chelsea Troy writes, many companies encourage remote employees to over-communicate “when they come in, what they’re working on, when they can answer questions, when they’re going home.”
In theory, this is a great idea. It allows people to see when their colleagues are available and what they’re working on. The trouble is, the expectation of over-communication is almost never extended to in-office employees, who have the benefit of being able to look around and see what their remote counterparts can’t: what time everybody arrives at the office, how long they take for lunch, and when they clock out.
It’s also worth acknowledging here, that our inclination toward over-communication for remote workers might be more detrimental than helpful. A 2012 study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that the more remote workers communicated using email and instant messaging, the more stress they felt and the less they identified with their team and organization. Researchers labeled the phenomenon the “connectivity paradox,” finding that “teleworkers’ connectivity to others through communication media facilitates remote work by affording greater social presence, while also negating the benefits of telework by enabling stressful interruptions.”
While part of the allure of remote work is the expectation of a better work-life balance—the freedom to take the dog for an afternoon walk, or pick up a kid from school, for example—research shows that remote workers actually put in significantly more hours than on-site employees (1.4 more days per month, on average). Even when they aren’t working, remote workers feel a responsibility to be “on,” lest they be perceived as slacking off or prioritizing other things.
Companies can mitigate these issues by setting thoughtful and equal expectations for technology use and availability. For example, software startup Ditto enforces blocks of “quiet time,” scheduled periods during which employees can’t interrupt each other via messaging—“I could get more than two days’ worth of work done in one, and still have time left over for educational advancement, reading manuals, and more,” said one Ditto engineer.
Automation services provider System.ly also uses a #checkouts team messaging channel to encourage employees—both remote and on-site—to post their comings and goings. “Being remote and on different time zones, we all are on slightly different schedules, so knowing when someone is and isn’t available is extremely important, said company founder Greg Hickman.
At the end of the day, building a collaborative remote work environment comes down to one thing: company culture. Remote workers may be more satisfied with their jobs and experience less work-life conflict, but they also report a lower sense of inclusion and get less feedback and support. One survey found that seven in 10 remote workers face challenges they wouldn’t face in a traditional office setting.
Since remote workers rarely meet with their colleagues face-to-face, they can end up developing a sort of “tunnel vision” for tasks, while ignoring the human element of work—those casual, informal interactions that make work bearable if not enjoyable. According to organizational communications specialists Martha Fay and Susan Kline, “Teleworkers are constrained in their freedom to ‘shoot the breeze’ with co-located peers.”
The team messaging standard watercooler channel might feel contrived, but it serves an important function for remote and partially distributed teams, allowing coworkers to chat about everything from pets to politics, video games to music. By creating opportunities for friendly, casual conversation, remote workers can gain a greater sense of connection and belonging and build stronger work relationships.
Still, there’s no replacement for face-time. That’s why many companies use company summits or “off-sites” to bring distributed teams together for a few days of brainstorming and bonding. Performance management software provider 15Five brings its 135-person team together once a year for this purpose. As Chief Culture Officer Sean Metcalf explains, “These retreats are purpose-driven events designed to bring every employee together, realign them around our company mission, and to allow for vulnerable connection in a beautiful natural setting away from office walls.”
If a three-day “workation” isn’t feasible, you can schedule regular company-wide “all hands” calls. They might not be as effective—or as fun—as an in-person get-together, but they serve the same purpose: to connect team members, check in with how they’re feeling, and learn about their lives outside the office. Etsy kicks off its monthly all-hands meetings with a jam session. Atlassian screens “roast-style” videos of employees celebrating work anniversaries. “People have so many more skills than just the role they’re hired to do,” says Etsy’s former Head of Internal Communications Elise Pereira. “By having real connections outside of their roles with other people, they’re more likely to collaborate on [work-related] things.”