Is a Great Place to Work Compatible with Remote Work?

Published: 2021/10/5 | Updated: 2022/6/3 | Carlos Quintana
Remote work can still be a great place to work

We are entering a new era where remote and hybrid-based models will likely prevail across the corporate world. Because of this, remote work options will surely increase and even become dominant for many companies. But, can a remote or hybrid company still be a great place to work? Can you keep your remote employees engaged, motivated, and happy enough to love working for your company? Let’s find out.

What makes a company a great place to work?

To begin with, it’s important to remember that a great place to work doesn’t mean the physical place where you work but rather the company’s culture that defines how you work. According to Sonia de Mier, Director of Communication and Marketing at Great Place to Work Spain, a culture of trust that is nurtured by good communication and transparency is the most important factor when building a great place to work.

The most valued incentives and benefits a company can offer its employees are those that help them feel fulfilled professionally and personally. “The most effective perks, from a commitment and loyalty standpoint, are based on a culture of trust,” states Sonia de Mier.

But what are those benefits and perks, exactly? Here are some of the most common perks that companies considered great places to work offer:

  • Regular meetings aimed at fostering an emotional connection (e.g. “breakfast with the CEO”)
  • Flexible hours
  • Remote work options
  • Professional training and development (e.g. workshops, seminars)
  • Channels for effective vertical and horizontal communication (e.g. intranet, blogs, suggestion boxes)
  • Team building activities
  • Virtual communities for further integration
  • Wellness offerings

As you can see, remote work is an inherent perk for many employees. But the question remains: Can you provide all of the other perks in a remote work environment where the physical connection doesn’t exist? Of course not! But smart companies are coming up with innovative solutions.

An article on remote work strategy written by professors Erin E. Makarius, Barbara Z. Larson, and Susan R. Vroman. argues that benefit programs may be adapted to reflect the shift from traditional on-site perks to more remote options. To illustrate that, the authors mentioned how one of their corporate contacts has begun receiving a company-provided Peloton subscription as a substitute for a previous gym-membership benefit.

These kinds of solutions certainly help businesses keep their employees happy and engaged. But remote work comes with its own set of challenges. Perhaps they are most evident for those who worked in offices before abruptly being told to work remotely.

No longer a fairy tale?

The challenges you face as a manager of a remote team share a common root: lack of physical connection. This simple yet powerful fact will shape every single aspect of your remote work management strategy. From building a solid corporate culture to finding channels for effective communication, the lack of physical connection is the biggest obstacle you’ll face when managing a remote team.

This absence of physical connection poses a risk to your corporate culture. Plus, it can affect the level of motivation, engagement and commitment of your team. An article written by Pamela Hinds (Fortinet Founders Chair) and Brian Elliott (leader of Slack’s Future Forum) reminds us that “our ability to connect meaningfully to others is less satisfying when we’re not physically present, and that shared understanding is harder to establish and more likely to suffer from ‘drift’ as we spend time apart.”

Along those lines, the initial enthusiasm generated by the recent and unexpected boom of remote work has lost momentum as more people have started to feel the burden of working from home. A report conducted by Arlington Research on behalf of Egress concluded that for every employee who’s been liberated by remote work during the pandemic, there are three who are struggling.

“Inadequate workstations, blurred home/work boundaries, and pandemic-related stress can cause a measurable impact on remote workers’ mental health. And this can lead to ‘hidden costs’ for businesses,” states the report. In other words, the perceived benefits connected to remote work (absence of commute, more family time, etc.) have been quickly replaced by the disadvantages (bad communication, loneliness, inability to unplug, etc.).

Apart from this, there are several challenges of managing a remote team that you need to tackle effectively if you really want to build a great place to work. From a management point of view, we have identified the following five critical issues:

  • Developing trust towards remote work
  • Implementing good and solid communication
  • Monitoring and tracking productivity
  • Promoting your company’s culture
  • Keeping security in place

So, is it really possible to overcome those challenges and provide a great place to work for your employees? Is the remote formula compatible at all with the idea of building a great place to work?

Can Your Remote Based Company Still Be a Great Place to Work?

Whether you’re going fully remote or hybrid, you can transform your company into a great place to work. However, in order to achieve this, it is crucial that you revisit your company’s culture, policies and management practices. The following are some suggestions.

Revisit and redesign your corporate culture

The most effective perks are based on a culture of trust, which you can promote throughout the norms and rituals that define office life. But, how can you build a culture of trust when your employees are working from home? You need to rethink how you promote that culture.

As Pamela Hinds and Brian Elliott found out, leaders all over the world are aware that we are entering into a new, untested period. “It will take early experimentation to generate ways of promoting remote-first cultures while preserving the value of in-office symbols and side-by-side work to strengthen culture. Tolerance for failures along the way will be essential to finding a path forward. Leaders must recognize that thriving in the new era of work depends on being open to new formulas for building and maintaining strong culture,” argue Hinds and Elliot.

Because of that, it is important that you define how you want to work (fully remote or hybrid), what kind of culture you want to build (or maintain and strengthen), and how you want to communicate with your team. Providing this clarity is crucial to building a solid corporate culture and, thus, a great place to work.

Implement boundary management and lead by example

As the leader, you should guide your team in finding a balance between work and personal lives; Help your employees establish and maintain the following set of boundaries:

Types of boundaries with employees and teams

You (and/or your HR department if you have one) need to lead by example. Encourage employees to set up some “non-negotiables” such as eating breakfast or keeping their computers out of their bedrooms.

As stated by Nerina Ramlakhan, neurophysiologist and author, “Setting good boundaries and routines when working from home will enable every personality type to thrive. All straightforward enough, but the onus has to be on HR to hammer this message across the workforce and, more importantly, lead by example.”

Reinforce your values through physical interaction

Even if fully remote, try to provide an opportunity for a physical connection with your team. This could be an annual retreat where you can hang out somewhere together and promote corporate values through positive social interaction.

If you opt for a hybrid model, use your office as the base. The office can be a place to promote and reinforce your organization’s values. Instead of treating your office as the place where regular work takes place, hold meetings and events that allow your employees to reconnect. It can be a place to connect with each other, as well as with the values that support your company.

Provide a new kind of training

Besides training people in technology or company policies, you should provide training on relational skills and the social aspects of remote work. As suggested by professors Makarius, Larson, and Vroman, companies need to provide training “on relational skills known to enhance remote work, including: establishing working norms, building trust, effective virtual communication patterns and incorporating social elements into virtual work relationships.”

In addition to that, companies need to provide training not only for managing remote teams but also hybrid ones. This is particularly important because of the potential tension between remote employees and those working on-site. In fact, a recent survey on top leaders from different Nordic countries, warned us that very often “the virtual world doesn’t treat roles and tasks equally,” and this is something you need to be aware of if you really want to build a great place to work.

Update your onboarding process

If you’re welcoming a new member to your remote/hybrid team, make sure this new addition feels comfortable from the start. James M. Citrin and Darleen DeRosa, co-authors of the book Leading at a Distance: Practical Lessons for Virtual Success, provide the following tips for setting up a remote employee for success on day one:

  • Provide an informal mentor to the new hire so they can feel comfortable asking questions.
  • Create a connection between the new hire and your company before the start date. Why not send a welcome note as soon as he or she accepts the job?
  • Set up a session with IT before the start date.
  • Organize one-on-one interactions for the new hire. You can also try “a mix of different group discussions so that the new hire can develop contextual understanding of team dynamics,” argue Citrin and DeRosa.
  • Explain to the new hire the company culture and how work gets done across the organization.
  • Set clear expectations and make sure your new hire understands how their role fits into the whole organization.

Implementing these actions will show any new hire that you care. In the long run, an employee who knows you care can be one of your greatest assets.

Successful cases

IBM

Like many companies around the world, this tech behemoth was forced to embrace remote work. However, IBM seized the abrupt change brought by the pandemic as an opportunity. They decided to revisit some aspects of its corporate culture. For instance, Nickle LaMoreaux, Chief Human Resources Officer at IBM, noticed that the shift to remote work has made people “a little more human,” and she wants to preserve and embed that aspect in the company’s culture for the long-term.

However, the pandemic also provided IBM with the opportunity to reinforce its already strong corporate culture of inclusion. The grassroots “Work from Home Pledge” created by employees of the company and embraced all the way to the top of the organization, is the best example of how IBM has continued to flourish as a great place to work.

“At IBM, the ‘Work From Home Pledge’ has become a powerful tool for keeping this bottom-up approach front of mind everyday. Elements such as being ‘family sensitive,’ supporting ‘flexibility for personal needs’ and ‘setting boundaries’ give every member of the team the license to put their personal life first. It also sets a new tone for what can be expected of colleagues, defaulting to people-first instead of work-first,” explains Nickle LaMoreaux.

McKinsey

For many companies around the world, a remote/hybrid model is anything but new. In fact, many companies have succeeded under the umbrella of these models. Their experiences provide a good point of reference when it comes to managing remote/hybrid teams. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company is another great example.

According to Nicholas C. Lovegrove, professor of the practice of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, one of the greatest secrets of McKinsey’s success lies in the way this company has been able to “reconceptualize the physical office as a values-reinforcing supplement to virtual work, rather than the default for where people do most of their actual day-to-day work.”

How did they do it? They designed various gatherings and meetings, including the following:

  • “Super Friday” – A monthly event where everyone is expected to be present at the office. To maximize quality time, the manager organizes different gatherings such as special lunches, practice meetings, and happy hours.
  • Office retreats – Once or twice a year, employees get together in an offsite location to engage in substantive discussions and celebrate personal milestones.
  • “Values Day” – Once a year, this gathering helps renew employee commitment to the norms and beliefs of the organization. “The agenda is typically a mix of role-play built around values challenges, breakout discussions on strengthening office norms, and keynote speeches by firm leaders and outside experts,” explains Nicholas C. Lovegrove.

Thanks to these initiatives, McKinsey & Company has reinforced its corporate culture and values in a very effective way. If you opt for a hybrid model, this successful management approach might inspire you.

A new imperative for leadership

As we have seen, remote work poses lots of challenges. However, it is still possible to overcome those challenges and transform your remote/hybrid company into a great place to work. Building a culture of trust is still the main ingredient of a great place to work. And the good news is that you can still build that kind of culture under a remote or hybrid model.

As stated by professor Lovegrove, this new scenario of remote and hybrid work could be the largest behavioral change in our history. And now’s the time that you need to be prepared to deal with it.

“Addressing this challenge is the work of leadership today. It can be addressed in the knowledge that virtual or hybrid cultures already exist, and they work.”

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Writer specialized in finance, tech and SaaS. Apart from writing, he loves football and cultural walks around Rome.

Comments

I am so glad that the answer to the initial question in this article is “yes”. Otherwise, we would all be in trouble. Great thoughts and advice on a very relevant and timely topic.

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