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Many companies today are using a distributed workforce to handle the complexities of the COVID-19 virus that has disrupted lives and businesses everywhere. A distributed workforce is not the same as a remote workforce, although it encompasses both remote workers and geographically diverse workers, and as such, we will be discussing both in this article.

According to a Global Workplace Analytics report, the number of people who work from remote workplaces has grown 173% since 2005, 11% faster than the rest of the workforce. That number is expected to increase, according to a March 30th Gallup survey in which 74% of CFOs stated they plan to move even more onsite employees to remote workspaces permanently — after the COVID-19 crisis ends.

Alena Reva, VP Human Resources, Leading Distributed Workforce, Kaspersky, believes that the crisis has provided an opportunity for companies that may have been considering a distributed workforce. “Organizations had to adapt quickly — keeping the health, safety and well-being of all employees its first priority — and make decisions that will significantly influence the future of its business. Put simply, many companies are going through a digital transformation on steroids.”

Additionally, she says that “a distributed workforce means staying in business for many companies during this pandemic and as a result, gives remote work opportunities the spotlight. It is a chance for some businesses to critically review how a distributed workforce affects its organization and what is necessary for success if this type of work environment is required for the long term.”

In this article we will be focusing on issues that affect distributed workers, the employee experience, and how it can be improved for those employees that are working across the city, country and world.

Getting Back to 'Normal' Includes 3 Journeys 

CMSWire spoke to Derek Sidebottom, President FarsideHR Solutions, distributed workforce speaker, about the challenges of a suddenly distributed workforce. He said that initially it comes down to “recognizing and supporting three distinct change journeys happening in parallel before any ‘new normal’ productivity can really stabilize: the Individual Journey, the Team Journey, and the Organizational Journey.” This makes a lot of sense when it comes to the employee experience, because each employee has a multi-faceted experience that makes up their journey.

The Individual Journey begins by setting up the foundations of an office-like environment within the employee’s home. Sidebottom says it starts by “setting up the right equipment and bandwidth, the right physical space, the right schedule and creating a distraction free environment.” One of the greatest challenges employees face is the disruption of personal behaviors and communication patterns. A sudden change from the work environment to the home office may bring on a personality crisis, as “extroverted people will feel the loss of their sense of social connectivity and introverts can run the risk of withdrawing a little more into themselves away from their teammates.”

The Team Journey is about how employees work together, separately. Sidebottom talks about the normal intricacies of teams, saying that “most teams in an open office short-circuit formality, meeting structures, agendas etc. as they collaborate because they’re all colocated and can meet and iterate spontaneously.” Thus begins the problems that distributed workers face, because they lose that spontaneity. “Things happen a little more asynchronously when you are distributed so more effort has to go into bringing the group together. The middle manager becomes the hub to ensure the entire team ecosystem is working in the new distributed model,” he said.

Finally, the Organizational Journey is about the complicated and often complex world of today’s businesses. Sidebottom indicates that even before COVID-19 and a forced remote/distributed workforce entered the picture, “the modern workplace had increasingly agile goals being pursued by an increasingly fluid workforce where tenure was decreasing and work was being produced through permanent, temp, contractor, gig and third parties.” He goes on to state that older centralized command and control models of leadership don’t work in an agile distributed context. In other words, a distributed workforce requires leadership to think differently in order to continue to be effective. A focus on “Vision, Mission, Values, OKR’s [Objectives and Key Results], Feedback loops and 1:1 connectivity to the greater plan becomes all the more important in distributed worlds,” he said.

For some businesses that have already been utilizing a distributed workforce, the transition is easier. Reva said that the transition in her organization was fairly rapid due to the methodologies already in place. “At Kaspersky, we are a semi-distributed organization, with flexible working opportunities for employees, which has made the transition to a completely remote workforce easier. We quickly tapped into the already-in-place technology, processes, and experience we had developed.” Even so, there will always be challenges. Reva says that “successful functioning of a distributed organization is based on proper communication, coordination, culture and leadership. Certain elements will be uniquely challenging for every company.”

Related Article: Working Remotely: A Manager's Perspective

Encourage a Connected Culture  

Even companies that have been using distributed and remote workers for years will face challenges when it comes to connecting with those workers. There is no central water cooler to have personal chats around, and workers tend to feel pressed to keep discussions focused on business matters on those occasions where they are able to talk to bosses and co-workers because time is so limited. Reva suggests that leaders take an active role in helping employees adjust to the new methodologies, and stated that “Businesses should be conscious of the impact that major changes to communication channels and business operations will have on newly remote employees and help them to navigate effectively.”

A recent Gallup report reported that loneliness and isolation are a problem for 21% of remote workers. It’s not just remote workers that are feeling lonely these days. A 2020 Cigna study showed that a startling 61% of those surveyed said they felt lonely — an increase from the 54% who said they felt lonely in the 2018 survey.

For a distributed workforce, it’s vital to encourage social interaction within the workplace. Reva said that Kaspersky has been proactive in dealing with the issue of loneliness, adding that “loneliness is a big challenge when working remotely, even under normal circumstances, so companies should look for opportunities to keep employees connected. At Kaspersky, we aim to actively be there for each other; we organize virtual happy hours, foster breakroom communication via online channels, and encourage all meetings to happen via video conference.”

Remote workers often feel left out of company get-togethers, lunches and classes that onsite employees get to participate in. Even the casual conversations between team leaders, department heads and corporate leadership rarely get to happen for those employees who work remotely. This has a negative, isolating effect on workers who end up feeling left out of the loop, disconnected from the business, which has an effect on efficiency and productivity. Little things begin to add up when it comes to feeling left out.

By providing an effective communications mechanism that allows and encourages distributed workers to be able to socially interact, leaders can strengthen the feeling of connectivity and bonding between workers.

Additionally, having a virtual place, such as a specified Slack channel, where all employees — remote and those still working onsite —can share jokes, memes and informal conversations, encourages a sense of well- being and fellowship, and helps remote workers feel like they are a part of the business culture. Sidebottom believes that “at the team level, virtual happy hours are nice. Team meetings should include shoutouts, recognition, suggestions to make things work better and mental check-ins.”

Again, remember that it can’t be all business, especially for your distributed workers. “While the temptation might be to just talk about the work, understanding the bigger picture transformation and helping people through it goes a long way. Providing managers with spot bonus pools/gift card mechanisms can empower managers to reward and reinforce the early change adopters helping to lead the transformation.”

Related Article: How 10 Companies Keep Connected and Sane Through Virtual Channels Amid COVID-19

Be a Part of Distributed Workers’ Lives

Employee experience is largely about empathy, and always remembering that employees are people going through the same types of daily struggles that leaders themselves go through. They have children to attend to, bills to pay, grocery shopping to do, interests to pursue, and health problems to deal with. Compound this with today’s extremely stressful COVID-19 crisis, and staying positive and focused is a challenge for everyone. Reva believes that this is a time for business leaders to be very aware of what their employees are going through, suggesting that, “we would encourage companies to be particularly vigilant at this time, understanding the unique circumstances that employees are working under currently. Businesses should look to provide an open communication from top management during this new reality, as employees look to leadership for cues on how to react within the company to crises. Creating opportunities to discuss work processes, company priorities, and the continued operation of critical business functions, is vital.”

Employees want to celebrate their accomplishments, and work through their problems. They need encouragement when they are down, and they need to know that you are on their side. What they don’t need is a micromanager that is constantly riding their back, being critical of every little thing, and consistently coming to them with complaints.

Sidebottom believes that front line managers and team leaders play a pivotal role in facilitating the transition from onsite to distributed working. As he says, it’s not going to be an overnight success. “Empower and invest in the front line manager. People leave managers, not companies. And staying connected is more critical when remote. For maximum leverage, make sure managers are well equipped to lead. Asking managers to become awesome remote leaders overnight is not practical,” he said.

Reva said it’s up to leadership to teach those in management positions to reach out. “It is important for leadership to provide guidance to middle management so that they can accurately create efficient remote teams. Also to maintain company culture and retain trust and engagement, regardless of a virtual workplace.”

We have to understand that communication mechanisms are going to get very crowded very quickly. Sidebottom realizes that leaders need to “clarify which communication channels are best for what types of messages. It’s going to get VERY noisy as people slack, text, email, chat, call and vidcon. Establish some protocols,” he shared.

Trust Your Distributed Workforce to Get the Job Done

One of the biggest factors that come up with a remote or distributed workforce is a lack of trust between those with supervisory positions and the employees that remotely work for them. Typically, those who work from remote offices tend to work longer hours, extra hours even, because it often feels like they are not “really” working because they are working from home. They take less breaks, work longer into the evening hours, and even work on weekends, because they don’t want it to seem like they are slacking. This can be a problem in and of itself, as it leads to rapid burnout.

One of the keys to building trust in a situation where you are not able to see your workers is by setting reasonable, but measurable, goals. A certain number of orders need to be processed by the end of the week. Was that goal accomplished? If yes, then you know your employee is continuing to effectively perform their job. If not, then you need to address why it was unable to be accomplished, deal with the issues, and move on. By setting reasonable, measurable goals, you will continue to build trust in remote and distributed workers, and will realize that they are still pulling their share of the work, and likely, even more than when they were localized employees.

Another aspect of trust is about the company’s focus and goals. As Sidebottom puts it, “Distributed team members tend to make better decisions and focus on what matters — if the company continuously communicates and reinforces the big picture: why and what.”

Building trust involves informing your remote and distributed workers of exactly what is expected of them. The hours they are responsible for being available, meetings they need to attend, how often they are expected to check in — anything that is routinely expected from them. Sidebottom reiterates the point, stating that, “smart people love solving problems, but without context, connection and strategic direction they’ll create irrelevant problems or solve the wrong ones in the wrong order. The senior team can’t lead or communicate enough during any change management exercise.”

As a leader, you need to know how they are operating in their home office. Do they have adequate childcare? If not, you need to keep that in mind if they can’t make a specified meeting because they suddenly had to change a diaper or attend to a family crisis. Everyone is learning to adjust to this new way of working, school closings, and a mandated “shelter in place” order for many locations.

There are plenty of distractions that may come throughout the day, and challenges, but you have to trust your employees to do the best that they can do. Remember to empathize — we are all in this together, and need to be supportive of each other’s struggles. By being understanding and supportive, you will build a sense of trust and strong leadership that will enhance the lives of those who are working for you remotely.

Design the Employee Experience for Distributed Workers

The current COVID-19 crisis has brought the idea of a remote and distributed workforce to the forefront of the business world, but there have been, and will continue to be other driving forces behind the need for such things. It is always in a company’s best interests to help their workers be ready to work remotely.

The time to purchase equipment isn’t during the crisis, it’s before there is a crisis. Currently many workers are having a difficult time finding laptops, webcams and other equipment that is needed for the video conferences they are required to attend. Sidebottom suggests that businesses, “provide a technology/workspace annual stipend for personal workspace configuration. It’s amazing how important basic audio, video and bandwidth is to ensure the ‘technology’ fades into the background so that people can connect.”

The move towards a more remote and distributed workforce will require businesses to rethink their employee recruiting and retention plans. Sidebottom believes it is imperative that businesses realize that the old perks and benefits aren’t going to cut it anymore. “If your culture brand promise was once based on a lively office environment, perks and snacks or hammocks, then I would suggest it’s time to up your game. Perhaps instead think about a value proposition based on empowerment, ability to influence and strong mentorship and work back from there. To me, this is a massive opportunity.”

Obviously, during this crisis, physical health has to be a priority. Reva says that Kaspersky recognizes the importance of mental health for distributed workers, but also that “the physical well-being of employees is also a factor that should not be overlooked, as exercise is scientifically proven to lower stress levels and increase people’s ability to better concentrate. For example, we are organizing online fitness classes and step challenges, as well as hosting ‘Mindful Mondays’ meditation sessions that allow coworkers to mediate together in a virtual space.”

It’s also a good time to reevaluate the feedback mechanisms you previously or currently used to listen to your employees, many of whom are not onsite to provide such feedback. Sidebottom says that businesses should “rethink your company listening and feedback strategy. If you used to run on a once a year employee survey/performance review cadence, you’ll need to think about how to get more real time signal in smaller installments.”

Conclusion

The challenges of a distributed workforce are forcing many businesses to learn to reevaluate the way they manage their business from the top down. From an employee’s perspective, there are a whole different set of tasks in their daily journey, and a different set of requirements for continuing to be an effective and productive employee. To make the employee experience a positive one throughout their journey requires that businesses focus on the employee journey as if the success of their business depends on it — because it does.