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Combating Invisibility: Seeing the Unseen in a Virtual Workforce

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Being seen is not a concept we often think about until we feel that we are not. In a traditional work environment, where employees enter a physical workspace among their peers, one becomes—without any effort—a visible component of the team. In a time when more and more organizations are utilizing some degree of a virtual work environment, and where colleagues may very well be hundreds or even thousands of miles away from one another, invisibility on the job becomes a very real and often overlooked component of everyday life. Why is this important? A problem for employees and businesses alike: when you’re out of sight, you risk being out of mind.

In a study conducted by Harvard Business Review, a sample of 1,153 employees revealed that 52% of this group, at least some of the time, worked from their home offices. And of those 52%, many felt that they were not treated equally by their colleagues. In fact, remote employees are more likely to report feeling that they are mistreated and left out of company happenings. How far-reaching are the effects of this? Personal relationships are not the only aspect of work that is affected and employees themselves are not the only ones who will suffer; so too does productivity, morale, retention, and costs.

In a recent study by Stanford University, which looked at more than 500 employees at a company called Ctrip, data shows the widespread benefits of a remote workforce to an employer. Beginning with productivity, work-from-home employees increased productivity by 13.5 % over those working in the office. In addition, those working from home reported shorter breaks, fewer sick days, and took less time off. Looking at attrition rates among the at-home group, it was 50% lower than those who worked in the office, and those same individuals also reported higher job satisfaction.

Now, imagine how morale and productivity suffers when the basal needs of feeling included, valued, and connected are not met. Having worked in two very different remote companies myself, I have firsthand experience of what it is like to be seen, and conversely the frustration in what it is like not to be. Communication is a two-way street, but a large part in eliminating difficulties faced as a remote employee is due to actions taken by one’s manager. A key component in successfully managing a remote team is taking measures to ensure that virtual communication—as much as it can be—provides the same benefits we see in face-to-face interaction. This includes receiving timely responses, the ability to read body language, organic camaraderie and the cultivation of relationships, enhancement of trust & credibility, and the protection of confidentiality.

It is not enough to simply know that remote workers are often left feeling disconnected from their colleagues, and the risks it may run one’s company; it becomes the job of a manager to encourage habits that lead to feelings of trust, connectedness, shared purpose, and a cultivation of inclusivity in growing & maintaining a company culture. So, how is this done? One way is to provide a very strong onboarding process for your team. In fact, if the people you manage are largely remote, it might be worth the investment in a team to actively and continuously oversee a program for joining a new company as a remote employee. In those early days at any company, being new is entirely overwhelming, but compounded by an absence of face-to-face interaction, one can truly feel isolated.

As someone who resides on the East Coast, who worked for a company whose home base is in California, the onboarding team utilized by my employer at the time was paramount in allowing me to feel mentored, organized, understood, and connected. Morale was always high, and we felt a part of something we could not necessarily always see, but for which we had insight and a vision.

In a more negative experience, I had joined a different remote team and found myself in a situation where my manager was let go just days following. What ensued was a three-week period of panic-induced silence where I did not know who to turn to, what my responsibilities were, and what to work on. I was in a holding pattern that caused me great anxiety because without any direction or even someone to speak to, I was left wondering: I am brand new, but at this point do I even have a job? Did you forget about me? Will I get in trouble for being paid without being given any tasks? This was a horrible way to set the tone as a new member of a team, and could have easily been avoided with some level of communication. A mentoring team or individual that is in-touch, ready, and available, is an important way to initiate and maintain a culture of visibility for remote teams.

Another method for ensuring that employees are not being ignored is for a manager or team leader to set clear expectations from the beginning, and to communicate availability and a willingness to help. Setting expectations can revolve around such things as email protocol, teamwork, recurring meetings, and goal-setting. The more information you can provide, the better. In addition, it is highly beneficial to check in frequently and consistently, which can be from daily to weekly to biweekly; the key is to be consistent in a way that does not lead to micromanaging and the erosion of trust.

Finding opportunities to simulate face-to-face interaction using virtual technologies is another highly important and often underutilized method for enhancing visibility. With today’s technology, not only are we able to see and hear each other, but we are able to participate in company-wide meetings and utilize virtual breakout rooms to collaborate among our peers. Team dynamics need not suffer due to a dispersed geographical proximity—if virtual teams take advantage of these tools, members can be seen and heard much like they would in traditional face-to-face environments; the key is making this technology a priority.

Finally, prioritizing relationships is one of the most successful ways to communicate a genuine interest in, and value of, employees you do not see in person. Teambuilding and camaraderie are always important, but great managers go above and beyond in forming personal bonds with remote employees and encourage it amongst team members.

One way I have seen managers prioritize relationships for remote staff is to have a designated team meeting time to share weekly highlights– think “water cooler” conversations. This is a way to encourage dialogue and offer a space for people to share happenings that may or may not be related to work, and effectively build stronger personal bonds. The more a manager knows and trusts his/her employee, the more this employee can be relied on to lead others, which effectively leaves the manager with a greater feeling of confidence that the employee invested in can one-day rise within in the company. From a business standpoint, prioritizing relationships in this way also reduces the likelihood of losing the employee, which is devastating to managers and their organizations. In his research, Josh Bersin, founder and Principal at Bersin by Deloitte, has noted that losing the institutional knowledge, well-developed skillsets, and employee trust and cooperation is costlier than we might imagine. In some cases, the cost is 213% of an employee’s salary in a single year!

While there will always be some difficulty for a virtual employee to be seen in the manner one is when they show up to work in-person, being cognizant of what needs to take place for virtual teams to thrive—both from an employee and employer perspective—is a major step in the right direction. Making a concerted effort to eliminate isolation is twofold: it is equal parts being conscious, and understanding the challenges remote employees face. The more you can do to ensure that your remote workers feel connected, valued, and supported, the more likely they are apt to feel that they are, which bodes well for employees and the organizations they support.

Christina Loffredo, M.Ed.
Instructional Designer and Training Consultant
CCI Consulting

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