How To Cultivate a Motivated and Productive Remote Team
Remote workers' productivity and motivation have been a hotly debated topic in recent years. Some believe that more flexibility in where and when you work is tightly linked to better performance and business results. Others argue that not being together in the same office space leads to distractions and, consequently, a drop in productivity and motivation.
This great remote work debate boils down to productivity vs. flexibility. But we’ve seen that this debate is a matter of perspective.
We spoke with Darcy Boles, Future of Work Thought Leader, Culture Architect, and Remote-First Work Experience Designer, to gather her insights on improving remote workers' efficacy. Darcy has worked remotely for over eight years in high-value tech companies, and she’s currently a remote-first work consultant at her own company, Shift with Darcy Marie.
How Productive Are Remote Workers?
Even before the pandemic started, noted WFH researcher Nicholas Bloom found that call center employees who volunteered to WFH had a 13% performance increase. This research from 2013 already pointed to the benefits of flexible work for employees.
Later in 2015, a survey by Connect Solutions found that 77% of internet users who worked remotely at least a few times per month said they were more productive while working offsite. Of those users, 30% said they accomplished more in less time, and 24% said they did more work in the same amount of time.
These days the research points to a decrease in productivity among remote workers. A Stanford paper also led by Nicholas Bloom alongside WFH researchers Jose Maria Barrero and Steven J. Davis now found a 10% to 20% reduction in productivity across multiple studies, depending on the nature of the research and its conditions.
While many factors impact these results, it’s a good practice to take a moment to analyze ways to support remote workers so they can deliver their best work.
The latest Stanford paper details that the main explanations for reduced productivity include challenges in communicating and coordinating work; degradation of communication networks and reduction of new connections; reduced creativity partly because of multi-tasking rather than being fully focused in person together; and a reduction in learning, mentoring and feedback.
In an interview with Fortune, researcher Jose Maria Barrero explains that building a firm culture is harder with fully remote workers than with employees who come into the office a few times per week.
What is the biggest factor in increasing remote worker productivity?
Making remote work work for any company requires intentionality. There needs to be a particular focus on creating a remote work culture that can benefit employees and employers alike. Everything from clear expectations to having established communication channels needs to be intentional.
When we asked Darcy Boles what strategies she considers the most effective for ensuring high productivity levels among remote employees, her answer coincides with what WFH researchers have to say:
"Remote employee productivity is highly dependent on the company's culture."
Darcy adds that setting clear expectations and goals in a results-driven environment is another vital aspect.
“Micromanaging does not work well in a remote environment,” she emphasizes.
For Darcy, increasing remote work productivity comes down to expectations and clear communication.
“Making sure employees, from the beginning of a project, have the tools, resources, and a clear line of communication. That they know what channels to use to communicate back and forth on when things are due and what needs to be done,” she explains.
How Managers Can Support Their Remote Teams To Reach Goals
Productivity is not only dependent on the employee alone. A lot of it has to do with management. Researcher Nicholas Bloom has spoken about how leading a distributed team is a skill in itself. He also says that managers are often left to figure out and execute a game plan on their own, which can be tricky.
For Darcy, the issue comes down to caring about employees.
“We're all in the same storm in the world right now, but all of your employees are in very different lifeboats. Especially if you have a remote organization, an international remote organization, there are wars going on, there's political conflict. There are many things that people are dealing with that the company may not be aware of,” she explains.
“Managers [must] understand that being human is actually even more important when we're not in person, when we’re online,” Darcy highlights.
One easy way to support remote workers is for managers to check in on them and ask simple questions about their week.
Darcy says that questions like “Is there anything you need to be supported with this week” or “What did you do for you this week?” can help ensure that people are filling themselves up and getting the best out of their remote environment while getting their work done.
“Caring is an incredible way to help show people that they belong and have the autonomy to get the work done, which are two of our basic human needs for intrinsic motivation,” Darcy details.
Best Practices for Maintaining Clear and Effective Communication in Remote Teams
As someone who has worked with remote teams for almost a decade, Darcy understands that productive remote work needs to be supported with clear and effective communication. Her number one piece of advice is to simplify and use tools well. As far as best practices go, she says you should define the tools you will use and model how to use them.
Define the tools you will use
Darcy explains you should have two to five main tools of communication.
“Do you use email? Do you use Slack? Do you use Notion? What are the tools you use, and for what? Then double down on teaching people how to use the notifications of those tools. What those tools are used for,” she says.
She also points out that the ideal is to do less but better. However, that’s hard to do. Simplifying systems or decreasing the number of communication tools between teams can be complex. Darcy suggests that the best way to achieve this is by modeling the behavior you want your team to have.
Model how to use communication tools
Darcy explains that it’s easy to fall into contradictory instructions. “If you say, ‘Oh, we don't Slack after hours,’ but then the CEO or the leadership team is sending Slack messages after hours, well, that's not going to help people consistently use the tools you're saying you want them to use,” she explains.
“Teach people how to use silent notifications, teach them how to use scheduled send. Embed how you use the tools as a culture and then actually use them that way. It takes retraining of behavior, but it is the number one most important thing to ensure you're optimizing for information retrieval, not transfer of information,” Darcy adds.
Ensuring That Remote Employees Have the Resources and Tech They Need
Another crucial aspect of productivity is giving employees the proper tools for their work. It can be as essential as providing equipment for remote workers or ensuring software licenses are up to date.
When asked how organizations can ensure remote employees have the necessary resources and technology to do their jobs effectively, Darcy states that it comes down to autonomy. “Whatever benefits you're giving your employees, whatever it might be that you're setting them up for success, think that different people work well in different ways,” she details.
For example, remote work allows people to have their preferred type of desks and chairs. Darcy explains that companies can make this benefit more appealing to employees by bringing in an ergonomics expert to guide selecting what works best for each person.
“When you're in an office, the ergonomic things are picked for you. We see many companies right now give $1,000 or whatever amount when you onboard to set up your home office, to set it up in a way that works for you. People say, ‘Well, I don't know what works for me. I actually don't know what to buy.’ Part of onboarding could be bringing an ergonomic virtual consultant that helps look at your setup, and they recommend the tools to buy,” she explains.
For Darcy, another aspect companies can focus on is peer-to-peer appreciation. “We've seen that that works well. Maybe you could take some of the funds you might use for an off-site or that you would have used for food in the office and put it towards a peer-to-peer appreciation program. When people see that they've done something well online, they can ping each other and send them a little quick gift,” she adds.
Fostering Community and Collaboration with Remote Workers
When there’s no intentionality behind remote work, employees can end up feeling isolated. While some workers may thrive in an environment with minimal face-to-face interactions, it’s also true that no interactions can hinder a person’s career growth.
Newer phenomena like the promotion gap can be attributed to proximity bias, where managers in hybrid models favor those who regularly come into the office. Remote employees can also miss out on promotions and growth opportunities because they are away when important conversations occur in the office.
Collaboration can improve for remote experts like Darcy through meeting design and batch onboarding.
“I'm somebody who is closer with my remote team than I'd ever been with an in-person team, which sounds wild, but some of the strategies that work to make that happen were around meeting design,” Darcy explains.
“When you're in a meeting, sometimes no one's talking. That's because there's no host, there's no agenda, there's no initiation, there's no welcoming, there's no question icebreaker at the beginning. Sometimes, it starts with a quick meeting design, ensuring you have an opening and a closing and a way to connect.”
“Onboarding in a remote environment is scary for a lot of people,” Darcy describes. “Imagine going into an office for the first time. Now you're going into an environment where you can't see, feel, or touch the environment. So language, making sure that onboarding is welcoming through language, but people from different teams are also going through it together.”
“It gives a strong sense of camaraderie and having a safe place for them to ask questions or have questions answered before they're asked. So people don't feel shy reaching out in the all-team channel when they're brand new. They have their own space to connect and communicate,” she explains.
Take Advantage of Breakout Rooms
For Darcy, one very underutilized tool in teams using video conferencing software is breakout rooms. “Let's say you have two teams that might not be communicating very well but need to work well together, and you see that in your people analytics,” she details.
“Put them in breakout rooms together, and you force them to talk. Forcing them to talk means they're building relationships and will therefore build trust and help them get their work done better, creating more profits and engagement. We have the tools. It's just about learning how to use them and designing around them.”
Is Remote Suitable for Your Company?
When we asked Darcy about her advice for companies still on the fence about staying remote or worrying about their team’s efficiency, she revealed that remote is not for everyone. “Don't just go remote because everybody else is going remote. It might not work well for your culture or your products,” she advises.
For Darcy, culture plays a massive role in the decision. “I'm a big proponent of remote, so I think my number one piece [of advice] is learning who you are as a culture. Learn how you want to work and what that will do, and once you communicate that, it will allow people to self-select out of your culture, and then people can self-select in.”
Regarding the remote debate on whether remote is good or bad for companies, she says:
“Remote is for you if you want it to be for you. As a leadership team, there has to be the value of willingness, and with remote does come a lot of intention and hard work. If you're willing to do the work, nothing good comes easy, and just know that it will be hard, but you'll get 10,000 times the results if you care and put intention into it.”
Remote employee productivity has been central to the remote work debate for a long time. The recent return-to-office mandates have stirred the pot of this ongoing discussion, but many factors can impact productivity.
Although research suggests a decline in remote work productivity, experts say it all comes down to company culture. As remote-first work consultant Darcy Boles explained, remote might not be for everyone, but for those who embrace it, it needs intentionality.
Keeping remote employees motivated and productive relies heavily on a company’s willingness to double down its efforts of creating an environment where people can thrive. On top of that, organizations should provide the tools employees need, set clear expectations, use proper communication channels, and, most importantly, show that they care about their people.If you’re looking to give your remote teams the tools they need, reach out to GroWrk. We handle IT equipment procurement and deployment in more than 150 countries. You can replenish your stock and ship devices to end users in just a few clicks. Request a demo to learn more.