Why disconnection in remote work comes from unclear organisational values, not physical detachment

An inclusive team culture can be created through home working, but it requires strong leadership, says Matt Wilson

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Steven Bartlett’s interview with Malcolm Gladwell in a recent episode of his podcast, The Diary of a CEO, sparked backlash from the digital nomad community and remote and hybrid workers alike, casting further light on the work from home debate.

Well-known author and thought-leader Gladwell argued that remote work was pointless, stating “it’s very hard to feel necessary when you’re physically disconnected”. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Catalyst’s 2021 report, 63 per cent of employees who have access to remote work options are more engaged and committed to their company as they’re trusted to manage their time as they see fit, and therefore are respected as contributors to the workplace.

 Contrary to Gladwell’s assertions, remote and hybrid work are not the issue at hand. The disconnect happens when employees are not onboarded into the company's mission and their values and therefore do not feel a sense of drive and belonging. Leaders should focus on onboarding new employees as thoroughly as possible, telling a compelling story about the mission of the organisation and encouraging new starters to seek connection. 

And while remote and hybrid working can result in physical distance between staff members, it instils in the employee a degree of connection in other ways. For example, many employees cite a greater connection to their family and community, and have the flexibility to dedicate more time to those around them. This in turn contributes to an employee’s quality of life, which results in a happier, more rested, more engaged member of the team. Indeed a report by Owl Labs states that 90 per cent of respondents who worked from home during the pandemic said they were as or more productive working remotely.

So, how can organisations make sure remote work doesn’t cause physical disconnect?

Be a strong leader with clear goals and directions for the team

Setting out a clear strategy and objectives to align employees should be a top priority when it comes to managing remote teams. Organising quarterly (ideally in-person) catch-ups to walk each member of the team through upcoming projects and priorities, highlighting the roles they play within your strategy and ensuring they feel comfortable with asking questions and providing feedback should be part of the business’s calendar of internal events. The team should then be empowered to execute the strategy as they see fit. Having this autonomy creates belonging and a collective drive to realise the strategy and see results.

Build a people-centred culture

Culture touches every aspect of a business, so it can’t be something that ‘just happens’ – it has to be built and nurtured, and it starts with clearly defining your core values. Once you’ve chosen your values, every employee must commit to living them, whether that’s in the way they interact with one another, or ensuring they are reflected in company policies or even through team awards, and of course employee wellbeing should sit at the heart of those values.

Let your employees decide how they want to work

The pandemic changed the way we work forever and employees should be given the power to choose how and where they work. While some companies opt for full-time remote work to avoid rental and commuting costs, others choose a global approach – a trend that’s helping companies break free from a traditional nine-to-five style of work and instead embrace working hours that are more suitable for their teams. Offering co-working spaces can be a great opportunity to offer a collaborative environment to employees who live in (or close to) city centres. These create the opportunity to connect with others, as well as providing for those who may not have a good working set-up at home.

Find opportunities to create connection

Co-working spaces present one opportunity for connection. But it’s still critical to create opportunities for connection for employees who live away from large cities or tech hubs, such as hosting annual retreats, during which staff have an opportunity to get together in person, putting faces to Slack pictures and email addresses and creating shared memories. Organisations should encourage quarterly team offsites to cement strategies, welcome new team members and – importantly – have fun. This last point is crucial: experiencing the human behind the persona in a Zoom meeting is one of the greatest things that can foster connection and belonging within an organisation.

It seems Gladwell has had a change of heart since working remotely himself and benefitting from the flexibility that it afforded him. To suggest that remote workplaces create disconnected teams shows a lack of insight into the benefits they can offer. These are choices that should be provided to employees too.

Matt Wilson is CEO and co-founder of Omnipresent