Leading From a Distance: Ideas for Supporting Your Remote Workforce in Times of Change

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As more and more offices shut down, many of us are finding ourselves unexpectedly working from home. While the lack of a commute can be a plus, remote work comes with challenges that many of us are not accustomed to navigating.

BetterUp Labs has been studying remote work for a few years now to better understand the experience of trying to collaborate across distance. We’ve now studied close to 50,000 workers to understand this experience. In light of our current coronavirus containment context, we thought it would be helpful to our community to share these findings and practices that you can adopt to effectively manage your remote teams.

How we adjust to being remote

Workers who spend most of their time remote do develop strategies to mitigate their physical isolation. We see, for example, that full-time remote workers are no lonelier than full-time onsite workers; they have learned to compensate for location with relationship building through other means like video calls, phone calls, chat, email, and more. 

Of those modalities, we found in our research with Sonja Lyubomirsky that video and phone calls are most impactful in terms of driving connection. For those looking to feel social support while working alone, schedule a video “coffee chat” with a colleague or join a “remote lunch.” Try to spend time offering kind words or help on a project. You will feel gratified by offering those kindnesses, and the kind acts will build connection.

In terms of performance metrics, we see that fully remote workers report equal productivity to onsite workers. Remote workers actually feel an even greater sense of creativity and energy at home than they do in the office. Remote workers see the same number of raises and promotions as onsite workers. And they are, overall, slightly more satisfied with their work than those who work fully onsite.

Key challenges while working remotely

It takes time to acclimate to the remote environment, however, so it’s worth knowing about the key challenges that remote workers—even long-time remote workers—face. One of our more surprising findings is that remote workers struggle more, rather than less, with work-life balance. It seems they have a harder time drawing boundaries around their work, and see it bleeding into other parts of their personal life. We also see that remote workers struggle more to find meaning and purpose in their work. This could be related to a diminished sense of service to others that could result from not sharing a communal space.

For those of us managing newly remote teams, it’s equally important to know that remote workers report higher degrees of stress, as they seek to balance personal and professional needs. They feel less engaged with their work, and express a higher likelihood of wanting to leave their jobs. As such, managers should shift to spending more time helping remote teams with prioritization and setting boundaries. Engaging directly with your reports on what brings them meaning and purpose in their work can help strengthen their intrinsic motivation and organizational commitment as well. 

Confidence to weather challenges

On tougher remote days, it’s helpful to know—both as individuals and as leaders—that remote workers experience a higher degree of self-efficacy than onsite workers. Self-efficacy is our confidence that we can achieve our own goals. A high degree of self-efficacy positions us to successfully navigate challenges—whether that challenge is at work, at home, or in our surrounding communities. 

Self-efficacy is also one of the greatest predictors of our readiness for growth. Times of transition can further open us to personal and professional development. It’s a great time to think about how you can foster growth in your newly remote teams, keeping them focused on the future—on hope, rather than fear; and on resilience, rather than frailty. These mindset shifts not only improve our moods, they also produce better outcomes for us as individuals, as teams, and as organizations.