Last year, Ann Herrmann, who heads up a talent management firm, made her entire workforce remote. They now rely on a combination of videoconferencing tools and chat platforms, with an annual face-to-face retreat. So far, she says, she’s “actually gotten to know my employees better in the process of going 100% virtual.”
By beaming into countless home offices for video-based meetings day in and day out, and encouraging employees to share aspects of their home-based work, “Surprisingly, working remotely gives me a chance to really know our employees on a personal level, because we often disclose more about the world we live and work in than we did when we were colocated,” says Herrmann.
Herrmann might be onto something. In a recent study by the communications company Polycom, which covered over 25,000 workers across 12 countries, 66% said their favorite colleague isn’t located in their own office but in another one far away.
Long-Distance (Working) Relationships
How come? As Herrmann points out, when you’re working remotely with no one else around, there’s often an impetus to make more personal connections. And with digital technologies facilitating the interaction, there may be less anxiety about sharing the more private side of your life with somebody you don’t see in the flesh. We already know through other research that authenticity matters in the workplace, and that it’s something people tend to struggle with. So it’s not hard to see how remote conversations can sometimes fulfill that need more readily.
Remember the recent viral BBC video of that professor’s live interview from his home office getting crashed by his two young kids? It’s not just that we’re often sharing more intimate details verbally with remote colleagues, it’s that we’re seeing a more personal side, too. As Herrmann notes, videoconferencing into team members’ home offices lets her “see what’s important to our employees, from a banjo prominently displayed near an employee’s desk, to photos of family and pets.”
Plus, so much of what we communicate is nonverbal—often more than we realize. And body language and facial expressions tend to come across just as powerfully on video as they do in person, so just because you’re speaking to a colleague remotely doesn’t mean there’s automatically more social or emotional distance between you.
There is a fear of remote-work tools and policies, though. Many companies don’t implement them well, and wind up building virtual fences that hurt their projects’ success and limit accountability. When that happens, many employers think twice about going remote. Yahoo, in perhaps the best-known example, scrapped its remote-working policy in 2013 and maintained years afterward that that was the right move.
To be sure, every company is different. But in the drive to maximize productivity, employers shouldn’t overlook the human element. Relationships matter, and there’s ample evidence that those between colleagues can be just as strong—if not stronger—across time zones and continents as they can across a cubicle wall. If you like someone, you’re more likely to work well with them and pull together in a crisis, no matter where they are.
Jeanne Meister is a founding partner in Future Workplace, an HR executive network and research firm. She is the author of numerous books on workplace issues and a recipient of the Distinguished Contribution in Workplace Learning Award from the Association for Talent Development.