Research has found that recognition can go a long way in improving employee productivity and engagement, but now managers and employers are challenged to extend their gratitude to an increasingly remote workforce.
While remote staff still appreciate acknowledgement and affirmation from their superiors, research suggests they are more likely to value quality time with their colleagues over direct praise, compared to those who work in-house.
According to a research by psychologist and author Paul White, everyone has their own preferred way of receiving praise and acknowledgement. In his 2012 book, The Five Languages of Appreciate in the Workplace, he breaks down how most employees want to feel acknowledged for their work.
According to his research for the book, nearly half of the 130,000 American workers who took a self-assessment appreciated words of affirmation most, approximately one quarter most enjoyed quality time with colleagues, just over 20% preferred to be acknowledged through kind acts or services, only approximately 5% most appreciate physical gifts, and less than 1% most appreciated a high five or other physical gestures.
“Feeling valued and appreciated is not only desired by people, but it’s critical to the function of the organization,” White tells Fast Company. “Businesses with team members who feel valuable and appreciated are more profitable, there’s less conflict, and they get higher customer ratings.”
As the workforce becomes more remote, White believes it’s similarly vital for businesses to understand how they can best extend that feeling of appreciation to their offsite staff.
Time Trumps Words for Remote Staff
While the order of most appreciated forms of gratitude remains the same for remote employees, White’s latest research found that they are more likely to value quality time with colleagues than those who work in-house. While only 25% of in-house staff most valued time with colleagues, that number increases to 35% for remote staff, which is almost on par with their appreciation for words of affirmation from superiors.
“Quality time really popped up [in the rankings], with 10% more of employees who worked remotely saying they prefer quality time over words, which is a big jump,” says White. “Remote employees often feel disconnected, and words alone often don’t send the same intensity of message.”
White explains that without casual communication at the water cooler or in the elevator, remote staff are at risk of only communicating with colleagues on work-related topics, which can leave them feeling disconnected from the rest of the organization.
“It starts to drive the relationship towards them just feeling like a work unit rather than a person,” he says, adding that in such circumstances a simple kudos for a job well done can seem impersonal or insincere. “You have to be far more proactively intentional to be able to effectively communicate appreciation with remote employees.”
Be the First to Open Up
In order to establish a personal relationship with remote staff, White believes it falls to the manager to kick-start those more intimate conversations. He adds that those who manage remote staff should schedule extra time into their communications with remote employees to ensure they have room for casual conversation between work-related subjects.
“If it’s only one person talking about themselves and the other asking questions, it can feel like 21-questions or an interrogation,” he said. “To build a personal relationship, there needs to be two-way interaction, and one way to facilitate that is to offer personal information about yourself.”
Starting phone calls and other interactions by sharing personal anecdotes, explains White, is an effective means of building that personal relationship with remote staff.
Take a Remote-First Approach To All Internal Communications
According to Shopify’s remote employee experience specialist, Chivon John, those who work with remote employees should strive to foster a remote-first approach to communications, even among in-house staff.
“If you’re having a meeting in the office, and you’re including individuals who are working remotely, avoid situations where you have a majority of attendees in a board room, and one person conferencing in,” she advises. “That can make them feel isolated, so try to level the playing field by having fully remote meetings, even when a majority of attendees are in-house.”
John, who helps manage the e-commerce platforms extensive remote workforce, (only 850 of its 3,000 employees work at the company headquarters in Ottawa, and 1,400 are fully remote) adds that when it comes to internal communications it’s similarly important to establish company-wide rules of engagement for remote staff, especially those working in different time zones.
“It’s important to encourage your staff and your teams to input into their calendar the remote staff member’s working hours,” she says. “You need to have a clear understanding of when people are available to avoid situations where those who work remotely feel they have to be available at inconvenient hours to connect with their team.”
Foster Communities Outside of Work
While maintaining a personal relationship with managers can help remote staff feel more connected to the office culture, many, according to White’s research, prefer having casual relationships with colleagues based on mutual, non-work-related interests. John adds that Shopify intentionally helps remote staff foster such communities through internal social networks.
“We encourage remote employees to create their own communities based around their interests,” she says. “Individuals have created local chapters with people who live in the same city, or people who have the same interests, and they often take them offline by organizing their own events.”
Networks based in the same city might get together for a monthly lunch, for example, while fans of the same artist or sports team can arrange to see an event together.
Providing remote staff with the tools and the ability to connect with coworkers on non-work-related topics, according to both John and White, is vital for organizations striving to foster a cohesive and inclusive workplace culture, even as the physical distance between team members is increasing.