Working Remotely – Why is it so tough?

t_clocks2Working remotely is now the norm in many organizations. It is becoming increasingly rare to find a team that is co-located and of a single nationality that is self-sustaining in a business organisation these days. Many, if not most of us, get our job done through working with colleagues, suppliers and clients whom we never meet. However, working remotely isn’t something that comes naturally to us. On the contrary, it requires specific skills – the problem is that many organisations and business leaders are unaware of this skills gap and therefore fail to develop their people to their full capability for remote working resulting in missed deadlines, lost business, trust issues and poor performance in general.

Just let them get on with it

There are a number of well-known beliefs surrounding remote working. We’ll look at a few of the main ones in this article. One of them is that remote workers in teams can be left to their own devices. In other words, they will just get on with their roles and be as effective virtually as they are locally. Research suggests that even the best of us can find the virtual aspect of working a debilitating experience that impacts severely on our performance.

It’s all in the technology

The second belief is that the technology for communication and collaboration (email, tele-cons, video presence etc) is easy to use and in itself solves all the issues thrown up by remote working. In fact, the reality is that it is much more complex and often remote workers and teams are not aware of the benefits and disadvantages of all the different media that can be used and so tend to use email for almost all their business communication as a default. This can often lead to problems in itself.

Corporate culture overrides everything else

The third belief is that all international operation centres of the company have a shared corporate culture as found in the headquarter country. This is often very far from the case. Research has shown that different cultures work through different national cultural values and so give possibly different priorities to their approach to the everyday business activities (communication, meetings management, decision-making etc). These differences have been expressed through models showing cultural traits on dimensions or continuums. A simple example would be about communication, is it preferable to be direct or indirect? In direct cultures people prioritise clarity and succinctness whereas in indirect cultures people prioritise conflict avoidance and avoiding loss of face. Their experience of each other (when you have two cultures with large gaps on the dimension) will be hypocrisy at one extreme and rudeness and disrespectful at the other. Not good experiences to have on a remote team and which are bound to impact on overall productivity and trust.

What kind of English shall we use?

The fourth belief is that all international operation centres of the company use the language of the headquarter country (often English) well and with precisely the same meanings as understood in the headquarter country. This is often very far from the case. There are various forms of English being spoken round the world. In fact there are more people using English as a second language than there are native speakers and there are many varieties of native speaker English too. Lastly, competence in speaking English (or whichever headquarter language is the official company language of operation) may mean a high quality of communicative ability but may not include an understanding of idiomatic phases such as those taken from sporting contexts (I.e. getting past third base, step up to the plate etc).

So how can all of this be managed better? 

A straightforward training and development initiative will provide the awareness and skills training required to manage the challenges thrown up by remote working thereby ensuring that productivity will be optimised, deadlines managed and best practice will be developed. These types of training ideally should be delivered before workers start to work remotely (they could be built into induction programmes for new workers and graduates) but the business reality is such that this is almost impossible. So, if we are going to address this in our organisation, which is better, an online learning package or a face-to-face workshop? Well, in fact a blended approach would be best, combining online learning modules with face-to-face training followed up with Webinars as required.

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