How Technology Complicates Remote Work

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Remote employees often feel isolated, buried in technology and at odds with their coworkers, hindrances that will dog employers, and their HR departments, for the foreseeable future.

Even though businesses have been preparing to bring many workers back into the office, the spread of Covid-19’s Delta variant is touching the brakes on efforts to get back to “normal.” On top of that, many employees, imagining life in more desirable areas and eliminating commute time, are toying with the idea of relocating while keeping their current position.

While many companies have been pleased by their remote workers' performance, the challenges of managing dispersed teams have become steadily more apparent. #HR #HRTech Share on X

If nothing else, the pandemic has been a test bed of human behavior during periods of reduced contact and self-motivation. And while many companies have been pleasantly surprised by how well their remote workers have performed since the pandemic gained steam in early 2021, the challenges of effectively managing dispersed teams have become steadily more apparent.

For example, the ratings and review firm Clutch found that nearly two-thirds of employees — 63% — spend less time socializing with colleagues either in-person or online since businesses adopted remote work. Videoconferencing may have gained traction as a way to collaborate and stay in touch, but many workers say their corporate culture has taken a beating.

And while employers have provided greater access to communications tools, they’ve failed to maintain the sense of comradery and cohesion they had before the virus appeared, Clutch said.

“Unless you have proactive plans for building trust and accountability within your workforce, and unless you have a robust digital infrastructure to tie individual effort to high-level business strategy, your tech solutions will only take you so far,” wrote Laura Butler, senior vice president of people and culture at management software provider Workfront.

Too Much Technology

Not only that, but remote employees are overwhelmed by workplace technologies, and that’s affecting productivity. According to Beezy, a provider of communications and collaboration solutions, 51% of workers struggle to feel connected to their work in all-virtual settings.

Meanwhile, 41% are overwhelmed by the number of tools and technologies they’re required to use, while 58% believe frequent application notifications decrease their productivity. Problems like spotty Internet connections or slow transmission speeds cause frustration and wasted time.

But there are some bright spots: Beezy’s 2021 Digital Workplace Trends & Insights report said employees have gained hours each week because of suspended or reduced commutes.  

‘Cracks Are Deepening’

When it comes to remote workflows, communications and knowledge sharing, “the cracks are deepening” under everyone, Beezy said. “After a year of remote work, employees are more burnt out than ever thanks to an abundance of meetings, hundreds of notifications and little sense of belonging to their company,” said CMO Mike Hicks. “It’s on business leaders to fix these disjointed digital workplaces, especially as we enter a new era of hybrid-virtual work.”

Hicks pointed at outdated company intranets, poor communication practices, limited knowledge sharing and inefficient digital processes as being particular problems. “At this point in the technical lifecycle, there’s no reason these tools should be working against you,” he said.

Indeed, technology is supposed to make life better anyway you look at it — in terms of productivity, experience, quality or pretty much wherever it’s applied. But a separate study, this one by the UK-based digital work platform Qatalog and the Ellis Ideas Lab at Cornell University, reports that, in fact, the impact of digital tools at work isn’t so positive.

Employees waste an hour a day trying to find information buried within their apps, the study found. Six in 10 people say it’s hard to know what colleagues are doing at any given time. And 43% say they spend too much time switching between apps. Productivity software, it seems, is cheating workers out of time, focus and creativity.

Meantime, despite all the talk we hear about “connection,” people are uncertain about what work has been undertaken on the platforms used by other teams. For example, a branding team might rely on a project management solution while the content team organizes its work in a wiki and the sales team tracks its efforts in a CRM. About 61% say it can be hard to figure out what others are working on, while 44% say siloed tools make it difficult to know whether work is being duplicated.

That may be one reason accounting firm KPMG found signs of wear among the workforce. About a third of workers, 34%, say their relationships with colleagues have taken a turn for the worse, the firm said. Some 35% said the same thing about their team’s ability to collaborate. And even though many reported better experiences, 41% say their happiness at work has slipped and 35% believe culture has worsened.

Nothing Left to Accident

Remote work may impact an organization’s culture in insidious ways, eroding trust, social cohesion and information sharing. To ensure their workforce continues to operate efficiently, creatively and productively, employers must actively manage changes to team dynamics.

Researchers from the Advanced Workplace Institute and the Centre for Evidence Based Management reviewed 35 studies and 10 analyses covering some 715 academic papers. They determined that dispersed work affects the frequency and quality of team communications, its levels of consensus and conflict, and the amount and quality of social interaction. This, in turn, affects team performance and outcomes.

Trust, social cohesion and information-sharing are subject to the most strain in the world of remote work, the report said. So, they must be proactively managed if remote-work efforts are to succeed. Managers must understand the differences in how employees react to working virtually, as opposed to on-site, and help team members respond to those differences and operate in ways tailored to their remote-work environment.

Finally, the report notes that every member of a virtual team has the potential to be a leader: “Home-based employees respond well to more transformational management styles,” The report recommends creating a strong team structure, involving team members in the development of goals and decision-making.

“Organizations increasingly need to harness their knowledge resources as opposed to controlling and ‘managing’ them,” said Andrew Mawson, managing director of the consulting firm Advanced Workplace Associates, which founded the AWI. “When we are working in a more virtualized model, old models become more difficult and we need new understandings and practices to deliver success in a virtualized world.”

Image: iStock

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