Distance = Disengagement: The telecommuting myth

Telecommuting/working remotely is one of those old yet new things. I’ve worked remotely for years doing freelancing, and on top of that I’ve been working with remote staff – both managing & just working with – for over 5 years now (I’m lucky enough that I have an employer that chooses people over location).

But to a lot of people it falls under the ‘new’ category.  And therefore is slightly frightening.

I admit it has both pros and cons. However for all the legitimate reasons for and against it, there’s one myth that truly drives me nuts when it comes to that ‘fear of remote work’ – and it’s the idea that remote staff automatically equals less engagement. That being remote removes that level of attachment, of passion, purely because you’re not there in person.

That’s like saying that a long distance relationship will never work because it’s long distance.  That a friendship I have that’s online will never be the same as a friendship in person.  I generally call bullshit on that.

Of course, when I do I get the ‘buts’:

But I can’t see them! How do I know what they’re doing & that they’re truly engaged?

Well, first, if that’s the level of trust you have in your employees, then you’ve got other problems.

Being able to see them though – what does that really mean?  Because I have sat in offices where we knew one of our colleagues spent more time on Facebook then they did on work. Their office was right across from the boss – didn’t matter.

So what was the problem? It was the level of investment, the relationship with their management.  Their manager didn’t care about what they were doing enough to pay attention, so why should they make the effort to care themselves? (And their disengagement getting little to no response? Led to more and more of the office following.  Why am I working so hard and they’re doing nothing and still here I was told by a colleague  – as they left early).

Pretty well everyone I know has a story about a physical workplace and ‘that person’.  If your employees aren’t engaged, it doesn’t matter where they’re sitting.  It’s not about ‘seeing’ them physically, it’s about truly ‘seeing’ them & paying attention.

But it’s so much more work! I can’t just spontaneously drop by their desk!

True, you can’t.  But unless every text message, phone call, & social media post you’ve ever made to someone else was fully scheduled and planned out, you can’t say ‘spontaneous’ is impossible virtually.

And to be honest, if your whole plan for how you check in, engage, and work with your staff is the spontaneous occasional drop by, then again, you’ve got more problems then just remote staff.

Engagement as a manager is not this magical thing. It requires work. It requires planning. Leaving it only to spontaneity only works til you don’t have enough time, or you have enough people, and then spontaneity gets dropped and 2 months later you’ve lost them.  Planning doesn’t destroy the ‘magic’ or make it less ‘caring’ – it’s the same logic as setting aside time for family things.   It’s making sure what matters gets attention.

But there’s a reason long distance relationships never work! You just can’t have that connection without being in person!

First of all, if your relationship to your colleagues requires the same connection as your long distance relationships … you may want to rethink that before HR does.

I joke, but this is the ‘but’ that usually, after everything, it falls back on.  That mythical connection that trumps everything (and that yet they still can’t truly define).  Oh no, they will declare, this job couldn’t be done the same way remotely. To build a team, to build the relationships? To have a connection?

But people will build community if you give them reasons to.  Things to care about, things to be passionate about – that’s what drives community.  We wouldn’t have the internet we have today if people at a distance from each other sharing interests hadn’t created true engagement.  Odds are, if you sit back and actually figure out what ‘connection’ you are truly worried about, you will either realize that the fear doesn’t have any grounding (is just the myth), or be able to properly define a true concern and come up with a workaround.

Is it easier to have everyone in a room, to be able to hand out cookies without thought and clap someone on the back physically? Yes, because it’s the default, fallback behaviour that we’re used to.  I won’t deny that and think companies that work on incredibly supportive workplaces and engaging workspaces are doing great work.

But forgoing opportunity and possibilities in this day and age where the tools to do virtual collaboration and work at a distance are so strong, just because of your belief in the myth that distance = disengagement is doing yourself, and the people who could be your staff, a disservice.

SocialNerdism: Pivoting now, because we can.
Tech Nerd theme designed by FixedWidget, modded by Jessie. Site © SocialNerdism 2016