Five challenges managers face engaging a distributed, desk-based workforce

There are obvious challenges for organisations trying to engage with an ‘unwired’ workforce, such as a head office that tries to engage with its retail employees on the shop floor of their supermarket. But what about corporate organisations that have mainly desk-based and ‘wired’ employees? That is employees who do the majority of their work on a computer.

You’d think these employees would be much easier to engage with because they’re accessible via digital channels, but that’s not always the case and has become much more difficult with the hybrid working model.

As a manager, you may love the idea of working from home, working your hours and making your work schedule. But how do you effectively communicate and engage with your colleagues across the company?

We’ve compiled the top five challenges of engaging a distributed workforce and how you can combat them.

1. Lack of meaningful face-to-face communication

If you can't stop by a co-worker’s desk casually or have kitchen catch-ups, many fully remote employees can find the lack of human interaction lonely. It also becomes increasingly challenging to build genuine relationships and effectively communicate when you have a distributed team.

Commonly used text-based communication tools like email, Teams and Zoom make it challenging to judge co-workers’ emotions, pick up on non-verbal cues or read body language. These tools are also challenging when trying to show appreciation for somebody’s work. Whilst a quick “thanks” via email or chat message is thoughtful, it might not carry much meaning and certainly isn’t being seen by other colleagues, meaning its impact is minimised.

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The Solution

Introduce, and encourage, a video-first culture that prioritises using video conferencing tools as your primary source of communication to help increase your distributed team’s engagement and connect on a deeper level.

Video conferencing helps strengthen distributed teams by allowing co-workers to communicate face-to-face, in-person interactions. Unlike audio-only calls or chat-based communication, video calls make learning about emotional intelligence easier by reading facial expressions, body language, and other vital cues for effective communication.

To better demonstrate appreciation for your team, consider alternative platforms that you could set up purely for employee recognition. This could be a separate channel on your communication platform where colleagues can say thanks in a visible area or a dedicated platform that allows for recognition cards to be sent to colleagues and additional reward for outstanding contribution.

2. Difficulty building trust

The nature of geographically distributed teams, with employees working at different times and locations, makes it hard for some managers to trust remote members of their team.

Even though studies show remote workers are generally more productive than their office-based colleagues, some managers still struggle with the idea that remote team members are getting work done when left to their own devices.

The Solution

You could look to introduce guidelines for your teams. These guidelines may include which meetings all team members should attend, required response times to issues, hours during the day all team members should be online, quality of work standards and other specific expectations.

Additionally, creating measurable tasks with due dates for each member of your team will ensure everyone is contributing to the team’s overall goals. You could factor in incentives to ensure that these targets are hit?

3. Lack of company culture

Since some employees may work together in a traditional office environment while others work remotely from home, biz-spaces or smaller satellite offices, building and maintaining a unified company culture across geographically distributed teams is one of the biggest challenges for companies with a global workforce. With the lack of personal interaction, remote employees can sometimes feel isolated and left out from the company culture.

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The Solution

Your company’s culture has to go beyond in-office parties, silly games and happy hours. Instead, find ways for your team to connect face-to-face using video conferencing. You can host team bonding video calls where co-workers can chat and interact with each other casually, play games or have fun challenges; you could introduce a coffee break when you talk about everything but work!

You may also want to partner new employees with other colleagues. This system can double as an opportunity for mentoring and help establish deeper relationships and encourage better give-and-take among all team members.

4. Cultural differences

Many enterprise companies employ people from all over the world. This diverse global workforce may include employees with drastically different cultures, work ethics, communication styles, values and context.

As a result, distributed teams may find it difficult to communicate easily and work together effectively. Managers are tasked with finding common ground to successfully overcome these cultural differences in their diverse groups.

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The Solution

There is training available that focuses on managing cross-cultural teams, dealing with potential stereotypes, and learning how to communicate effectively and listen better. Since every distributed team is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all cross-cultural training program, but you should have a plan in place that fosters multicultural understanding and learning for your diverse team.

During onboarding new employees, host fun ice breaker video conferencing sessions and invite team members to share their favourite regional foods, customs and stories.

5. Time zone mismatches

Globally distributed teams are often made up of employees that span multiple time zones. This can make arranging team meetings or getting quick responses from remote co-workers difficult. Sitting near a teammate in an office makes it’s easy to turn to them and quickly ask a question, but when your co-worker sits thousands of miles away or in a different time zone, this simple task becomes much more challenging. Be wary that your remote co-workers could be asleep or away from work during your regular workday hours.

The Solution

Find a time that suits everyone.

For some, this might be in the morning, while for others, it’s the afternoon or early evening. If you can safely work out what the daytime work hours overlap is, you’ll be sure to know when to expect a quick response from the remote members of your team in different countries.

Organising meetings for teams with vastly different time zones can call for more imagination. The most common option would be to record the video call so those who couldn’t attend can still view the content another time. You could mix up who gets to participate versus who has to watch the recording to ensure a fair balance.

In addition, you can maximise productivity by planning ahead. Ensure your remote team members that work opposite hours have everything they need to effectively work on their tasks before the end of your workday so you can return to work the next day with the assignments completed.

Summary

There’s no golden bullet to achieving engagement with a distributed workforce. The key is ensuring consistent communication, spreading positive company culture where possible and being mindful of geographical and cultural differences. If senior leadership teams work together in these areas, obvious challenges can be minimised to achieve maximum engagement and productivity.

To learn more about how organisations are using the Rippl Incentives, Recognition and Reward platform to create a positive ripple effect of engagement across through distributed workforce, read our case studies.