Remote work: 3 cultural benefits – and potential risks

Remote work has brought countless advantages to businesses and employees alike, but are we losing the 'human connection?' These expert tips can help your remote team stay in touch and engaged
1 reader likes this.

For better or worse, remote work seems to be here to stay. What arose out of necessity has evolved into a new way of working and living.

Remote work has given us new worlds of efficiency, unprecedented levels of access, and endless convenience. As long as we keep an eye on the costs of these improvements, we can reap the cultural benefits while staying connected at a human level.

1. Extreme efficiency

The use of technology allows us to do many things faster and more efficiently than ever before. We can increase our productivity while maximizing time and resources.

A study by McKinsey Global Institute found that three-quarters of the time spent on tasks and activities in the finance and insurance sectors could be done remotely without a loss of productivity. In management, business services, and information technology, McKinsey estimates that more than half of employee time is spent on activities that could effectively be done remotely.

[ Also read IT leadership: IT resolutions for 2023. ]

Remote work and learning can substantially increase efficiency by reducing distance and time constraints for anyone with a broadband connection. It can increase productivity and optimize our use of time and resources. However, when the focus turns to making processes more efficient, quantity often gets prioritized over quality. Neither productivity nor optimization necessarily takes well-being or the innate human need for social connection into account.

Fostering purpose and meaning

We can take steps to ensure that our remote experiences still provide a feeling of social cohesion, shared identity, and a sense of belonging. One way is to cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning within the organization. Research suggests that shared purpose establishes a connection between employees and organizational values. This connection makes individuals feel part of something bigger than themselves through shared meaning and affective commitment or emotional attachment.

Here are some ways to foster purpose and meaning:

  • Discuss what your organization or department does and why it matters.
  • Define your shared purpose in terms of what your organization does for the world, what your team does for the organization, and what you, as an individual, do for the team.
  • Continue the conversation about purpose after it is defined. Communicate the shared purpose to others and demonstrate it daily. Visible progress is one of the greatest motivators for productivity.

2. All-around access

Another result of moving so much of our society and our interactions online is that we’ve developed new and expanded ways of accessing one another. In the medical field, for example, increased access due to remote work can save lives. For many years, telemedicine has been used successfully in areas where specialists are not immediately available locally. Doctors can now manage care from afar, communicating with the local physician through video conferences and remote monitors. As a result of this increased access, there are improved outcomes, decreased costs, and fewer medical errors.

Unfortunately, however, as services become more accessible through technology, they also risk becoming more transactional. People may share less in virtual interactions, and service providers may have less opportunity to connect meaningfully.

Similar patterns are occurring across all industries, creating an increased risk of prioritizing quantity over quality. Work-life balance is becoming harder to maintain as work is at home and home is at work.

Prioritizing people

Make sure each team member has the chance to speak, and explicitly invite contributions from anyone who has not yet had a turn.

One solution is to make a concerted effort to prioritize people. This means connecting on a human level by acknowledging the importance of people’s contributions, opinions, and feelings. The more you show you care about others, the more they feel safe and included. In virtual interactions, where it can be much easier to get lost in the group, prioritizing people is paramount.

Here are some ways to prioritize people:

  • Model and reinforce the interpersonal behaviors you want to see in other people. Set an example by being aware of yourself and others, respecting others, and showing that you care about them by soliciting input and explicitly showing that you are listening.
  • Encourage team members to observe and listen to non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and tone of voice, to better understand the feelings of the group and individual team members. Make sure each team member has the chance to speak, and explicitly invite contributions from anyone who has not yet had a turn.
  • Respect people’s time. Shorten meetings when possible and stick to end times. Build breaks in the schedule to encourage others to take time for themselves and maintain good boundaries.

3. Countless conveniences

Remote workers can use digital tools to communicate and collaborate remotely, anytime, from anywhere. When commuting time is eliminated, productivity can increase, as can the flexibility of the individual’s schedule.

As a result, digital technology has become deeply ingrained in our daily lives. According to the most recent Nielsen total audience report, the average American adult spends over 12 hours per day in front of a digital device. This constant connectedness through technology enables us to gather with others more conveniently, but we don’t always feel connected or satisfied. We can end up being “alone together” when we don’t interact in a fulfilling way.

Communicating to connect

Instead, strive to be open and intentional, with all communications having the explicit intention of connection. In a remote environment, communicating to connect with other human beings requires a willingness to speak openly and honestly about your own thoughts and feelings. This makes it easier for others to do the same. Your choice of words and how you deliver them are both critically important.

Here are some ways to communicate to connect:

  • Facilitate discussions. Encourage everyone to express their views. Use active listening to learn about others while staying curious and flexible.
  • Share personal stories to help build a safe environment for others to share their own stories.
  • Communicate clear expectations and timelines. Confirm shared understanding of expectations. Review previous decisions, focus on the next steps, and evaluate results.
  • Support others by providing specific, behavior-focused feedback, given soon after the behavior occurred. Remember to also ask for feedback. Receiving and giving feedback is equally important.

Where we’re headed

Remote work has undoubtedly benefited our culture, but employers and employees must remember the innate need for human connection and overall wellness. Unless we make a concerted effort to support well-being and human connection, individuals are more likely to feel isolated and alone than focused, engaged, committed, and energized.

We must make sure we recognize the human costs without sacrificing the benefits. Let the cultural wins of remote work guide us toward ways of thinking and acting that will strengthen social connections and improve the remote experience for everyone.

[ Ready to level up your communication skills? Get advice from IT leaders. Download our Ebook: 10 resources to make you a better communicator. ]

Dr. Amy Mednick is a psychiatrist working in her own private practice who specializes in the overlap between the humanities and neuroscience. Her new book is Humanizing the Remote Experience through Leadership and Coaching: Strategies for Better Virtual Connections.