By Jock Purtle
A lot of things are changing about the way we work. The traditional 9-5 workday is slowly disappearing, or at the very least changing. And every year it seems more and more people are working remotely—currently around 43 percent of the workforce performs their jobs remotely in one way or another.
In general, there are a lot of advantages to remote work. Not only does it make it easier for people to achieve the coveted work-life balance, but remote workers actually tend to be more engaged and productive, when managed correctly.
But there are some things from a traditional office setting that remote work struggles to recreate, such as the ability to gather feedback from employees. Hearing people’s opinions about the way things work and the ideas they have for improving them is key to improving your business. But with less-frequent and less-personal digital communication replacing face-to-face interaction, some are wondering if feedback culture is in jeopardy.
In short: it’s not. Yet to make sure you can maintain this all-important feature of a successful, business, you do need to change some of your management techniques and adapt to the nature of a digital work environment. Consider the following to help you build a feedback culture when working remotely.
Hold Regular Meetings
In a remote work environment, efficiency is king. Having flexible work hours means people want to organize their days in the manner that makes them the most productive. And we all know people’s opinions of less-than-productive, something that makes people want to cut them out completely.
But you’ve got to avoid this. Just because people are working remotely, it doesn’t mean they are less important. You still need to maintain constant contact with them, especially if you’re hoping to build a culture of feedback into your remote work environment. You can certainly reduce their frequency, choosing to hold them once a month instead of bi-weekly, for example. Less contact discourages people from speaking out and making suggesting, stunting the development of a feedback culture.
During these meetings, make sure to actively solicit feedback. Ask people questions about your processes and about their jobs so as to encourage a dialogue. Saying just “Anything on your mind?” doesn’t promote dialogue, so you need to work extra hard to fight make it happen.
Give People an Outlet
No matter how often you tell people they can feel free to speak their mind, they are going to be more hesitant around management. You could have an incredibly open organizational hierarchy, but people will rarely say exactly what’s on their mind.
As such, to really develop a culture of feedback in your remote work, it’s important to establish another way for employees to express themselves. For example, you could set up an ombudsman program where people can discuss what’s bothering them under the protection of anonymity. Or, you could outsource your entire HR organization to a professional employer organization, streamlining this aspect of your business while also giving people an outside entity to speak to.
When you go this route, you can have this third party report on the general thoughts and feelings of your employees, which will make people, feel more comfortable that they won’t be singles out or reprimanded for speaking out against the way things are done.
Follow Through on Suggestions
If you want people to feel as though their opinions are valued—something critical to creating a feedback culture—then you need to make sure you follow through when people bring things to your attention. Of course you don’t need to implement every suggestion, but you do need to try.
In the cases where change just simply is not possible, make sure to discuss why this is the case. During your monthly meeting, let people know you’re aware of their concerns, and then explain to them why their suggestions cannot be accommodated, perhaps indicating at the same time that you’re going to continue to look for alternatives.
If you do this, then your employees will be able to see your words as more than just words. It will become clear to them that you care about what they have to say, and that your request for feedback is not just lip service but rather a genuine attempt at including them in the running of the business.
Work Hard to Build Trust with Remote Workers
Remote workers tend to fall out of the loop. Since they’re not in the office, it’s common to “forget” about them. And when this happens, you can be sure that they are not going to want to offer any feedback.
But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Make sure to spend time getting to know your remote workers by asking them about things other than work. Learn about their families and their hometowns, and do your best to cultivate a relationship as if saw this person in everyday in the office. Sure, it won’t be the same, but if you show people you care and that you trust them, then you can expect them to open up more when it comes time to solicit feedback.
Another way to build trust is by managing remote workers in a hands-off manner. Telecommuters value their flexibility, so if you harp over them at all times, then they will interpret this as an encroachment on their autonomy, which can create feelings of resentment and distance. Try to let people do their thing and enjoy the benefits of remote work, and you’ll soon see how this can open up the flow of communication and make it easier for you to learn about people’s thoughts and opinions.
Remote Workers Can Do It All
The most important thing to remember is that remote workers are the same as traditional workers in every sense. They may operate with different schedules and you may need to manage them a bit differently, but they are fully capable of doing everything your in-office employees can do, including offering feedback that can help make the company better.
About the Author: Jock Purtle is the founder and CEO of Digital Exits, an online brokerage service specializing in the buying/selling and appraisal of online businesses. He’s been an internet entrepreneur since he launched his first business when was 19-years-old, meaning his entire career has taken place online. He’s an expert on managing remote teams and enjoys sharing his experiences to help others.