Remote workers are more engaged?

In the recently published Work Media Roadmap, we identified one trend that is having the biggest impacts on business today, in the context of adopting social tools in general, and work media tools (enterprise social networks) specifically. I called this the 3D Workforce:

Traditional work is being uprooted today:

  • Workers are increasingly mobile, and their expectation is that they can and must work wherever they are. Work can be performed at home, in the train, at a coffee shop, and in the office, and we have increasing autonomy in deciding where and when to do what.
  • Individuals and organizations increasingly do not recognize a clear break between work hours and leisure time, for better and for worse. The discontinuity inherent in “lifeslicing” has deep societal implications, and it is happening at an increasing rate.
  • Work is commonly shared across geographically dispersed workers, different companies, and a growing number of freelancers, whose contributions are now estimated at more than 35 percent of all professional and creative work in the U.S.
  • People also timeshift across projects, making work discontinuous. As a result, people are becoming used to working on loosely coordinated, short-term projects, with a growing reliance on results-only work styles and decreasing organizational infrastructure and oversight.

There is also a fourth D: disengagement. There has been a strong increase in the proportion of workers that are disengaged in the past five years, perhaps doubling from 1 in 10 to 1 in five. And the costs of this disengagement can be very high, since high performance is unlikely in the disengaged, and they can cause resentment among others. Obviously, management should try to counter disengagement in whatever ways possible.

Scott Edinger has identified one factor that could be relatively easy to manipulate. He thinks that remote workers — those that work somewhere other than where their boss works — are more engaged.

Scott Edinger, Why Remote Workers Are More (Yes, More) Engaged

The team members who were not in the same location with their leaders were more engaged and committed — and rated the same leader higher — than team members sitting right nearby. While the differences were not enormous (a couple of tenths of a point in both categories), they were enough to provoke some interesting speculations as to why this might be happening.

Edinger’s points are worth exploring, but they share a interesting commonality: when workers are remote, the leader’s behaviors change, and that — Edinger thinks — makes all the difference.

Proximity breeds complacency. — Edinger argues that managers tend to overlook opportunities to communicate with people they see all the time. This accords with other research that shows that working in open layouts lead to more communication but more superficial communication.

Absence makes people try harder to connect. — Managers have to set time aside and schedule calls with remote workers, which makes meetings more organized and productive.

Leaders of virtual teams make a better use of tools. — The array of communication tools available, including video conferencing, work media, telephone, instant messaging, and so on, mean that remote works can communicate in the most appropriate way for a particular purpose. For example, posting comments in a Google Doc is much more helpful than handwaving in a face-to-face meeting.

Leaders of far-flung teams maximize the time their teams spend together. — Edinger believes that when remote workers invest the time to meet physically, the time is organized more rigorously, and it is more of an event, not just-another-thursday status meeting. This can create better results since everyone takes on more planning before hand, and they are less likely to divert their attention during the joint time.

So, letting people work remotely a very simple method to up engagement, and calls mostly for a change in managers’ thinking and time allocation. Perhaps that’s why it is not as common as it might be, since managers are the ones that have to lead that change.