Remote work has many benefits. It reduces commuting time. It permits us to spend more hours with friends or family. In the right circumstances, it can even boost productivity.
But challenges come with being part of a remote team, too — feeling out of the loop, missing water-cooler chat, and loneliness among them.
How, then, to square the advantages of remote work with its drawbacks? These expert tips from academic researchers can point the way forward for both small teams and large organizations.
The big shift to remote teams
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only about 6% of American employees worked primarily from home. By 2021, that figure tripled to 18%.
This shift was a big one — and not just for our work habits. Commuting patterns also changed, with 15 million fewer people commuting alone by car in 2021 compared to 2019. That, in turn, opened up the roads. For those who continued to drive to work during the pandemic, average commute time dropped by about 10%.
As telecommuting rose and commuting fell, many people won back time to spend with loved ones. Generally, the pace of life slowed down — which researchers in one Notre Dame study called a bright spot of the pandemic.
“Whether or not [families] will be able to sustain a less busy, less rushed life post-pandemic is unclear, but many spoke about wanting to try to keep doing less and being together more,” sociology professor Abigail Ocobock said.
The productivity paradox
It turns out that more family time and less commuting time doesn’t just benefit subjective well-being. Remote work can also boost productivity.
The US Patent and Trademark Office — which grants patents to inventors — began transitioning some patent examiners to fully remote status in 2012. In a study examining the impact of the shift, Harvard Business School researchers found that the remote examiners were 4.4% more productive than their in-office counterparts.
Based on the average value of a patent ($140,000), this could translate to an additional $1.3 billion of economic output, the researchers said.
Sustaining relationships remotely
Remote teams can accomplish a lot — and families also stand to benefit from remote work. But what about maintaining closeness to your “work family”?
This is the real challenge: keeping a remote team on track in the face of increased distance. After all, many of the team-building activities that were commonplace before the pandemic — like happy hours or office parties — can’t really be replicated remotely.
Also missing are random workplace run-ins (i.e., at the proverbial water cooler). Casual, low-stakes interactions have been shown to be beneficial to our mental health, and in a work context, offer opportunities to share ideas and collaborate.
Here’s what experts recommend to keep an entire team connected when working remote. You may even be able to bring back the experience of gossiping at the water cooler.
Embrace new ways to engage.
One study, conducted at the beginning of the pandemic, found that the abrupt shift to remote work led to a big decline in inter-team communication.
Emails between MIT research teams fell off sharply when everyone became remote — leading to a drop in “weak ties,” or messages between people with no mutual contact.
“Weak ties evaporated at MIT starting on March 23, 2020, with a 38% drop,” researcher Paolo Santi said.
Why this matters: weak ties have been proven to correlate to increased innovation. The more people engage with those outside their circle, the better they can find common research interests and shape new ideas in the future.
So what’s the best way to keep idea exchange (and innovation) flowing?
One possibility is to think beyond email for digital communication. Email works well for asynchronous, 1-to-1 messages. But consider the possibilities of team chat apps:
1-to-many messaging. Messaging apps are ideal for broadcasting group messages to a large audience, without worrying about cluttering recipients’ inboxes.
Customizable groups. On a messaging app, private channels can be created — or members added or removed — in a snap.
Improved presence visibility. Team chat tools with presence highlight when contacts are available, away, or offline for streamlined interaction and fewer annoying interruptions.
Get creative to keep small talk intact.
Surprising but true: small talk is good for us.
Small talk builds rapport, helps us broach sensitive subjects, and strengthens relationships. It’s also a great social outlet in the workplace.
“On days workers make more small talk than usual, they experience more positive emotions and are less burned out,” the Harvard Business Review says.
Not only that, maintaining small talk may be essential to the success of remote work. French business school INSEAD found that remote teams that kept up team conversation via a social calendar were more likely to thrive through the pandemic.
So how can you replicate in-office small talk on digital channels?
Organized social events. Quizzes, book clubs, and playlist exchanges are three examples the INSEAD researchers observed in the wild.
Scheduled “office hours” to chat. Setting aside a few hours a week for casual conversation can result in exciting new introductions being made.
Habitual check-ins. Simply asking how someone is doing can make their day.
The single biggest thing that’s missing in remote work is regular human contact. It turns out that even the interactions you may have once taken for granted — like a casual hello to a security guard — are meaningful.
One-to-many messaging apps and scheduled social time can go a long way to replicating what was enjoyable about in-person work. But it’s also incumbent on everyone to actually connect and communicate in real time.
MIT researchers, examining what employees say they need in a remote-work environment, found that the single biggest success factor is effective real-time communication.
“We determined that the most effective communication has five characteristics: It’s frequent, transparent, part of a two-way dialogue, easy to navigate, and consistent,” the researchers said.
Having a central place for messaging, like a group chat run by leadership, is a good option for keeping communication channels open. A group chat also allows for instant messages back and forth, ideal for asking questions and getting clarification.
If you want to get the best team chat app on the market, consider illumy — the most powerful tool for group conversations across teams, locations, and time zones. illumy is a great way to maintain internal communications, with:
An email address and a messaging platform in one.
That’s right: illumy combines email and a chat experience. It even allows audio calls over VoIP.
A slick user experience.
Building a fast, fluid user interface was one of our top priorities. It’s way faster than Microsoft Teams for sending and receiving private messages.
The ability to share files.
illumy lets you store files up to 500MB in size. Need to share? We’ll generate a link.
Visibility into past conversations.
On illumy, you don’t need to parse endless email chains to find old work messages. Just scroll up.
A mobile app to keep you connected on your mobile device.
Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash.