Remote Worker Experience: Infusing Human Connection in a Digital Workplace
Remote Working

Remote Worker Experience: Infusing Human Connection in a Digital Workplace

Jennifer Zimmer
Content Manager for Headflood
9 min read

Remote work is becoming increasingly prevalent in the modern workforce. It's no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies to re-invent the way they do business. Many companies in North America are hiring employees and freelancers who can manage their job from anywhere in the world with an internet connection; a trend now dubbed as "the gig economy." This evolving trend is great news for today’s aspiring laptop warriors, digital nomads, and online entrepreneurs.

In a world where personal freedom and flexibility are highly valued, there’s a lot to love about the benefits of remote work. But let's face it—the digital workplace doesn't come without its challenges. It's all too easy for people to get lost in a digital world where remote work tools like Zoom, Slack, and Google have replaced the bulk of in-person human connections. Many employers find themselves wondering, “How does remote work affect employees?”

We posed this very question to Sharlene O'Reilly, Director of Human Experience at Miramar Technologies. Sharlene provides us with excellent insight into the human experience in a remote culture. Utilizing modern digital technologies many of us have become accustomed to, she teaches us how to best facilitate a human connection that keeps us engaged with both our work life and our co-workers.

Trade-offs of a remote work experience

For many employees and independent contractors who have made the transition to remote or hybrid work, there's no going back. Not having an office or physical location to go to every day provides an excellent alternative for those looking to avoid long commutes or expensive office-building rents. Remote working offers a myriad of benefits for both employers and team members, such as:

  • increased productivity
  • operational cost savings
  • top talent recruitment and retention
  • positive environmental impacts
  • improved job satisfaction
  • greater professional autonomy
  • more flexibility in your personal life
  • enhanced overall well-being

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders, "business on top, pajamas on the bottom" attire has become more than just a funny meme—it's the standard uniform of many remote employees. One Japanese suit retailer went so far as to design a "pajama suit" that allows you to look like you're wearing a suit jacket for Zoom calls while comfortably spending the day in your pj's. Enjoying all the comforts of home is just one benefit enjoyed by the remote workforce.

But what happens when your favorite work shoes collect dust while the walls start closing in on you? When days upon days of quarantined kids running around the house has you questioning your mental health? When escaping the morning commute no longer outweighs the loss of social interactions once enjoyed in a typical 9-5 office setting? And how does an employer effectively gauge employees’ well-being from a distance?

These are just a few of the real-life struggles facing remote employees and business owners alike. As the future of work in a digital world threatens to dehumanize and isolate team members, it's vital to adapt and learn how to remain human-centered in this new era of social distancing.

Fostering human connection in the digital workplace

With interoffice chit-chat and conversations around the water cooler being a thing of the past for remote workers, it's easy to lose organic employee engagement. When interfacing with people we may only know as a 2D LinkedIn profile photo or a username in a chatbox, Sharlene encourages us to remember, "Hey, that's a person. There's a person behind that with situations, emotions, and experiences."

We are each a part of this remote workforce, but we are humans first.

"There's this need to be aware and far more intentional with how we communicate with each other," adds Sharlene.

It's important to take the time to ask our co-workers questions like:

  • "How are you doing?"
  • "Do you have everything you need?"  
  • "Is your work-from-home environment okay?"
  • "Are you at a coffee shop today?"
  • "How's your remote work experience treating you?"
  • "Is there anything that's going to impact your ability to perform to your best?"

We also have to realize that a sick spouse or sick kids and other COVID influences may impact an employee's ability to stay in their role with 100% focus. In short, life happens. And times of crisis are inevitable.

"We have to be flexible and let that employee know they don't have to fear saying, 'Hey, I have another problem today,' or 'Hey, I have to take care of a burst pipe,' or 'Hey, I have to drive my kids to school, there's been an emergency,'" explains Sharlene.

Offering grace and flexibility to one another builds an atmosphere of safety, trust, and loyalty. When a remote employee knows that they can be open with what's happening in their personal life, they feel seen and empowered by their work community. A thriving remote-work ecosystem requires meaningful human connection.

How to build virtual relationships with remote co-workers

This process of building remote relationships can feel complicated, but it's only a matter of learning some new skills. In order to foster a healthy work environment, it's crucial to get to know your team members and be able to work with them for extended periods of time. It’s not just about being nice or getting along, but being able to have productive conversations and share ideas with one another on a regular basis. These relationships are what will help a team meet its goals and objectives in a timely manner.

In the age of social media, it's not surprising that people would want to keep in touch with their co-workers outside of work hours. After all, they've become friends after working together for an extended period of time. They can share personal stories and get advice from one another on how to deal with certain work-related and personal challenges. Connection is key.

Where remote work is concerned, how do you make employees feel connected virtually?

Verbal vs. non-verbal communication

Sharlene reminds us that 93% of communication is non-verbal, leaving only 7% of communication up to word use alone.

"The tone that you use, and how you write your email is really important because a person, depending on their mood, or their emotional state, could read it so differently than how you intended it to sound versus if they...were able to watch your expression as you're speaking. You can't really wink as succinctly, you can only use a little emoji. And sarcasm doesn't fly very well."

93/7 Rule: 93% of communication occurs through nonverbal behavior & tone; only 7% of communication takes place through the use of words.
- John Stoker

How a person interprets written words depends upon the lens through which they see people or the world through, and the perceived tone of a co-workers' writing. Filling in non-verbal gaps requires pushing oneself to step into a more personal encounter.

"Divulging a little bit more information than is comfortable can really help pull a team together and feel like they’re a part of something larger," explains Sharlene. "Sometimes over-communicating is what it feels like, but at least people aren’t lost and shocked when they hear something that they weren’t at least somewhat attuned to the potential of happening."

Using digital technology to encourage human connection

Modern digital technologies provide functional avenues for personal connection, infusing human experience into the technological landscape. We're no longer limited to 2D images and flat words in an email or a chatbox. We have a plethora of digital platforms at our fingertips such as Zoom, Slack, Loom, and Google Workspace, to name a few.

Five digital tools we can use to create quality virtual connections:

1) Loom - Using Loom, you can send a co-worker or a client a short video in which they can see you and your screen. This is helpful when you require the functionality of demonstrating how to do something via screen sharing without being in the same physical space. A Loom video provides both visual and audio context that captures passion and helps the receiver understand you better.

2) Slack
- Setting up team Slack channels opens customizable streams of communication that can be transformative when it comes to keeping everyone up to date, team-building, and managing daily business operations. This is also a great place to publicly and privately shine the spotlight on individual employees whose stand-out work might otherwise go unnoticed.

3) Zoom
- If the past year or so has taught us anything, it's that a lot can be accomplished in a short Zoom call. Beyond providing a safe means of face-to-face communication in a pandemic, Zoom allows us to bring people together from all over the globe. We have the benefit of hearing voices, seeing expressions, and getting to know one another as individuals in real-time.

4) Google Chat
- For basic casual conversation or a quick exchange of information (for example: "What's the wifi password again?" or "What's the passcode for the Zoom meeting?"), chat boxes are perfect. It's quick and efficient. Use emojis when appropriate to add tone, emphasis, and personality.

5) Cell Phones
- A lot of misunderstanding can be avoided or cleared up in a 5-minute phone call. Phone conversations can be used to check in with each other, clarify a text or an email, or convey sensitive information that could be taken wrong in a void of vocal tone. A quick phone call is often all it takes to reconnect with our fellow co-workers and keep healthy working relationships top priority. Texting a voice memo is another way to capture your tone and vocal inflections and better communicate the intention behind the words.

Best practices for building a company culture of connection

Connection is the end goal of any human-centered company. It is the ideal that any healthy company culture strives to achieve. The culture of connection, then, is built around a set of values and principles that are expressed in all aspects of the organization. The challenge for companies in the remote space is learning how to encourage connection and a positive employee experience.

The key for business owners and managers in remote cultures is to find out what their employees like and don't like. What makes them tick? What's their motivation for working? Are they just looking to pay the bills? Are they the kind of person who wants to feel a part of something bigger? Do they have ideas to grow the company? Do they have excitement for anything that could lead the company in a new way with new ideas, or perhaps another role like a mentorship? If they had an intern, who could they could pour into?

Discovering the answers to these questions can help employers know the best ways to provide affirmation in a remote work environment. The goal is to find ways to celebrate and highlight the unique talents of each person—starting with onboarding and continuing throughout the entirety of their employment. To accomplish this, Sharlene suggests a few ideas:

  • Be personal rather than templated in a mass email when giving affirmation
  • Offer paid time off as a reward
  • Invite team members into the decision-making process
  • Highlight specific people on a weekly or monthly basis
  • Send a gift via Amazon or DoorDash, flowers, gift cards, etc.
  • Provide individual recognition directly to the recipient
  • Offer new opportunities as rewards such as:
  • Leadership roles
  • Conferences
  • Special training events
  • Empowering work connections
  • Financial incentives
  • Anything that demonstrates trust and recognition

Putting these practices in motion will elevate the digital experience in the workplace, improve company morale, and prevent burnout among remote workers.

Maximizing employee experience in a digital workplace

Prioritizing a positive remote culture provides benefits that extend beyond job satisfaction for remote workers. The benefits of happy employees translate into a positive customer experience as well—a win-win for any business. In the end, the ultimate goal is for everyone—company leaders, employees, and customers—to feel seen and heard.

Whether you own a remote startup company, lead a large corporation, or you're considering remote work for yourself, it’s important to be fully aware of the pros and cons so that your experience is a positive one. The rise of remote work is here to stay and, even in a post-COVID era, it's expected that remote and hybrid work opportunities will continue to expand. It's time to shift focus towards the people who make the digital workplace possible and, together, maximize our human experience.

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