Convening People Who Work Remotely

by Chris Williams

Since 2015, I’ve worked as a remote employee for Interaction Associates.  For me, it’s been great. Working from home has also given me added time to be with my family, which is a tremendous perk for a new parent. Flexible work arrangements and technology are quickly shifting where work can be accomplished, altering the typical nine-to-five workday, and rapidly transforming the physical workspace, e.g., hoteling and hybrid workplaces.

A recent Gallup study, State of American Workplace, stated that 43% of American employees work remotely some percentage of the time.  Of those workers, 31% spend 80-100% of their time working remotely, a 7% increase since 2012. As the trend accelerates, people leaders are called to understand the effects of remote work arrangement: impact on productivity, sense of connection, along with the broader implications for work productivity, human experience, and shared community.

For me and my virtual colleagues at IA, working from home and shared workspaces have:

  • eliminated 45 to 60-minute one-way commutes
  • increased our productivity and ability to focus
  • enhanced our autonomy and flexibility, leading to more enjoyable and productive work hours

The Importance of Convening Remote Workers

Leaders are experimenting with new methods and technology to connect and collaborate. However, with all the apparent benefits of remote work, getting together is still very important. We are, after all, human beings – and we have needs for connection, community, and a sense of shared purpose and destiny. When and how should you leverage the power of convening people in-person?

Although most day-to-day job responsibilities of knowledge workers can be accomplished with speed and precision using technology, social science research informs us that when people physically meet a variety of changes occur. First, warmth is conveyed through physical touches, such as a handshake. This simple gesture has demonstrated effects on building trust.  People who trust each other work better together. Second, nonverbal communication is easier to read in-person. This allows for increased absorption of emotional information and is particularly useful when you need to get to honesty, transparency, and engagement on a deep level. Lastly, a different physical environment allows for new experiences, which results in an increased openness to unfamiliar perspectives. 

When to Convene in Person

Ask yourself the following questions to determine the appropriateness of convening in person:

  • Would my team benefit from going deeper on a subject, much deeper than before? This might be a strategic shift in work processes or complex problem solving with stakeholders across the business.
  • Is there a need for rapid alignment and collaboration between two groups or new team members? This might include siloed teams with limited prior relationships or new team members who must work together.
  • Are there critical relationships and communication channels that need to be rebuilt? This can be particularly helpful if there are individuals struggling with conveying and expressing ideas in a positive and collaborative manner.  Bringing people together helps to build connective tissue, can reset expectations, and serve as a reminder that everyone is aligned around a similar organizational purpose.

How to Convene in Person

  • Establish baseline expectations for when you will meet in person. This is a great exercise to build organizational clarity and alignment. Specifying a specific cadence, such as once a quarter, helps to carve out time for regular strategic conversations and deeper relationship building. Teams with a predictable cadence of meetings outperform those who meet in more erratic ways.
  • Gather input from the team to “vet” the idea of convening. Focus on creating a vision of what success might look like, define individual involvement, and time commitments.
  • Design the meeting structure and process. Define the desired outcomes, which outlines what your meeting aims to achieve. It answers the question, “what will we walk out of the meeting with?”. Define the process - the “how” you aim to accomplish these results. Like an architect, consider this meeting design process as a method of constructing a detailed blueprint for your in-person gathering.
  • Once in person, take time to also get to know your people on a deeper, emotional level. Demonstrate curiosity to learn more about their perspectives, aspirations, and unique skills.

Meaningful work and purpose are key tenants of what it means to be human.  21st-century leaders are called to inspire people to dream bigger, think deeper, and do more with their teammates. By frequently reminding your team of their higher purpose and convening in-person strategically, you will create deeper connections, appreciations, and find greater joy in the work.