Paradoxes of Engagement: Remote Isn’t

Do remote workers make their managers better?

Stowe Boyd
Jan 15, 2020 · 4 min read
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Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

I admit when I read the Gallup State of the American Workplace 2017 I was surprised by one finding in particular. Gallup had been tracking the engagement of remote workers starting in 2012, and discovered that those who worked remotely reported higher levels of engagement than those who never work remotely, but only up to a point. There seemed to be some limiting factor, so that those working remotely less than 20% of the time gained this higher level of engagement, but if that percentage went up, the results regressed to the mean.

That seemed reasonable. I imagined a worker who regularly worked a day a week at home, with predictable positive results. Less commuting. A day with fewer meetings, perhaps, with a less crowded calendar to dedicate time to important work. Perhaps more time with the kids and the significant other.

But that homey view was upended in 2018 when I read the Gallup report, when the authors reported,

all employees who spend at least some (but not all) of their time working remotely have higher engagement than those who don’t ever work remotely.

And those that work remotely 60%-80% of the time say they are more likely to strongly agree that working remotely makes them more productive.

These remote workers gain something other than time out of the office. What could it be, I wondered. One obvious candidate is autonomy: a worker out of the office more than 50% of the time clearly must operate more autonomously. We know that greater autonomy leads to greater engagement and higher job satisfaction. But couldn’t they gain that autonomy in the office, just as well?

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At some point, I realized that I was looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I was thinking about what the remote workers did differently to gain that engagement and productivity boost. The difference may be in how their direct managers act differently with remote workers.

Of course, we know that the relationship between a worker and manager is a major factor in engagement. In fact, many studies show that workers consider it the most important factor. Then it hit me:

Scott Edinger offered four insights about this, which neatly explains at least some of the apparent paradox.

  1. Just because a manager can walk over and check in with a direct report doesn’t mean they do. Note: ‘managing by walking around’ is widely disliked by workers, anyway, but the good habits demonstrated by smart managers of remote workers are often not deployed for in-office workers. Just because it’s possible to communicate doesn’t mean managers will.
  2. — because of all the difficulties of communicating with remote workers, managers have to make an extra effort to connect. That means they are likely to put it on their calendar or todo list, or both. Because of that, managers will pay more attention to what is being said, and as Edinger puts it, ‘tend to be more conscious of the way they express their authority’. They are likely to make an effort to catch up with remote workers to get a sense of what’s going on in their lives.
  3. — today, much more so than in 2012 when Gallup started following this issue, we have access to high-fidelity tools to diminish distance, like video conferencing, work chat, online documents, intranets, and work management tools. Leaders of remote workers have to become more proficient in using these tools that their counterparts without remote reports. I hypothesize that the rise of these tools from 2012 to the present day could be a major factor in removing the ceiling for engagement that Gallup cited.
  4. — Consider that workers that work 60%-80% remotely are spending 20%-40% colocated with others. Smart leaders make the most of that time: they work to minimize distractions to focus on high-value work. Also, they may add more social time to the mix, more so than is typical in a normal workday. Edinger points out that some non-remote workers say that the times when remote workers come to the office can lead to the greatest degree of interaction with leaders.

Of course, remote workers — especially those with enlightened leadership who acknowledge the link between remote work and engagement — are also doing their part. They learn to use remote tools, and act more deliberately when engaging with teammates and managers both remotely and in the office. Workers’ activities may be just as big a factor for their managers’ success with remote work as the efforts that managers take.

And when remote work doesn’t work, it is a failure on one side or both, where something is taken for granted, some factor ignored, or communication stunted. Frederic Laloux once wrote,

When people have little emotional investment in the organization and in its purpose, when employees consider work as a burden to be minimized, then don’t be surprised that given freedom, they take the freedom but not the responsibility.

In some ways, Laloux raises larger issues, but there is no issue larger, really, than engagement.

The paradox is that remote isn’t, at least not when the remote worker and the remote manager both take responsibility to shrink the divide between them, and to help the other build engagement, reciprocally.

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