More and more of us are working remotely, rather than commuting into an office each day. According to ONS figures, the UK now has 1.3 million home workers, and a further 3.7 million who sometimes work from home, or use it as their base. The trend is continuing upward. Remote working can be an ideal way to work for many, allowing more flexible working patterns that fit in with family demands, often leading to greater productivity, and contributing to a sense of autonomy for many. However, remote working can have its problems. Some remote workers feel isolated without physical contact with colleagues, self-motivation is sometimes a struggle when working entirely alone, and home workers can miss out on knowledge-sharing and community building opportunities within their sector. How can remote workers remain part of their professional community?
One of the difficulties faced by remote workers is that the working world is still built around physical communities, rather than virtual ones. We expect that the norm is to work in an office for five days a week, and so working from home is an exception, not the rule. That means that remote workers are often overlooked when workplace communities are developed. Even basic things such as access to internal IT systems are not always extended to remote workers. Yet, to work effectively from home, workers need to be able to play a real and active part in their professional community or communities.
To progress in a career, we need to be involved in sharing knowledge, both giving and receiving it. Knowledge helps us develop as people and professionals, and helps us contribute to the professional development of others around us. Whether a social worker needing to find local rehab center listings for a client, or a stockbroker looking for inside investment information, we all rely on knowledge sharing to do our jobs. Working remotely does not need to mean lack of access to that knowledge, provided there is a community and culture that supports remote working in place.
There are two kinds of remote workers: those who work remotely for a company as an employee, and those who work as self-employed freelancers or consultants. The two groups can overlap, with some freelancers working wholly or mainly for one organisation. What all remote workers need to be effective is to be able to collaborate effectively with those they work with and for; to be able to contribute to and benefit from the communities in which they work; and to gain appropriate reward and recognition. Effective businesses are normally good at doing these things for their in-house staff, but do not always manage to extend the privilege to their remote workers.
Remote workers need to be part of a day-to-day remote community. As they are working remotely, their primary community is a virtual. Basic things like access to intranet and inclusion on relevant email lists helps bring remote workers into the companies they work for. However, for remote workers to really be part of their professional communities, a more active approach to community building is needed. Internal social media can be a good way for remote workers to feel part of a workplace, as they can use it in just the same way as other workers can: they are not disadvantaged by not being physically present. Those who freelance for many different companies can often find online communities aimed at them. Social media is not just a ‘social’ community. When used in a professional context, it can be a great way to share opinions, reports and best practice. It can be more effective than personal interactions, which can tend to be more haphazard and have a smaller reach.
While remote communities are essential, it is important for remote workers to have some face-to-face contact with others too. That might be with their direct colleagues and managers, and it might be with others in the same industry but working in different roles. Companies can help by including remote workers in conference and social events, and perhaps allow them use of hot desks. For those working freelance, joining networking groups and meeting other freelancers (even if in another industry) is important.
We all need to feel part of a community, at least some of the time. Simple steps to help remote workers make virtual and physical contact with colleagues and others can go a long way to helping them feel part of a profession and being able to contribute their knowledge to that profession.