Numerous employee engagement surveys reveal a disturbing fact: most remote employees don't think you like them as much as you do those you share an office with. They could be right.
Did you ever ask your mother, "which one of us kids do you love most?". Of course, she responded that she loved you all equally and don't be silly. That either satisfied you (if you secretly believed it was you and she was just being kind to the others) or didn't satisfy you at all (if you felt hard done by and didn't believe her). Your remote employees feel the same way.
They might be right. (Don't freak out. This doesn't make you a bad person, just human.) After all, it's likely that if you see someone a lot, you learn more about them. Do they have kids? How was their weekend? Are they a football fan (whatever kind of football you play where you are)? Those seemingly minor interactions build relationships and relationships build trust.
It's not just that we think more highly of those we work with most closely, it's that we think of them first. That's where a lot of the trouble comes in building long-term relationships with remote workers.
Need a hand with some extra work? Poke your head over the cubicle and ask. Who gets those development opportunities? Probably someone close so you can help when needed. It's not that you actually like those people, or think they're better than the rest of the team, they're just - you know - there.
Over time, however something insidious happens. You tend to rely more and more on the people you have proven you can rely on. Those who work remotely see that happening and presume you must like or trust those people more than you do them. It becomes a vicious spiral and damages trust and relationships.
What started as a matter of convenience can become extremely inconvenient. And this matters. Because when people feel unappreciated they become less engaged. Those who are less engaged become less productive. Maybe more importantly in a remote world or on projects where you have people jumping in and out over time, team members who don't feel connected to the team or the manager are ripe for picking by head hunters, other managers seeking talent and the like.
This doesn't mean the problems are inevitable. By being mindful of these dynamics you can make more thoughtful decisions about how you involve team members in the work.
- Before delegating a task, ask yourself if the most convenient person to get the assignment is necessarily the right one. Who hasn't had a chance to show their skills off yet? Whose skills would you like to assess? Who needs to feel more connected? If practical, intentionally choose a remote employee. Not only does it help that person, but it sends a message to the rest of the team they are not out of the loop.
- When you do one on ones with your remote employees (and you're doing them, right?) take the time to ask about them, and ask open ended questions about what they're doing and hope to accomplish. Ask directly about their interest in staying with the project and team. What might be getting in the way? A little attention can inoculate them against the siren song of recruiters and internal folks who actually value their skills.
- When you involve someone in these tasks, make sure the rest of the team is aware of it. It's as important that team members see the value in each other as it is for you as the leader. Trust comes from seeing competence and motives in action.
If you really love all your team members equally, you have to show it. If, by chance, you really do like your remote employees better, you don't want to show it. Fake it, til you make it. Just like your mom did.