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Managing Remote Employees - 24 May 2012

That weird-looking picture on the left is of bacteria – the organisms that play an essential role in our lives. Bacteria help us digest food, eliminate toxins from our body, and provide us with vital nutrients. And yet these tiny creatures, responsible for so much good stuff on the planet (and lots of bad stuff, too), have no ears, no sense of touch, and no form of intelligence.

Despite being deprived of these senses, bacteria can tell not only if their siblings are nearby, but also precisely how many of them are present. They can coordinate their behaviours and determine if any other species are in the area. They then form alliances to increase their chances of survival – all while being unable to hear or touch each other.

As explained in this scientific summary, bacteria are able to achieve this level of teamwork by something called quorum sensing. Basically, they release a chemical that can be read only by members of the same species. That’s it - a unique and reliable shared identity.

Remote employees are somewhat like bacteria. They’re deprived of major senses that would otherwise keep them connected to their colleagues. They don’t see each other, hear each other or stay in touch with each other as often as employees who share the same office. This produces a level of distance, both physical and metaphorical, that makes it difficult to encourage teamwork and engagement. The solution can be found in quorum sensing.

From a management perspective, quorum sensing is about releasing certain elements into a remote team that engender a sense of shared identity. In particular:

- The sense of vision: Generate an inspiring vision articulated well enough and frequently enough for all members of the team to remember.

- The sense of observation: Ramp up face-to-face communication, such as webinars or videoconferences, which create a more meaningful connection than teleconferences.

- The sense of togetherness: At least once a year, but preferably once a quarter, organise an event where all remote workers can meet for a day or two in the same location.

- The sense of informality: Open up informal lines of communication, because trust and relationships are more easily formed via casual and relaxed channels.

- The sense of collaboration: Create opportunities for remote employees to work together on projects, especially ones that would necessitate a joint approach to problem solving.

- The sense of intuition: It’s hard to tell if employees you rarely see are happy or sad. So, check in with them regularly by asking questions such as ‘what are your challenges?’

As the author of the scientific journal writes: “Bacteria might be small but they communicate in more than one language, they strategise, they co-ordinate their efforts, they have thrived in places you wouldn't even go for a dare. It seems clear the bacteria still have a lesson or two for us big-headed folk.”

 

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