6 mins

Being a remote employee can be tough. In any meeting where the majority of members are physically in a room, remote members will have a worse experience.

I assume most people reading this have experienced remote life since the pandemic started, and you can probably relate. But being a remote employee on a team where the majority of your teammates are co-located in an office is even harder.

As we’re nearing the hopeful end to this pandemic, I’m sure many people will go back to the office, but many others won’t. I expect this hybrid dynamic between remote and in-office will become more common than ever, and there are many pitfalls in this situation that don’t exist in a fully remote environment. I want to take some time to go over a few of them, and what you can do to make sure those remote employees still feel engaged with their team.

Remote people have to deal with audio issues

Typically, anyone in a physical room can understand anyone else in the same space just fine, but they don’t know how well the people on Zoom can hear them. Maybe the microphone isn’t picking up the audio well, maybe one person isn’t speaking loud enough, or maybe the internet connection is causing some lagging. There’s a wide spectrum of quality and sometimes it’s just barely good enough to where the person doesn’t feel like they need to point it out. The remote person is then left spending more of their mental energy just parsing out the conversation.

Remote people have a delay when finding opportunities to speak

For in-person conversations, we human beings are quite adept at recognizing when it’s our turn to speak. We’ve developed reflexes to notice pauses and other cues. These reflexes are so fast that even the small amount of latency that remote people experience can greatly affect their ability to take a turn. If someone in the physical room has finished a thought, every other person there has a head start to speak up. If nobody is leaving space for the remote people to speak, and if the remote people aren’t willing to interrupt, they could be left feeling like a fly on the wall rather than an active participant.

Remote people can only see what the camera sees

I’ve been in many meetings where someone draws on a whiteboard. Can the camera see it well enough for the remote people to follow along? Sometimes, somebody may be outside the view of the room’s camera. When they talk, is it clear to remote people who is talking? Remote people will miss out on any gesturing or other physical cues that person is giving. Everyone in the room gets to experience that, while the remote people only get to hear the audio – and the audio sometimes has issues.

Remote people miss out on everything immediately after the Zoom call ends 

How many times have you officially ended a meeting and as you’re leaving the room, another thought pops into your head and you continue the conversation with someone? Remote people miss out on this. As soon as that Zoom call ends, they are disconnected from everybody until they start chatting again on Slack.

How does a team combat these disadvantages for their remote coworkers? 

First and foremost, it’s about becoming aware of them. It’s easy to assume you empathize with remote life because you did it during the pandemic, but it’s very different when remote is the minority. If you’re in an office and notice this imbalance of in-person vs. remote, try joining a meeting remotely just for the experience. It may be eye-opening to see how the struggles can be amplified when the majority of the conversation is happening between in-person individuals.

At my office, we took several steps to change our habits in an attempt to minimize these disadvantages.

We gave everyone a laptop with a camera along with a headset

Everyone has the opportunity to experience being part of the remote minority. It’s not uncommon for someone to skip the meeting room and sit somewhere else with their laptop when they know there will be other remote members in the meeting.

We normalized fully remote meetings

It’s common for several individuals sitting next to each other in the office to be in the same Zoom call all on their own laptops. It can take some getting used to (especially managing your mute buttons), but it works great for giving everyone the same meeting experience.

We integrated more digital tools into all of our processes

We avoid physical whiteboards when remote teammates are involved. We utilize proper screen sharing instead of just flipping our laptop around to show someone something on our screen. This is an area that I hope will be easy for many to adopt as they’ve likely been using digital tools during the pandemic.

We developed patterns and behaviors to ensure remote members get their chance to speak.

It might be the occasional pause and explicitly asking if they have any thoughts, or it could be as subtle as recognizing they’ve unmuted their microphone. This is one of the clearest signals that someone has a thought to share but may be struggling to find an opening. We started paying attention to each other’s mute status for this reason.

Final thoughts

Many of these strategies can and should be extended beyond meetings. There’s a wide array of conversations that happen in person. Many of them aren’t even work related, but they still contribute to a feeling of engagement. Consider moving these conversations into a Slack channel so your remote teammates can be a part of them as well.

If you’re going to ask another in-office team member a question, ask it in a Slack channel. When you ask it in person, everyone around you has an opportunity to listen and decide if they would like to be part of that conversation. The remote people don’t have that luxury. It might feel silly when a person is sitting next to you, but your remote friends will appreciate the ability to see the conversation happen in Slack. After all, imagine how hard it would be to feel engaged with a team that only includes you on a need-to-know basis.

Many companies have already declared that they will be more remote-friendly after the pandemic. I expect many more will start thinking about it as the vaccine rollout continues. For these companies, there is a trap waiting for them. People will assume that since their team operated fine while fully remote, they’ll be able to transition seamlessly into a mode where only a few are remote. Without being aware of the subtleties that I’ve outlined, those individuals who return to the office could inadvertently alienate their remote coworkers. And as the remote people become less engaged, they may just start looking at the massive pool of new remote work opportunities. As a leader, it will be up to you to help shape the behaviors and culture of the in-office members to truly become ‘remote friendly’.