How to manage and motivate a global remote workforce using technology

Using technology to understand your employees, grow your business and prevent burnout. Experiences of the pandemic have been very different from one country to another, and even for one individual to another.

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As global economies begin to open up, your employees will emerge from this experience with new priorities and needs. How can technology help you deal with the challenges and opportunities that will arise?The past year has challenged global mobility managers to find ways of supporting and motivating staff in different geographies and with different experiences of lockdown. Technology and data have been key catalysts in changing the way we work.“The Covid-19 pandemic taught us early on that good data is the key to any strategy and decision making,” says Steve Black, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Topia.“Understanding where your employees are working and how their work is getting done, (ie. are they hitting OKRs? Are they engaged?) will understand a given employee and the team as a whole,” he says.“Pairing that with open communication and providing employees with the flexibility they need will help prevent burnout and stress. The role of managers has become more challenging with remote work – and good managers are working to ensure they have a finger on the pulse of every team member.”He says managers should make efforts to ensure all employees feel included and supported.“For one of my teams, which spans three different time zones, we regularly discuss how things are going in each employee's area during our weekly team meeting,” he says.“A lot of times there are more similarities than you'd expect. Even though things may be opening up at different rates for each team member, we're all doing our best to stay connected and supported. I think the bigger challenge will be when everyone can return to the office safely, but some choose to work from home permanently. That mixed model will create a new set of team building, communication and managerial challenges.”

Keeping in touch via technology

“Twenty years ago, if someone was going on an assignment, they would get a home visit from consultant to help them prepare,” says Rob Fletcher Co-Founder at Heart Relocation.“That's not happening anymore. It was already changing due to the cost involved, but post-pandemic companies have been forced to look at virtual ways of giving people that experience.”“Lockdowns have been kind on some, and unforgiving for others. To balance the variance, we need to focus on the positives instead of trying to reverse the challenges,” says Julio Taylor, CEO of Hallam.“For centuries we’ve relied on physical proximity to underpin the sense of belonging and togetherness that a workplace can give: rather than try to “replace” these things, we need to be creative and focus on making the most of the advantages that remote work can give us. For example, the ability to have flexible working hours, spend more time with family, and cut down on travel time and wasted commutes.”Without a doubt, the most important component is trust: managing a remote team is actually an exercise in building trust and culture. Without trust, there is no team, he says.
“The global pandemic was a catalyst for remote working, high levels of personalisation and flexibility,” says Vivi Cahyadi Himmel, co-founder of AltoVita. “Our technology and process efficiency allows the team to provide personalised mobility experiences, from grocery delivery prior to arrival (depending on client's dietary requirements), wellness packages, vetted airport transfers, home office set-up, in-house technology & entertainment, and WFH amenities.”Assignees are now looking for more space because during Covid their home has become an anchor, she says. Many employees are still working from home while offices around the globe are still closed.“Our technology really helps streamline the response rate,” she says. As part of the service, the accommodation is checked 24 hours before the assignee arrives to ensure that wifi and air conditioning or heating are working, to enable arrivals to work from home effectively.Technology also empowers younger assignees to choose their own accommodation if presented with a menu of suitable properties. More complex relocations, such as those involving families and people with pets, can enjoy the benefit of a technology-enabled process while still receiving a more personalised service.PerchPeek, the Digital Relocation Agent, says the global talent shortage is causing businesses to seek out international talent and support employees that want to move around the world. A first-of-its-kind relocation agent that is 70% cheaper than traditional services, PerchPeek combines highly intuitive tech with 200 relocation experts to fully manage the DSP journey in one App.Shawn Tan, CEO of AI firm Skymind, an opensource, enterprise deep-learning provider based in San Francisco, California, says the company focuses on motivating team members by reminding them that there will be an end to Covid-19 and there are exciting plans and opportunities on the horizon."We use software to keep in touch – that is pretty straightforward,” he says. “Google Hangouts, WhatsApp and Slack are essential portals of communication. We are used to a remote working culture as we have offices in more than 10 cities across the globe. There are over 300 employees at Skymind and its subsidiaries. Morale, on the other hand, is a bit of a struggle.”He recommends that managers help employees at home who aren’t used to working from home and keep the communication channels open. That way, technology can be inclusive, rather than exclusive. 

Adapting to new working practices

Martin Boroson and Carmel Moore are directors of The One Moment Company which coaches senior leaders and helps organizations design new time cultures.They say leaders have a dual responsibility – not only to restate, refresh, and clarify the business strategy postpandemic, but also to listen to their people and hear their ideas for inventive and sustainable hybrid ways of working that can deliver this.The changes need to include reconfiguring office space, tech upgrades, and devising radical new meeting practices. But in order to create real change, the hybrid working experiment needs to start from a conversation that is based on trust and radical transparency, they say.Annil Chandel, CEO and Co-Founder of Wurkr, a start-up born in London in 2018 that has the vision of transforming the future of working together from anywhere in a connected world, says after a year of working remotely, location is no longer relevant to the performance of a team."Even before lockdowns, many larger companies faced the difficulty of trying to align managers and teams located in different regional offices or large multi-floor blocks,” he says. Departmental siloes can make it harder to streamline tasks and maintain an effective level of communication at all times. Managing a global remote workforce – and keeping all team-members motivated and aligned on business goals – was always a challenge. Once the pandemic came along, it forced managers to put digital front and centre in order to elevate team collaboration to a new level.“With the help of fast-evolving digital and video technology, the entire talent recruitment and development journey, including training, feedback and programmes tailored to aid individuals' progress within a company, can take place virtually and just as effectively as in-person,” he says. “As business leaders realise that the hybrid model works well, it will mean that both traditional and digital-first companies will find it easier to hire talent around the globe and expand without the need for more physical office space.”

Managing employee expectations and mental health

Many people have struggled during the lockdowns and will be returning to work with different priorities. Research by AXA, in which expats were surveyed, has found that two-in-five (39%) feel as though their mental health has deteriorated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, nearly two-inthree (62%) would have described their general state of mind as good. However, this fell to just one-in-three (35%) during the pandemic.“Covid-19 has clearly had a very real impact on the mental health of the expats that were surveyed,” says Andy Edwards, Global Head of International  Healthcare, AXA Global Healthcare. “Many will undoubtedly have experienced feelings of isolation and struggled to either return home or visit loved ones.“We work across Europe and our French and German colleagues are at different stages of lockdown,” says Cordy Griffiths, CEO of pan-European tech PR agency Ballou, which works with small and large technology companies build their brand.“We are careful not to assume that everyone is in the same situation, or that everyone is feeling the same about restrictions lifting. By respecting our team’s individual comfort zones we hope that everyone will feel confident to be able to attend the office for work when required.”

Creating safe spaces to avoid burnout

Catalyst, a global nonprofit working with some of the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women, found in a global survey that 92% of workers say they are experiencing burnout from the stress related to their workplace, their Covid-19 work experiences, and/or their personal lives. For women, who have been disproportionately impacted by job losses during the pandemic, these findings are critically important.The study, Remote-Work Options Can Boost Productivity and Curb Burnout, surveyed nearly 7,500 employees across the globe and defines burnout as “the physical and psychological exhaustion that comes from prolonged stress with negative consequences, including mental distance from one’s job and feelings of professional inefficacy.”“Burnout leads to turnover, but that can be mitigated by intentional remote and flexible work policies,” said Catalyst President & CEO Lorraine Hariton.“Creating safe environments for people to be at their best, learn and coach one another in the post-pandemic world is going to be more important than ever before,” says Paul Williamson, L&D Director, The Ambassador Theatre Group.

Listening to team members and giving them a voice

Dee Coakley, CEO and co-founder at Boundless, the employment platform for international teams, says managers also need to keep an understanding that different countries are at different stages of both the pandemic and the vaccine rollout, and always act in a way that keeps teams feeling that their safety and health is valued and prioritised.“While there is certainly pent-up demand for travel, business travel is unlikely to be at pre-pandemic levels for many years to come. It's going to be hard to justify flying to Paris for the day when the meeting could be held virtually.”She says that flexible working has shown us is that a flatter hierarchy is the way forward. “Within teams themselves, managers can initiate autonomous self-regulation and support where a sort of unwritten social contract between them establishes and regulates how those teams operate,” she says. “Providing constant access to mental health support such as a global Employee Assistance Programme is another thing managers can do for their teams.”Jonathan Beech, Managing Director of Migrate UK, an immigration law firm headquartered in the UK with a second office in China and workforce also based in Austria, and managed by leaders in the UK, says it is important that everyone is treated as an individual.“Some countries have dealt with the lockdown better than others and some have had harsher restrictions imposed than others,” he says. “It is a case of effective dialogue and being prepared that some employees may believe that others are being given an advantage such as more days working from home than other employees in other geographical locations. Weigh up individual needs and expectations but ensure there are protocols that all employees must adhere to.”“While employers may instinctively want to see their staff back in the office and for work to go 'back to normal' as soon as possible, this is not necessarily the strongest or most sensible approach,” says Chris Biggs, Partner at Theta Global Advisors, a consultancy and accounting disruptor. “Working culture and expectations have changed, and if approached with empathy and flexibility, will result in a far happier, more productive workforce delivering work of a higher standard than before Covid-19.”

How to communicate with employees in 2021

“It is important to remember that different countries have responded to the pandemic in different ways,” says Paul Holcroft, Managing Director at employment law and HR consultancy, Croner“While the UK has experienced significantly long lockdowns, other areas, such as the USA, haven’t been as strictly locked down. How these employees are managed, whether they are working remotely or in a local office, will need to be done with local restrictions in mind. If  offices are told to close in one city but can stay open in another, the local rules need to be followed.As a result, a blanket approach may be challenging to adopt here, and regular communication must be maintained with staff. In this way, employers can be kept up to date with individual situations and take further action if they need to.”He says lockdowns are tough and can be extremely difficult for staff, especially if they see colleagues enjoying more freedoms in other countries such as the UK. If the company offers any additional counselling services, such as an Employee Assistance Programme, these should also be clearly offered to staff.

New opportunities come with new ways of working

Not all outcomes from the pandemic have been negative. In some ways, it has increased inclusivity. Chris Shannon, CEO of Fotech, a global technology company, says the lockdowns forced many companies to adapt to entire teams across many countries working from home, and unexpected benefi ts have emerged.“In many ways, it helped level the playing field by closing gender and socio-economic divides,” he says. “It gave greater voice to those who may have been limited by childcare. For those who have been empowered by remote working, returning to a 100 per cent offi ce-based model, or even a hybrid set-up, could disadvantage them again.“Being aware of potential issues and underlying feelings is the fi rst step. Then leaders can act to circumvent unhelpful narratives, ensure inclusivity and consciously stop biases developing. Remote working improves engagement for companies with multisite employees; staff who are not based at company headquarters now feel on the same level as their head office colleagues.”This should not be an excuse to avoid proper communication, he says. “Leaders and managers must be mindful of the tendency to hide behind screens,” he warns. “It is important to learn how to deal with difficult conversations over video calls. Early in the pandemic, difficult discussions were often pushed further down the line in the hope of delaying face-to-face confrontations.But finding ways to communicate eff ectively, even if a conversation is challenging, is an important step to enable successful remote working.”

Will technology replace business travel?

“We can expect less travel and more video conferences,” says Chris Dyer, founder and CEO of PeopleG2 and coauthor of Remote Work: Redesign Processes, Practices and Strategies to Engage a Remote Workforce. “There will be broader opportunities to attract and place talent in remote and hybrid models, but remote employees' different circumstances mean they will have different development needs. Managers will need to work closely  with each remote employee to understand those needs and provide developmental support.”Business travel and international assignment should start to pick up in the latter half of 2021 and into 2022, particularly in countries with strong vaccination programmes, says Steve Black of Topia.“The mobility supply chain has adapted its operations to accommodate Covid-safe activities like virtual showings or masking on planes and transit and based on the feedback from our customers and prospects there is a pent-up need for deploying talent,” he says.“It won't jump back to pre-pandemic levels right away but we should see a steady return so long as Covid surges and variants can be kept under control. Based on our recent Adapt survey employees are actually more interested in an international assignment than they were pre-Covid, so off ering these opportunities for talent will be important.”“I think it's an incredibly exciting time to be part of the global mobility industry,” says Rosalind Smith of Mauve Group. “We've seen a huge upsurge in requests for our Employer of Record (EoR) service, and this is going to become an increasingly popular model for employing and payroling workers overseas, especially as it helps companies to guarantee compliance for their staff members.”

Technology and employee care go hand in hand

Technology can play a part in employee wellness, but it is not the whole picture, says Rob Fletcher of Heart Relocation.“We set up our company with a single thought process, which was to create a better and more mindful process of relocation,” he says. “That is, not just the physical but emotional journey that someone going was going on. That can determine the set success or failure of an assignment because if you land unhappy, you're not going to be as productive. If you are happy, you're likely to work harder, stay longer and deliver more.“It also opens the door also to an agenda on wellbeing and mental health,” he says. “People are more open with talking about how they feel, which can only be a good thing.”

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