Emerald Group Publishing Limited
How to show appreciation to long distance employees
Article Type: How to … From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 14, Issue 5
Paul White is Psychologist and Author of Appreciation at Work, Wichita, Kansas, USA.
Two foundational facts shape today’s work environment.
First, we know that employees consistently report that they desire to feel appreciated by their supervisors and colleagues. When staff feel truly valued, good results occur: attendance improves, there is less conflict among staff, productivity increases, there is less staff turnover, customer satisfaction ratings rise and both supervisors and staff enjoy their work more.
Secondly, more and more work relationships exist in the context of remote locations. Increasing numbers of employees work in locations separate from their colleagues and supervisor, with “virtual teams” occurring across cities, states and countries. According to Forrester Research, the number of people who work remotely will double by 2016, from approximately 34 million to about 63 million people.
The combination of these two factors creates a challenge for managers that needs to be addressed: How do you effectively communicate appreciation to your team members in long distance relationships?
Easy first step: words
Obviously, there are technology-based solutions for communicating verbally across long distances. Telephone calls, writing emails, texting or conducting videoconferences (even for multiple locations) are all easily accessible methods for communicating appreciation via words. Largely, the challenge most supervisors and colleagues have to overcome is taking the time to do so.
Communicating appreciation verbally is the most common (and sometimes, the only) method utilized in the workplace – either orally through a personal thanks or word of praise, or through some written form of communication like an email, text or handwritten note. So the default mode for most mangers is to use words with their staff.
Problem: not everyone values words
In our work with tens of thousands of employees, we have found that only about 40 per cent of individuals report that their preferred way of receiving appreciation is through words (obviously, that means 60 per cent of the workforce don’t find words of affirmation to be the most meaningful way of communicating appreciation to them).
While communicating appreciation to your colleagues is a positive action to take, doing so primarily (or exclusively) through words means that you are “missing the mark” in effectively communicating with the majority of your team members. Why? Because some individuals view “words as cheap” or have the view that “actions speak louder than words”. By inference, you are wasting at least some of your time and energy in these instances.
Alternatives to words: time, service and gifts
For individuals who do not highly value (or trust) verbal communication, other languages of appreciation become more important. Spending quality time is one form of appreciation valued by many. This largely occurs through giving them your focused attention – by scheduling some individual time with them or stopping by and seeing how they are doing.
Other employees feel valued when you take time to perform some small acts of service for them. There are times when we all “get behind the eight ball” on a project or during an unusually busy work period. Volunteering to help them (possibly by giving them uninterrupted time to work on the project) can be extremely encouraging to these individuals. Additionally, small acts like bringing something back from the break room or the supply room (for example, when you are going anyway) can be helpful as well.
Some employees feel appreciated when they receive a small personalized gift to show you value the work they’ve done. (This should not be confused with earning a raise, bonus or commission based on their meeting a performance goal.) Rather, bringing them their favorite type of coffee, giving them a gift certificate to a restaurant or picking up a magazine related to one of their hobbies are examples of small gifts they might enjoy. (It is interesting to note that, while most employee recognition programs focus on giving tangible rewards, our research has found that only 10 per cent of employees choose tangible gifts as their preferred language of appreciation).
But how do you express appreciation in these ways to team members who work miles away?
Appreciation across long distances
Even though words of appreciation can be easily communicated across long distances, challenges in doing so remain.
One of the biggest barriers to overcome is the lack of opportunity for those short chance encounters that occurs when you work in the same location – coming into the office in the morning, while getting something in the break room, walking through the hallway in the office or sitting together in the conference room waiting for a meeting to start. All of these provide the occasion to be able to chat for a few minutes, “check in” and see how they are doing or hear about their weekend. In long distance work relationships, these events don’t occur.
The result is that most, if not all, interactions with your long distance co-workers are focused on work and the tasks at hand. This, in turn, can make your relationship feel very cool and distant with no personal warmth involved at all.
One of best ways to overcome this challenge is to intentionally schedule some interaction times focused primarily on “chatting”, hearing about what they did over the weekend and sharing what is going on your life as well.
Reaching those employees who value other types of acts of appreciation can be even more difficult. However, in our work with work groups who have team members spread across cities, states and the globe, we discovered two important facts:
communicating appreciation over long distance can be done effectively; and
to do so, takes more planning and intentionality than in same location relationships.
For those who feel valued when others choose to spend time with them, the following actions can be helpful in long distance work relationships:
schedule a call occasionally just to chat;
give them your undivided attention when you are talking on the phone (don’t multi-task);
set aside some time to talk about non-work related topics at the beginning of a scheduled call; and
set up a videoconference with your team, as a group, to chat and cautch up with one another personally.
In the area of providing some act of service, we have found the following actions to be effective in communicating appreciation between long distance co-workers:
Agree to schedule a meeting or call when it is convenient for them, not according to your time zone.
Assign some staff assistance in completing some menial task for them, so they focus their energy on tasks only they can complete.
Work out a plan to answer their phone calls or emails for a specified period of time, so they can focus solely on a getting a project done.
Even when getting some small gift for your long-distance colleagues, a little extra effort can be quite impactful:
Find out their favorite lunch spot and arrange to pay for their meal.
Do some investigation about their preferred place for coffee and dessert and get them a gift certificate there.
Send them some food, spices, magazines or sports memorabilia that are hard to find where they currently work.
While communicating appreciation in long-distance work relationships takes time and forethought, it can be done and it is important to do so. Without ongoing appreciation and support for the work they are doing, employees who work remotely are more at risk for becoming discouraged, not producing to their capabilities and eventually quitting.
Take the time and effort to communicate how much you value your staff who work in a different physical location than you do and the return on your investment will be well worth the cost.