Two foundational facts shape today’s work environment: First, employees want to feel appreciated by their supervisors and colleagues -- a scenario that results in improved attendance, less turnover, less conflict among staff and better customer-satisfaction ratings.
Second, more and more work relationships exist in remote locations, with “virtual teams” spanning city, state and even national borders. Forrester Research predicts that the number of people working remotely will double by 2016, from 34 million to about 63 million people.
The combination of these two factors creates a challenge for managers: How do you effectively communicate appreciation to your team members in long-distance relationships? Below are several strategies:
The easy first step: words
Obviously, technology-based solutions help us communicate across long distances. Telephone calls, email, texting and videoconferences are all accessible methods for communicating appreciation via words. The challenge most supervisors and colleagues must still overcome is finding the time to do so.
Communicating appreciation verbally is the most common (and, sometimes, only) method utilized in the workplace -- either orally through a personal thanks or word of praise, or some written form of communication, like an email, text or handwritten note. So, the default mode for most managers is to use words with their staff.
The problem: Not everyone values words
In our work with tens of thousands of employees, we have found that only about 40 percent report that their preferred way of receiving appreciation is through words. (Obviously, that means that members of the remaining 60 percent don’t find words of affirmation the most meaningful way of receiving messages of appreciation.)
While communicating appreciation through words is a positive action, doing so primarily (or exclusively) means 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 by using words alone.
Alternatives to words: time, service and gifts
For individuals who do not highly value (or trust) verbal communication, other "languages of appreciation" become important. Spending quality time with employees is one form of appreciation. This can occur by giving your employees focused attention -- scheduling some individual time together or stopping by to see how they are doing.
Other employees feel valued when you take time to perform some small act 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. Offering to help them individually (by giving them uninterrupted time to work on the project, for instance) can be extremely encouraging.
Additionally, small acts like bringing morning coffee and pastries 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 a raise, bonus or commission based on their meeting a performance goal.) Bringing in a pound of their favorite type of coffee, a gift certificate to a restaurant or a magazine related to one of their hobbies are all examples of such a small gift. (Interestingly, while most employee-recognition programs focus on tangible rewards, our research has found that only 10 percent of employees choose tangible gifts as their preferred language of appreciation.)
Now, how do you express appreciation to team members who work miles away?
Appreciation across long distances
Even though words of appreciation can be easily communicated across long distances, challenges remain. One of the biggest barriers is the lack of opportunity for those chance encounters that occur when you work in the same location: getting your employee something from the break room, chatting in the hallway or sitting together in the conference room, waiting for a meeting to start.
All of these moments provide the occasion to chat for a few minutes, “check in” and see how the employee is doing, or hear about his or her weekend. In long-distance work relationships, those events simply 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 can make your relationships with these people feel rather cool and distant, with no personal warmth involved.
One of the best solutions is to intentionally schedule interaction times focused primarily on “chatting,” to hear about what someone did over the weekend and share 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 companies that have team members spread wide geographically, we've discovered that communicating appreciation over long distance can be done effectively, even if more planning and intention have to be involved. A few tips:
• Schedule a call occasionally just to chat.
• Give your employees your undivided attention when you're talking on the phone (don’t multi-task).
• Set aside time to talk about nonwork related topics at the beginning of a scheduled call.
• Set up a videoconference with your team, as a group, to chat and get caught up with one another personally.
In the area of providing some act of service, the following actions are effective for communicating appreciation to long-distance co-workers:
• Schedule a meeting or call that is convenient for them, not according to your time zone.
• Assign home office staff to help employees working remotely to complete some of their menial tasks, so they can focus 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 presenting a small gift of appreciation for your long-distance colleagues, a little extra effort can be quite impactful:
• Research their favorite local lunch spot and arrange to pay for their meal.
• Investigate their preferred place for coffee and dessert and get them a gift certificate for that location.
• Send food, spices, magazines or sports memorabilia that may be hard to find where they currently work.
While communicating appreciation in long-distance work relationships takes time and forethought, it can be done and is important. Without ongoing appreciation and support for the work they're doing, employees working remotely may be more at risk for becoming discouraged, not producing to their capabilities and eventually quitting.
So, take the time and effort to communicate how much you value your staff working in a different physical location. The return on your investment will be well worth the cost.