In the last year since many people have been working remotely, there have been countless debates and articles citing surveys, studies, and data to showcase both the benefits and caveats of employees working remotely. However, one vital factor we have noticed lacking from these conversations is the risks many businesses face — particularly especially small businesses and technology startups — from having their employee workforce distributed.
Some of the challenges that arise from having large portions of our workforce distributed have become clearer and more apparent. Matt Abbot, general manager of The Sourcery, a Bay Area recruiting firm, deals with this issue on a daily basis.
“Over the past year, a majority of the tech-focused startups (and their executive leadership teams) I consult for and have spoken with have slowly faced these challenges rising in both quantity and degree,” says Abbott. In this article, Abbott focuses on three of the primary challenges faced by businesses from having their workforce distributed as a result of the pandemic.
Increased Threats to Cybersecurity
When businesses allow their employees to work remotely from the convenience of their own homes, one of the most commonly overlooked aspects is the integrity of that business’s digital data and private information. The majority of millennials — 4 out 5, in fact — who now represent a vast portion of the global workforce have never had any formal education or experience in cybersecurity measures, and this statistic is only higher for older generations.
To expand further on this, the reported number of successful cybersecurity data breaches doubled between 2019 and 2020 and only grew at the start of the pandemic once more employees began working from home, leading to a 150% increase in the volume of data records compromised by those cybersecurity breaches.
In a traditional workplace office setting, any major cybersecurity threats could be unanimously addressed by a company’s leadership much more rapidly. Having your employees more widely distributed mitigates this potential, if not eliminating it entirely.
All it takes for a malicious hacker to attack and breach a company’s secured data and private information is for one employee to open a phishing email from their work email on an unsecured wifi network, or to not have the proper defense software installed on their home computer, meaning that a distributed workforce can ultimately be the biggest potential threat to a company’s private digital data.
“Threats such as these can be easily and quickly mitigated, however, by implementing simple applications that offer data backup and tracking tools,” says Abbott. “Tools like these allow organizations to better monitor the software installed on the computers of their remote employees for malicious activity, such as added applications to Chrome that could be secretly leeching sensitive data.”
Weakened Communication and Collaboration
When working from home, employees generally have an understanding of what their upcoming workday may look like. They may even have developed their own system or process for being as productive as possible while working remotely, but those systems and processes can be easily thrown off by something as simple as receiving an email or phone call from an angry client about a task that wasn’t performed properly or on time, or even if a middle-level manager has to call an emergency meeting to update their team on developments for a project currently in progress.
Suddenly, the employee’s workday schedule might have to be reworked. Other high-priority tasks could fall to the wayside and even be forgotten if lines of communication between employees, employer, and customers are not used consistently to improve company-wide collaboration.
In the office, discussing ideas and brainstorming solutions on a whiteboard provides all employees with real-time updates and feedback. It’s also far easier to “read the room” and gauge the reactions of employees when they are all physically present. Doing so out of the office via computer screens and virtual team meetings is more challenging, but can still be done so long as your team remains aware of the communication channels put in place.
Abbott points out that technology can help overcome these challenges. “Platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams offer tools such as virtual whiteboard presentations for teams to maintain collaboration while remote, but many teams (especially in smaller companies) can easily forget these tools are in place. But once you integrate whiteboards and presentations into your meetings, you will find that they function just as well as in-person meetings.”
Though reactions cannot be as easily gauged and employees may not be as vocal or inquisitive as they would be when physically present, utilizing digital tools for communication and collaboration can prevent dips in teamwide collaboration and synergy which, in turn, can prevent drops in employee enthusiasm and productivity in distributed teams of employees.
Maintaining an Integrated Culture for a Focused Brand
If you read any case study on the companies that have gone on to be some of the most successful in recent memory (e.g., Facebook, Tesla, Apple, etc.), you’ll find some stark commonalities between them. Among these common factors are the adherence to their brand’s vision, strong internal communication capabilities, and a company-wide willingness to engage in collaborative projects and team-building exercises.
It can be difficult enough for companies to maintain a unified culture and team-wide hyperfocus on building an established brand when employees at all departmental levels of an organization are present in the same office. Since our workforces have been more prominently distributed, however, maintaining brand focus at all levels has been more difficult to perform, especially from a hiring perspective.
“For instance, one of my clients recently expressed problems in miscommunication with their hiring process. The manager conducting hiring interviews referred several candidates to their supervisor, who had just returned from vacation and said the candidates looked good on paper, but weren’t what the company was looking for in regards to their culture,” Abbott relates.
“So, both perspectives were brought to the attention of the CEO. One level of the company wanted to hire the best employee for the job; another wanted a “superstar” employee. This lack of focus across departments created a schism of frustration between them, leaving them — as well as the CEO — now confused, rather than aligned, on the internal hiring processes for their brand.”
Brand and culture are both at the foundation of any successful organization. When a company is able to meld the two, they become two sides of the same coin, reflecting and complementing each other to boost unity amongst internal employees and stakeholders, as well as external customers and partners alike.
But when the left hand moves one way, the right hand must be made aware of where the left is moving, and why. When the brand image becomes fragmented due to inconsistent messaging from displaced employees, it weakens a company’s credibility both internally and externally.
Likewise, when culture is improperly managed — particularly when it is mismanaged remotely — it can begin to harbor negative feelings in employees that become associated with the company itself, further harming the focus and performance of displaced employees.
“Ultimately, a displaced workforce can pose a number of unforeseen situations and complications for many businesses, their leadership teams, and employees,” says Abbott.
Remote work has become more the norm over the past year, and the main challenges of having displaced employees remain effective in their collaboration and productivity remain for the most part dependent on the capabilities of organizational leadership to overcome — and the key is solid communication from the top down.
Matt Abbott is the manager of The Sourcery, a tech start-up recruiting firm based in San Francisco, CA.