One on Ones with Remote Employees- What makes them unique?

In a typical workspace, a manager is often seen nudging an employee for a deliverable, catching up for coffee during a breakout session or indulging in lunch time banter. During all this, a rapport is being built, a personal connect established that can break the ice and make one on ones more accessible and productive.

We hear often enough that the future of the workspace is remote and early adopters are already reaping the benefits of it. From lowered office rentals to lesser funds being spent on corporate outings and being able to expand their search for the right candidate across the globe, the reasons are aplenty.

Here, it is important to first define who we call a ‘remote worker’. While a strict definition, as per the Cambridge English dictionary says ‘an employee who works mainly from home and communicates with the company over telephone and email’, we know in reality it can be much broader. So, it is fair to categorise those in a different geographical location (client location) and those who are partial remote workers together.

And these are the ‘remote workers’ we will be speaking about further in the piece.

After our exhaustive One on Ones guide, here’s a ready reckoner for helping your managers through the challenging task of One on Ones with remote workers.

The World Economic Forum calls it ‘one of the biggest drivers of transformation’ in the workspace.

And we know the world is shrinking with every passing day and remote workers in teams, even remote only teams are becoming a reality and business need. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a rise in remote workers from 19 percent to 23 percent between 2013 and 2015.

Not just that, in a millennial-driven world, as per a survey by AfterCollege, as many as 68 percent job aspirants claimed that the ability to work remotely would greatly influence their interest in an organisation.

According to the Remote Future Summit held in 2019, by 2027, a majority of the US workforce will be remote and flexible working arrangements are rising at three times the rate this year.

So, the writing is on the wall and as more and more companies embrace remote work cultures, keeping them connected and engaged remains a task for HR managers.

The Challenges with remote workers


When working outside the office, often, both remote workers and their managers face communication issues. These might be availability related or sometimes simply the lack of a means to express concerns face-to-face.

Based on a 2019 State of the Digital Workspace by Igloo, 70 percent remote workers feel left out of the workplace. And this has been attributed largely to knowledge sharing and communication practices. As many as 57 percent here miss out on important information and 55 percent get excluded from meetings owing to their remote location.

As such, the figures contribute to their engagement in the workspace at large, an HR nightmare most often.

This also is a factor in building lasting workspace relationships, something we get to in our next section.

One on Ones thus, are an effective tool is bridging this rampant communication gap and helping remote workers integrate in the workspace.

Building relationships

“Remote workers sometimes struggle with forming strong relationships with peers or inter-functional partners,” says Divya Verma, HR Consultant (formerly with Gallup) emphasising the need for effective One on Ones with them.

And building relationships, as per an SHRM survey played a significant role in job satisfaction. As many as 40 percent of respondents confirmed it.

And when it is remote workers we are talking about, a lot of the heavy lifting here rests on the manager’s shoulders. Whether it is collaborative work arrangements, including the remote workforce in meetings and celebrations or simply keeping them updated about company news.

As HR managers, no emphasis on this approach is truly enough. “Sometimes even a small gesture like updating a remote worker about a team lunch and a small budget for them to order in a treat for themselves can go a long way,” suggests Verma.

Effective One on Ones with remote workers

The case for preparation

In a Quartz article, Jody Greenstone Miller, co-founder and CEO, Business Talent Group maintains that there is only one key difference in managing in-office and remote teams. “you have to be more organized and deliberate than you are when managing people in one location,” she says.

The rules of ice breakers, a personal connect and the focus on career development in One on Ones remains the same. However, with in-office staff the manager has the additional advantage of access to data like behaviour, body language and attitude. The communication with remote workers is often restricted to emails and deliverables.

It is therefore of utmost importance that both the manager and the employee prepare for a One on One conversation in this case and use the exercise effectively to bridge existing communication gaps.

This would mean setting time aside in advance and working on an agenda (refer to suggested agenda items below). Experts suggest, with remote workers, the agenda as a shared responsibility can reap additional benefits.

Time zones and cultures

Remote work comes with its share of challenges and it is not uncommon for a manager to encounter unavailability from the employee on account of different time zones and priorities.

How does one, then motivate a manager to keep at the One on One game?

It goes without saying that since this conversation is largely employee focussed, the employee’s time zone must be taken into account while scheduling a One on One.
While at it, encourage them to keep in mind local holidays and salutations. As HR managers, this could well be an exercise in integrating diverse workforces.

As with the actual conversation, ensure the manager keeps it focused on career development and addresses the employee’s concerns and this includes those that arise out of the remote work arrangement. Common questions could include assistance needed in interdepartmental collaborations and the issues the employee faces there.

Keeping it going (duration, technology and follow-through)

A remote workforce isn’t always different because of their location, sometimes employees who work remotely have a skill that is critical and not available locally, or they are located at the client site or managing a specific market.

These situations mean that the manager may have to work much harder to understand their work and local context/problems. It is for these reasons that HR experts suggest that the duration of a One on One with a remote worker should be 50 percent longer than those with in-office employees. This ensures, all topics on the agenda are roadblocks navigated till the next One on One.

It also helps to leverage technology and find a way to ‘see’ each other as opposed to a telephonic conversation, Verma insists. Other methods like asynchronous screencast recording can also be used for effective results.

Lastly, as discussed in our One on One guide, note taking is an underrated but integral skill. “Clearly documented and detailed notes are important in any One on One. In some cases, sharing a summary of the discussion with the skip level manager or HR could help resolve inter-functional issues, help socialise the work being done by or challenges being faced the remote employee”, explains Verma.

In a nutshell

In the end, every activity suggested to managers must keep the focus on ensuring a remote workers is treated, even informed of company news, in the same manner an in-office worker is. Because, until line managers and we as HR managers transcend these critical boundaries, we will continue to see the challenges that the arrangement brings and barely scratch the surface of the larger employee engagement battle.