Flexible workforces, distributed workforces, dispersed workforces, working from home, telecommuting, the gig economy. Call it what you will, the days of the nine-to-five office jobs surrounded by your colleagues are no longer the norm.
Economic imperatives, new business models and teams that can be up—or down—scaled, within hours means companies can build empires in new and disruptive ways. But that flexibility also brings new risks, both for workers and management, as traditional delineations between office-hours and out-of-office-hours fade.
For companies reliant on gigging workers, the danger is that new risks only become known if and when something previously unforeseeable happens. Food delivery riders being attacked in the street, or professional dog walkers being stalked might grab headlines, but often it’s the more intangible stressors on workers in the new economy—isolation, uncertainty, disengagement—that employers should become vigilant about.
So, what to do to mitigate these emerging risks?
Isolation is a serious risk for remote workers, and that’s whether you’re a fly-in-fly-out miner or a contractor working from home. Disconnection from peers can impede performance, not only because individuals miss out on the constant flow of company information and management interactions experienced round the proverbial water cooler but because it can actually cause depression.
“For some people, the feedback and encouragement loop of the work environment is critical to their jobs,” Chicago based clinical psychologist Ryan Hooper told the Huffington Post.
It makes it more difficult to benchmark your own performance against your team or colleagues, or to feel secure that you’re doing enough to valuable to your bosses.
It can also erode trust in the organization and the team, which can severely hamper productivity and increases the risk of incidents, losses and other problems.
A Harvard Business Review study authored this year by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield found across the board that remote workers felt they were backstabbed more, lobbied against by onsite colleagues, kept out of the loop on project changes and neglected when it came to fighting for their business priorities.
Using videoconferencing can help generate a greater feeling of inclusion – instant messaging is no replacement for face to face interactions, or, at worst, phone conversations.
Author of Power Your Tribe: Create Resilient Teams in Turbulent Times, Christine Comaford, writes that increasing reward and recognition of your remote workers helps people feel appreciated while increased engagement stops the feelings of mistrust and isolation festering.
Share information and processes
It’s never been easier to share information: whether you use online documents such as Google Docs, cloud-based storage systems such as Dropbox, a dedicated portal such as SharePoint or a company intranet or VPN, it’s important to ensure all workers have access to the documents, policies, procedures, checklists and other information they need.
It’s also important to share other information, like company updates, so smart companies ensure their ‘town hall’-style meetings can be joined online.
Most importantly for risk management, you must communicate policies and procedures clearly and effectively, and ensure they’re being complied with. This may include training for workers to take responsibility for improving their own safety—as has been suggested for food delivery companies like Deliveroo and Foodora—as well as monitoring workers and seeking feedback from customers and partners.
Be clear about expectations
Data can play a big role here. Digital onboarding, social media monitoring and peer or customer reviews make it easier for workers to understand what’s required of them, the risks they might face and how to manage them.
As with most aspects of business, this means culture is the cure. By making sure your distributed workers all feel like part of a team, and that they know what the team’s goals, values, standards and processes are, you’ll set them on a path to high performance, job satisfaction and effective risk management.
Who needs an office anyway?
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