Featured Blog | Valuing Remote Employees in Hybrid (and Remote) Settings

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The panel is available for free via the GDC Vault here.

You’ll hear my voice at the end of this panel because I wanted to have my say at the microphone, and while I was talking as fast as I could so as not to take up question time, I have zero regrets for usurping a minute. And apparently, I have more to say without stumbling over my words!

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For context, I have worked remotely since 2013 in various capacities but I know all about being an in-office employee, an in-office freelancer, on-set TV freelancer, a recovering-at-home post-surgery employee, the only remote employee, a remote freelancer, and now part of a remote team as a contractor but the only one outside of the team’s province, in a different time zone – in working for Sticky Brain Studios (co-founded by Sasha Boersma, one of the panellists).

Here are things I’d like managers to know about valuing remote employees in a hybrid setting, because this is where remote employees tend to be forgotten.

1) There is a greater-than-monetary value in flying people out.

When I stood up at the microphone during the Q&A time, I wanted to make the point that I really treasured being included in a Sticky Brain in-person December event where we had a corporate video and headshots taken. While my colleagues can meet in Toronto at any time, it was a pointed decision as to whether I could be involved or not, being a 5-hour flight away. While thinking of trying to find someone in British Columbia to match our brilliant photographer, Alice Xue’s style, Sasha saw that Porter Airlines had a sale and asked if she could just fly me to Toronto. She’d arrange it as a Sunday event so I wouldn’t have to worry about extended childcare. I jumped at the chance, flying out on a Friday afternoon after a school event with my youngest and was back on Monday to pick up the kids in the afternoon. (Now that my husband is in a fully remote position, I don’t have to rush back as quickly next time.)

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The value to me, especially pre-GDC, was that I got to spend time with my family and friends (as much as I could cram into a whirlwind 24 hours), spend time with my team, be in the corporate video on our website, and get a killer headshot that matches my colleagues, AND be in the team photos. Photoshop would not have been great for compositing me in.

Does it make sense that I was there as a lead creative? Yes. But I also know several and much larger companies that would have deliberately excluded me.

2) Try to create a company culture of turning your cameras on during video chats.

I’m completely aware that some people are just more comfortable having their cameras off for a variety of reasons (e.g. migraines, anxiety, personal space, etc.), and I can understand. But the biggest benefits of turning your camera on is that it’s easier to focus on a face, impart information, and read facial cues. The TLDR of a Fast Company article from 2023 is that companies should provide support for employees to improve their ability to keep cameras on for a host of pros.

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Sticky Brain Co-Founders Sasha Boersma and Ted Brunt have a good habit of turning their cameras on. I keep mine on, so it keeps me accountable and focused, as well as giving me a good reason to clean up my space or choose a cool digital background. My colleagues also know that I find it hard to process highly detailed technical information aurally-exclusively, so I need at least one face to direct my focus, even if I settle for an avatar (not ideal).

Last year, I presented a webinar where neither the audience nor chat were visible to me while presenting, so I only saw my own image. It was weird and felt like talking to myself. For that reason, I try to keep my camera on during things like courses (or large organization meetings), even if it’s just me and the instructor.

(Note: This may turn into a future separate blog.)

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3) Have regular video chat check-ins.

I don’t mean this in terms of a quarterly review whenever you remember, I mean this as a standing weekly meeting with the purpose of checking in about work-related issues, even if it’s to say that everything is fine. If your meetings are irregular, make sure to schedule the next meeting before signing off so that at least you have one on the books.

While working at one company as a remote hourly employee, it would have been helpful to have regular video chat check-ins directly related to my work, not just whole company meetings which never felt like the appropriate forum unless the issue was urgent and/or quick. When I finally reached my breaking point, I already didn’t feel supported and had given notice, only to find out that they were switching to a four-day work week (which didn’t apply to me), so there would be even less support as I was training my replacements.

It should be noted that there are several factors indicating when an hourly worker’s workload has increased (and thus more frequent check-ins are required), like the number of billed hours and quantity of internal messages.

4) You really do need to meet your employees in person at some point.

I know with remote work and some teams being international, this isn’t always possible, but for employees, this is a level of care that makes both you and them more real to each other. With small teams, it may be that your work or skillsets are more interconnected with other areas than anyone previously thought, and input from a person with an entirely different work perspective may offer solutions or bring up issues you didn’t even know existed while still consulting an internal person already familiar with your IP. Conferences and expos are a great way to bring your team together, but while those are costly and require a booth to need that many people, consider a gathering elsewhere. Since this piece is directed mostly at managers who do have access to an office, this would be a good use for it.

This is not to say that people are incapable of forming good relationships without meeting in person (people fall in love like this), but it’s to your disadvantage when there is never an intention to meet in person, especially on a long-term project or permanent full-time employee relationship. Discovering a person’s height and what it feels like to hug them is one of my greatest joys. I still have yet to meet some of my favourite former colleagues in person.

With the Sticky Brain team, I feel comfortable in frequently video calling my colleagues to sort out issues (usually scheduled or following larger meetings we’ve just ended so I know they’re available). It’s the next best thing to rolling your office chair over to someone’s cubicle.

But here’s where I’ll make a hard-hitting point – if the employee can’t come to you (for whatever reason, be it disability or childcare constraints that would make travelling too difficult), make the effort to go to them, especially if it’s a long-term contract or permanent employment arrangement.

5) Hire employees within time zones that work for you.

I am very fortunate that most Sticky Brain employees enjoy that we start meetings with me at 12:30 p.m. Eastern, because it’s 9:30 a.m. Pacific. Jokingly, we refer to some as being on Pacific time internal clocks anyway, despite being in Ontario. But I really appreciate this because it means I can take my kids to school in the morning, make it back to grab my breakfast and make my space presentable before getting online – all without feeling rushed.

A three-hour time difference seems to work here. More than that I think becomes tricky, but that’s entirely dependent on the type of work and individuals’ schedules.

Having been in a lead position on an international gig, I know that this particular setup was not great for my time zone, my personality, nor the workflow. While my very dedicated producer was joining our meetings while suffering from insomnia, I did not enjoy seeing alerts from documents or answering emails as I was about to fall asleep, nor waking up to dread incoming messages from a full day’s work and decisions/directives made overseas. If I’d been given a choice, I also would not have hired someone who could only work weekends and holidays. I really wanted to be available to answer questions and get online if needed, but I also desperately needed to take full-day breaks from this project that felt all-consuming with a moving end date.

I know of people who are totally willing to alter their own hours to suit the needs of their colleagues, and as they freely admit they don’t have children or dependents to tend to, it works for them and their teams. Others simply cannot – they have optimal hours and altering them sets off a chain reaction of poor sleep and stress, ultimately missing meetings and calling out sick.

In all, it does take some extra thought to treat remote employees/contractors as if they’re three-dimensional. Out of sight does indeed threaten to be “out of mind”. The TLDR here is that regular video call communication can help make things more efficient and is the next best thing to in-person visits. But above all, investing the time and effort to make a team member feel valued, and treating them as integral, is totally worth it in the long run.





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