Competition is alive and well in the remote workplace

Workers report competition among colleagues is on the rise, even in a remote environment. How can managers foster an environment of healthy competition?
Feature Remote Workplace Competition Panel

Can office rivalries exist in a remote world? Yes, and they’re on the rise, according to new research from staffing firm Robert Half. Even during a time dominated by virtual communication, 28% of U.S. workers said co-worker competitiveness has increased from last year.

However, healthy competition among colleagues isn’t a bad thing if it’s bringing out the best in everyone, or even just enabling remote-work weary colleagues to blow off a little virtual steam.

In today’s environment where many employees are working from home, it’s important to stay connected to co-workers and maintain team camaraderie, says Sasha Truckenbrod, branch manager of Robert Half in Madison. Competitive activities can help drive engagement among employees, and a healthy level of competition among employees can increase motivation and productivity.

“It can also raise the bar and skill level of employees and lend to the creation of more innovative ideas,” explains Truckenbrod. “Some professionals who value status and work hard for promotions thrive on competition. Fostering an environment where top performers are rewarded with high-profile, challenging projects can help staff perform at their best.”

Healthy competition begins with establishing trust and a common purpose among employees. Avoid creating an atmosphere in which workers feel pressure to outperform at the expense of others, recommends Truckenbrod. Managers should recognize team and individual results, while keeping an eye out for unsung heroes — those who contribute significantly but are reluctant to toot their own horns. It’s also important to ensure rewards are fair and clearly related to performance and not office politics.

Truckenbrod offers a few strategies for encouraging healthy competition among dispersed teams:

  • Create a virtual challenge. Organize a friendly contest where employees can win bragging rights or a small prize, such as a gift certificate or donation to a charity of their choice. Determine the goal to decide if it will be tied to performance or mainly recreational.
  • Make time to celebrate.Host a video call to recognize team and individual achievements and consider arranging for treats to be delivered to star performers. Rewarding employee wins can boost morale and inspire continued growth.
  • Watch for foul play. Workers may feel more pressure to prove themselves in the current environment, but it should never be at the expense of themselves or others. Negative behaviors such as failing to communicate and taking credit for others’ work are signs competition may have gotten out of hand.

She also provides a few examples of fun challenges for dispersed teams:

  • A well-being challenge, where workers can track wellness activities (e.g., walking, biking, swimming, meditation, etc.)
  • Contests or games— Ask a different team member each week or month to put together five to 10 questions about their favorite subject or hobby, and then distribute the survey among the team. Even if there are no prizes, it’s a good way to learn about your co-workers’ interests and expand your knowledge base.
  • A business exercise — For example, give virtual teams a $10 budget to design a dog house, and then judge them on their final products. Teams must go through processes such as researching (What sources sell the cheapest products?), idea generation (How can we create a good product with only $10?), and concept execution (Can we actually build what we planned and come out with a successful product?).

We know that a healthy level of competition helps drive engagement, which is critical in this new world of remote work,” notes Truckenbrod, “and some employees may be doing more to stand out and be visible in a virtual setting. Employees also may be concerned about their job stability and feel pressure to compete for projects and earn recognition from their manager. It’s important, however, to keep competitive levels in check. Workplace rivalries can interfere with team results because personal agendas get in the way of group goals.”

Excessive competition can result in turf wars, management by intimidation, grudges between co-workers, low morale and productivity, and unresolved or unnecessary conflicts. If that happens, Truckenbrod recommends a few tips for employees on how to handle an overly competitive co-worker:

  • Set up a private meeting to discuss your concerns with the person directly.
  • Or, if you’re uncomfortable, bring the issue to your manager’s attention; he or she may then talk to the person or mediate a discussion between the two of you.
  • If a co-worker is seeking credit for a relatively minor accomplishment, let it go. Don’t get caught up in the competition for credit and overlook the importance of teamwork.

Finally, how can remote employees get ahead without being overly aggressive? A few strategies include:

  • Be visible. Be sure your supervisor is aware of your hard work and accomplishments without clamoring for constant attention.
  • Don’t hog the spotlight. Accept that you won’t always be singled out for constant attention.
  • Contribute ideas. Offer suggestions for improving business practice during virtual meetings but avoid speaking just to have your voice heard if you have nothing significant to contribute.
  • Learn new skills. Compete against yourself by improving your abilities and qualifying yourself to get ahead.
  • Stretch your talents. While you don’t want to take on tasks you can’t handle, stay open to opportunities that may fall outside your job description. They could serve as a springboard to career advancement.

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