Working remotely has previously been an exception few companies were willing to make for their people. In fact, up until the early 70’s, telecommuting was unheard of. Office optics determined how you were perceived by your manager and co-workers, and being “absent” meant you were not contributing. But new companies are now rethinking their remote workforce policies along with other cultural and performance strategies. In 2019, the exception is now becoming the rule.
By 2020, just a few months from now, Gallup predicts that 50 percent of employees will work remotely. As employees increasingly demand flexibility in their jobs and younger generations of managers are more willing to support working from home, the tide is already beginning to shift.
Over half of millennials (69 percent) say they would trade other work benefits for flexible workspace options. And, as employers compete to hire and retain the best talent, they are taking note of this trend and offering telecommuting capabilities or hybrid options with their employee benefits. What a time we live in, where advances in our understanding of human development, coupled with communication technologies are allowing companies to extend unprecedented trust to their people.
I recently hosted a webinar with other leaders from Owl Labs, Blueboard, and Donut to discuss the most successful best practices and programs your company can implement to increase your remote workforce engagement:
Leaders must be intentional in developing a culture that binds employees into the fabric of the organization, improving retention, increasing workforce engagement, and decreasing the risk of burnout. This intentionality is essential when an employee works onsite, and even more so when an employee works remotely.
Although many employees desire the flexibility of working remotely, it comes with its own set of challenges, including feelings of isolation away from the main office. When remote workers are not included in the company culture they won’t feel connected to the company’s purpose. And those remote employees who feel disengaged are more likely to quit.
But by focusing on communication, managing performance, culture building, and the effective use of technology, leaders can ensure that working remotely is a positive experience.
Essentials of communication
In an office environment, it’s common to pull an employee into an impromptu meeting or ask an ad-hoc question when you run into a co-worker in the hallway. When employees are dispersed, it can seem inconvenient to interrupt their work day with a phone call or text, but this type of on-the-spot interaction is conducive to keeping that employee feeling involved. (One caveat here is that people need uninterrupted times during the day to perform deep work.)
Remote employees don’t have the same opportunities for casual conversations, and may miss out on information that may not be “mission critical.” To ensure remote team members feel included, it’s better to over-communicate.
While you should be respectful of remote workers’ time zones and work schedules, make it a habit to connect with them via video call when an issue or priority is top of mind. This creates more opportunity for the free flow of information and is essential for maintaining remote workforce engagement.
Meetings can be one of the most frustrating aspects of working as a remote employee. In many organizations, those onsite meet in a conference room and the remote worker dials in, watching the meeting from a small camera placed at the end of the conference table. Unfortunately, those in the meeting often dominate the conversation making it more difficult for the person who has dialed in to interject.
When conducting video calls, leaders or facilitators should be conscious of everyone who has dialed in. If remote employees are not talking, proactively invite them to share their opinions or knowledge with the group.
Some companies have all meeting participants dial in, whether they work remotely or not. This practice gives everyone the same perspective and opportunity to be involved. Rather than have one person feeling disconnected, staring at a conference room full of people from their monitor at home, everyone is on a level playing field.
Workforce engagement from afar
How do you engage a remote employee? Well, much like you would with an onsite employee, but with a heavier emphasis on consistent communication. Without the structure of weekly meetings, holding one another accountable to check-in will become harder and harder.
If your performance management process already includes continuous feedback, you’re at an advantage. Frequent 1-on-1 conversations, such as weekly check-ins give you and the remote employee chances to get ahead of roadblocks before they arise.
When frequent communication is open enough to allow for open feedback, it is seen as encouragement, not micromanagement. Establishing a habit of regular interactions alleviates the inevitable stress that comes when having the conversation about performance and can improve overall workforce engagement.
These 1-on-1’s also provide opportunities to have continuous career conversations. No matter where your employees are in the world, they have the same desires as onsite employees to grow and develop in their roles and with their company.
Building a culture of unity
We can fall into the trap of dividing employees into two categories: those who work remotely, and those who work at home. But that division only weakens the organization. Instead, create rituals that promote belonging and inclusivity to help focus on achieving your organization’s mission.
Every employee’s journey begins with an onboarding process, even for remote employees. The more the organization grows, the more necessary it is to have a structured program. This will set the precedent for a positive workplace experience and can play a huge role in how long you retain your remote workers. Another way to immerse remote employees in the company culture early on is to offer opportunities for individuals to get to know their co-workers.
In a typical day, remote employees don’t get the same kinds of opportunities to connect with co-workers that onsite employees may experience regularly. Usually, when a meeting with a remote employee begins, everyone jumps into the topic. But small talk is a vital conduit that helps employees build relationships that in turn builds culture, creates workforce engagement, and fosters a more human experience at work for everyone.
Take time to find out about employees’ families, weekend, or vacation. Buddy systems or a mentoring program also help remote employees get to know people besides their direct manager.
Human nature provides for more understanding when we know a person’s story. When the ability to work remotely isn’t a company-wide policy but determined by the department, it can be difficult for employees to be empathetic with co-workers they don’t know. Encourage onsite and offsite employees to get “virtual coffee” so that every interaction isn’t strictly dedicated to work.
Even if a team is not physically close, you can build psychological closeness by celebrating individual and group wins. During meetings, ask your employees to share a positive experience or something interesting they’ve recently learned. This sharing allows the space for people to open up and be more vulnerable with each other.
Use technology to connect
Allowing employees to work remotely without offering adequate technology support won’t yield much success. At the very least, remote employees need to have frictionless access to the Internet, including video capabilities. Many companies use Slack so teams and individuals can have quick conversations.
A video platform, like Zoom or Owl Lab’s 360 video conferencing camera, are invaluable for more extended discussions or for groups. Donut, a platform that works with Slack, enhances an employee’s onboarding experience by helping employees quickly connect across the company.
Blueboard makes it easier to appreciate employees, with a platform that can be used across the company. When employees are onsite, it is easy to provide public or private kudos, but when team members are remote, it is essential to intentionally recognize their accomplishments.
As new software platforms evolve, consider which ones will help your employees enhance their connections and relationships. These platforms shouldn’t cause more confusion but should aim to alleviate common pain points that your employees are actively facing.
When managing remote employees, continue to experiment with new ways of interacting. Making use of up-and-coming technology will help your workforce develop healthy relationships with one another, no matter where they are located in the world. These relationships will help grow an organizational culture that brings out the best in your people.