Keep Remote Workers from Feeling Left Out

Gifts, dinners, videoconferencing help telecommuters feel part of the office

By Steve Bates Jun 19, 2013
HR professionals and line managers are discovering that telecommuters often feel left out of what’s going on in the office.

So what do you do to make remote employees feel like they’re part of the team? Send them candy, flowers or gift cards? Fill them in on office gossip? Schedule video-enhanced calls and meetings? What works in one company might not work in another.

“It’s an age-old problem: Someone doesn’t have what everyone else gets,” said Jennifer Castle, PHR, director of HR at Atomic Learning, a technology training and professional development firm based in Little Falls, Minn.

Working from home has inherent perks. Telecommuters won’t feel left out if headquarters announces a Friday casual-dress policy. But they might feel envious or disengaged if there’s an ice cream social at the office.

Before office-based activities happen, HR professionals and line managers should ensure that remote employees can share in the experience or receive a benefit roughly equivalent to what cubicle dwellers get.

When someone starts as a telecommuter at FlexJobs, a Colorado-based employment firm, the individual is asked to list his or her favorite things—e.g., flowers, stores and restaurants. On some holidays, such as Halloween, remote workers are sent a package with their favorite candy—similar to having access to a candy bowl in the office. When a team has something to celebrate, those who work from home can take a spouse or friend to dinner on the company dime, said FlexJobs CEO and founder Sara Sutton Fell.

Do these incentives have a positive impact? Definitely, said Jeremy Anderson, a telecommuter and director of client services at FlexJobs. “It makes you feel valued. It makes you feel part of the group.”

Physical perks are only part of the solution. Some HR leaders suggest focusing on communication.

Sometimes in the business world, “people confuse things with messages,” said Kenneth Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at the New York City-based Families and Work Institute. If HR professionals and managers attempt to send the telecommuter something every time in-office employees get a treat, “if you forget one time, it’s a problem.”

When management decides to reward everyone in the office with cupcakes, “you can’t replicate that” for remote workers, observed Rachel Bradford-Mundt, director of organizational development at professional services firm BDO USA. “You find other ways to demonstrate that you’re connecting with them.”

Often, that’s as simple as picking up the phone, said Matos. “Call and say, ‘Hey, we miss you; we’re thinking of you.’ That’s more valuable to employees. … Talk to the employee and ask, ‘What really matters to you?’ It’s not going to be the same for everyone.”

Matos added: “It’s more about setting expectations and making people feel connected than it is about stuff.”

Jennifer Lumba, chief marketing officer of the international firm Rideau Recognition Solutions, recommends eliminating all incentives at headquarters, contending that these serve to “punish” remote workers. Start by eliminating rewards for onsite attendance, she advised.

“Technology has made things easier” to manage teleworkers, said Jennifer Folsom, founder and president of Radius Partners, a Washington, D.C.-area staffing company. Video conferencing, for instance, has become less expensive and more sophisticated in recent years. Seeing the faces of the people in a conversation has more impact than a standard conference call, Folsom noted.

At BDO USA, employees can join job-related Yammer discussion groups, such as one for tech experts, as well as groups for those who love running or discussing books. “It allows individuals to build relationships, collaborate and share,” explained Bradford-Mundt.

Getting employees who work from home off to a good start can help. “Hire people who have an innate understanding of the value of telecommuting,” suggested Sutton Fell. Matos urges organizations to have newly hired employees spend the first week or two in the office before beginning remote work. “Have them go to all the meetings” to experience the culture.

While it’s critical for HR and managers to keep their telecommuters in mind, the responsibility for making remote workers feel involved is shared. Said Bradford-Mundt: “There’s some onus on the [remote] employee to reach out and maintain the relationship. It’s a two-way street.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

Related Resource

SHRM Online Workplace Flexibility Resource Page


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect