HR Magazine - August 2000: Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind

By Carolyn Hirschman Aug 1, 2000
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HR Magazine, August 2000Vol. 45, No. 8

Make sure off-site employees are in the loop on HR communications.

Like a baby teething or a teenager in angst, many employers experience growing pains as they expand. If that expansion includes the addition of branch or satellite offices, communication can become a big challenge, especially for HR.

Whether remote employees are across town, across the country or even across the world, the unconscious temptation may be to think “out of sight, out of mind.” But that thinking is a huge mistake, say human resource experts.

“Sometimes companies make the mistake that just because someone’s [only] across town, they’ll be in the loop,” says Stephanie Fox, PHR, of Fox Consulting, an HR consulting firm in West Helena, Ark.

Without effective communication, off-site employees can easily forget or ignore what headquarters has communicated. Even worse, they can land in a corporate isolation zone where guesswork replaces the truth.

“They will fill in the blanks if you don’t,” says James B. Lathrop Jr., SPHR, director of employee relations at Borders Inc., a national chain of more than 300 bookstores based in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The biggest danger is that people will make up their own information. People will make assumptions about what is happening, and, often, those assumptions are misplaced.”

To foster meaningful interaction between staff at headquarters and co-workers located elsewhere, HR and other managers must develop constant communication—including face-to-face meetings, advises John Parkington, director of Watson Wyatt Worldwide’s organization effectiveness practice in San Francisco.

Beyond Newsletters

If there’s one lesson to be learned in long-distance HR it’s communicate, communicate, communicate. Exactly how that happens depends on an employer’s size, type of business, culture and budget. HR managers today use everything from traditional mail and conference calling to e-mail and videoconferencing to inform workers about HR-related business.

Indeed, technology has been a boon for HR communications. The proliferation of corporate intranets and Internet web sites makes communicating with employees faster and easier.

For example, Kelly Schomber is spread pretty thin as the sole HR professional for Raleigh, N.C.-based Travel Management Partners, a 110-person corporate travel agency with locations in eight states. To lighten her load, she plans to scan about 100 employment forms into an HR page she’s developing for her company’s web site. That way, off-site managers will be able to download the forms they need—and Schomber won’t need to spend time mailing and faxing forms to various sites.

Jaci Nicely, director of HR at Merion Publications Inc., a King of Prussia, Pa.-based publisher of 19 health care trade magazines, also is making good use of technology to get information out to employees. Nicely is developing an online presentation of the company’s 401(k) program; all 250 Merion employees will be able to view the presentation simultaneously on their computers during a conference call.

Borders also makes use of technology by posting daily electronic updates via e-mail to store managers. In turn, the managers are expected to communicate the information to store-level employees, Lathrop says.

Borders’ approach to employee communication illustrates what seems to be a larger trend: E-mail has emerged as a primary means to “talk” to far-flung employees. The advantages of e-mail are obvious: It’s fast, it’s easy and it’s a useful adjunct to internal newsletters. But there are pitfalls to relying too heavily on this medium.

Parkington says that employees are “bombarded by e-mail.” Fox adds that when trying to keep up with e-mails it can be “hard to separate the wheat from the chaff” and, as a result, some employees just give up. “Some people are notorious for not reading their e-mail,” she says

Another downside to e-mail is that messages are sent and received without the context provided by body language or intonation, which can lead to misunderstandings or miscommunication. E-mail is “the easiest, fastest way to get your message through, but it can be easily misinterpreted,” says Nicely.

Nicely remembers a manager at Merion who sent e-mail messages that were short and to the point, mirroring her management style—a style that left some subordinates feeling as if they had done something wrong. To rectify the problem, the manager and those who worked with her used “a lot more phone contact,” Nicely says. “We’ve found that phone contact is the next best thing to being there.”

Other HR experts also advise following up important e-mail communications with telephone calls, either one-on-one or in a conference call with all off-site employees. If your organization is too large for a companywide conference call, do several calls by location. “Sometimes you can explain it better by saying it,” Parkington says.

Another plus to a follow-up telephone call is that employees can have their questions answered right away. Many firms also have toll-free phone numbers for workers to call with questions and concerns.

Nicely adds that she uses phone calls to keep in touch with her company’s 12-person branch office in Naples, Fla. At first, the Florida branch office staff felt like “unwanted orphans,” she says. So Nicely altered her communication methods: Even though the Florida employees normally contact her by e-mail, she often responds by phone. “A lot of times I’ll call them personally about something that I’d normally delegate to someone on my staff,” she says.

To further strengthen ties with the branch office, the company put all employees on the same phone and computer networks. Further, managers in all departments at headquarters went out of their way to make themselves available by phone. If their manager isn’t available, Nicely or another manager handles the calls.

Meet and Greet

As vital as the online world has become, its reach doesn’t extend everywhere. Some employers—such as large construction and engineering firms that have hundreds of workers at sites scattered nationwide—can’t reach all employees by computer. As a result, their HR managers must communicate in other ways.

That’s a problem Dennis R. Noland, SPHR, knows all too well. For 10 years Noland ran the HR department of industrial construction firm Rust Constructors before becoming a Birmingham, Ala., HR consultant. Whenever significant benefits changes would occur at Rust, Noland would send HR staff to job sites to communicate with employees and take care of the paperwork.

Even at companies where computers are easily accessible, HR directors stress that face-to-face visits can never be replaced by e-mail and conference calls. The key for employees is “having them know your face,” Fox says. “Once you build a relationship, people are open and responsive.”

Visits by HR and other executives from headquarters should be a regular occurrence, not crisis-driven, experts say. Fox explains, “If you show up only when there’s a problem, people are afraid of HR.” She should know: In a previous job, Fox says she showed up only to announce mass layoffs.

Regular visits to off-site employees will not only keep them in the loop about corporate policies and changes in benefits but also communicate intangibles such as corporate culture. Likewise, it’s helpful for satellite employees to visit the home office.

Maintaining the corporate culture is a situation faced at Zero to Three, a nonprofit association in Washington, D.C., that employs 12 people as advisors in federal Head Start offices across the United States. To make sure they adopt Zero to Three’s culture—and not that of the government employees who work with them—supervisors visit off-site locations two or three times per month, says HR director Marva Steward. The advisors also train at headquarters twice a month for four to five days at a time.

Borders, on the other hand, conducts most of its training in the field. “That gives us a pretty constant presence,” says Lathrop. The company conducts annual HR seminars for store managers and assistant managers in 30 major markets, flying in staff from smaller cities. In addition, its 40 HR staff members and other executives visit and work in bookstores during December “to see the state of the stores during our busy holiday period,” says Lathrop.

In addition, Borders’ regional directors visit headquarters every other month for multi-day meetings. Field-based recruiters come in three or four times per year.

But not all organizations have enough HR staffers to visit all field offices regularly. Travel Management Partners’ Schomber, who operates alone, says she would like to visit each office every two months but can’t spare the time. “Unfortunately, I visit only when there’s a crisis. I’m totally reactionary,” she says.

Schomber says she tries to visit each site to meet new employees and to present 401(k) information. She assumes that no news is good news, but when “I start getting phone calls with little things, I can tell they’re not feeling in the loop.” She tries to compensate by initiating more phone calls to off-site employees to anticipate problems and deal with them before they become crises.

More or Less Work?

There are both advantages and disadvantages to long-distance HR, say practitioners. On one hand, there is the extra work in communicating, training and coordinating the employees who are spread out among two or more locations. On the other hand, there can be fewer distractions.

“When you have everybody under one roof, there’s a queue outside HR for everyone who wants to whine about something petty,” says Fox. She hired an assistant to deal with these sorts of inquiries when she was HR director of Taylor Ball, a national general contractor based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Fox concludes, “It’s a difficult balance. You have to be available, but you have to focus on the long term. I had to block out times of day where I wouldn’t answer the phone and I’d close the door.”

Lathrop adds, “The advantage is the operational managers in the stores are required to be more involved in HR than if we were all in one building. They can’t run down the hall all the time. … Our role is to make sure they get the knowledge they need.”

Carolyn Hirschman is a business writer based in Rockville, Md. She has written for a variety of business publications and has covered workplace issues since 1991.

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