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Telework is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, it has been hailed as a benefit that enhances work/life balance, that reduces energy consumption and employee absenteeism, and that can help lower corporate real estate costs. On the other hand, it can substantially complicate communication, management, team building and extracting peak performance from off-site employees.
Workers who are not physically in the office can lose opportunities for job/skill boosters such as spontaneous learning, nonverbal communication cues, team bonding and on-the-spot intervention in the event of a mistake or misunderstanding. Managers, in turn, often have a harder time monitoring and motivating employees by long distance. The potential consequences: more errors, less trust, lower productivity and increased turnover.
Addressing these challenges is becoming critical as the number of remote employees grows. According to a February 2009 WorldatWork survey, the number of U.S. telecommuters working at home for an employer at least one day per month jumped from 12.4 million in 2006 to 17.2 million in 2008. Forty percent of these “employed telecommuters”—as opposed to self-employed or contract workers—reported working at home almost every day.
How can managers support their off-site employees to help them overcome the inevitable isolation they sometimes feel working remotely, and to help them remain engaged team players? First, hire people who are self-starters, strong communicators and team-oriented. Next, establish early connections and team activities, beginning with the onboarding process. Following are some additional recommendations:
Have a face-to-face manager orientation. It is virtually impossible for a manager to serve as a role model and motivator without a strong personal relationship with the employee. The best way to begin to establish that relationship is for newly hired remote employees to have an initial meeting with the manager at the office or at the employee’s own work site. This can help instill the leader influence that is critical for inspiring good work and creating trust, as well as help initiate a sense of belonging.
Maintain continuous communication through multiple channels. Studies show that remote site workers need more frequent dialogue than those in the office to absorb new information and to help them feel aligned with the rest of the team. Regular phone meetings, e-mail, and web and video conferencing are obvious choices for facilitating this regular communication. Real-time chats, discussion boards, team calendars, interactive whiteboards and other collaborative technologies can help, too. The effort will pay off by reducing long-distance misinterpretation and ensuring that everyone is on the same page.
Reinforce training with extra documentation. In addition to more frequent communication, remote employees often need more training support than they get on a phone or web conference call to compensate for lack of face time. Written recaps of information imparted, online Q&As and other tools should be used as backup.
Encourage small talk during interactions with remote site workers. Since off-site employees lack the benefit of on-site water cooler conversation, phone and video conferences should include time for virtual hallway chatter to help establish personal connections and build a team mentality.
Provide a virtual meeting place. Encourage relationship building and information sharing among all-virtual teams and/or between on-site and off-site employees through online vehicles like public social networking sites or commercial or internally developed corporate social networking programs.
Measure new-hire ‘health’ at 30 and 60 days into the job. Nip problems in the bud and minimize early attrition by asking new remote workers how they’re doing. Do they have enough interaction with their manager? Did they get appropriate training? Is working off-site causing any problems? For larger companies, automated new-hire survey systems simplify this process and make it possible to aggregate data to look at trends, such as differences in remote employee success rates in different offices. Some of these systems also include manager surveys that can be used to ascertain how managers view these long-distance arrangements.
Include remote employees in corporate events and communications. Exit interview data can show that many geographically distant workers often feel like they are frequently out of the loop on corporate news and/or forgotten when it comes to company gatherings. Be sure that off-site associates are on the routing lists to get this information, even if it’s for an event they are unlikely to attend.
Provide mentoring opportunities. Connecting remote-site employees with mentors can help foster a feeling of inclusiveness, offset the loss of informal training that occurs when workers are not stationed in the office, aid in skill development and provide employees with a sounding board for the frustrations of working off-site.
Plan periodic face-to-face meetings. Whether it’s a customer visit, dedicated team gathering or a company conference where virtual teams have their own mini-meetings, occasional face-to-face contact can go a long way toward overcoming the isolation problem and associated detachment from the organization.
With virtual teams becoming a staple in the corporate world and newer technologies that offer better ways of staying connected, managers can and must bring off-site employees into the fold. These tactics can help ensure these workers remain productive members of the organization—no matter where they’re working.
Beth N. Carvin is the CEO and president of Nobscot Corporation, a global technology firm specializing in key areas of employee retention and development.
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