The number of remote workers was already on the rise pre-pandemic, but it has soared since early last year and likely will continue to grow in the years to come, according to several recent research reports. The most robust projection comes from Upwork, which expects that by 2025, 36.2 million U.S. workers will be working fully remotely, which would be an 87 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.
"As businesses adapt and learn from this remote-work experiment, many are altering their long-term plans to accommodate this way of working," said Adam Ozimek, Upwork's chief economist.
Since remote work has now become a staple of many businesses, HR professionals are seeking ways to ensure that remote employees are fully incorporated into the workplace.
"The pandemic has demonstrated that we can adapt, work and collaborate differently than we ever have before and deliver some of our best work as a team," said Janelle Lopez, vice president of people at Momentive (formerly SurveyMonkey). "We are taking an intentional approach to providing the same opportunities for remote employees to … feel a sense of community."
For example, when Lopez hired a new member of her social media team, the company sent the employee a swag bag and carefully scheduled her first few days so she could become familiar with her responsibilities and meet her colleagues remotely. The company also created a meeting during the pandemic called Coffee & Gossip, where remote employees chat about pop culture and what they're doing over the weekend to recreate conversations that are typically held in the break room, Lopez said.
To make sure your remote workforce feels included, here are six tactics suggested by HR professionals with experience integrating and motivating remote employees:
1. Provide Robust Onboarding Materials.
When remote employees join your company, give them everything they need so they are empowered to do their jobs, suggested Elizabeth Orban at Curriculum Associates in North Billerica, Mass., an educational products provider with 1,400 full-time employees.
Whenever new employees join her company, Orban said, they receive "The Binder" in the mail, which is full of cheat sheets and helpful tips from their manager.
The Binder "helps them feel like they have some tangible resources to follow as they go through the training process," she explained. "We focus on making sure there is plenty of communication and opportunities to virtually meet other members of the team, both as a large group and individually."
2. Acknowledge Remote Workers' Successes.
Remote employees may be making monumental contributions to the workplace, but since they aren't as visible as employees at a physical location, they might not be receiving the recognition they deserve, said Simon Brisk, senior human resources manager at Click Intelligence in New York City.
"I saw this happen with our outreach manager, who repeatedly surpassed her monthly targets but never got a word of appreciation from her higher-ups," he said. "Since then, exceptional achievements are immediately communicated to the CEO, and the employee's contribution is appreciated publicly on our business communication platform."
3. Hold Regular Check-In Meetings.
Meeting regularly with all employees using a format that treats remote and onsite employees the same helps to keep remote workers engaged, Brisk said. He holds regular meetings where every participant has a chance to speak about a certain topic. "Everyone is supposed to speak unless they affirm that they have nothing to add to the conversation," he said.
At Toptal, a freelance talent agency that is fully remote, chief people officer Michelle Labbe said all employees are invited to monthly remote meetings to hear how the company is performing.
"In addition to these senior leadership team presentations, the Q&A and Shout Out sections allow for, and encourage, all members to participate in recognizing their colleagues for their outstanding accomplishments," she said.
4. Offer Mutual Working Hours.
Sometimes remote workers are spread out around the world. But even though his team members live in many different time zones, Brisk said it was important for his company to establish mutual working hours in which key contributors are available at the same time.
"Communication was the main hurdle," he said, "so we set up mutual working hours in which the parties knew their working hours based on the time zone. That way, everyone stayed online during the collaborating stage and the communication gap was filled."
5. Encourage Open Dialogue and Feedback.
If you make it clear to remote employees that you're open to hearing all forms of feedback, and you establish clear lines of communication to make that possible, the company's processes and productivity will rise, said Eva Majercsik, chief people officer at Genesys, a global customer service software provider with six U.S. locations and more than 5,700 employees.
"Managers, onsite teammates and remote employees should all take initiative to create ongoing dialogues with one another to make sure everyone is engaged and operating on the same page," she said. "Managers should especially pay attention to … cues to quickly identify any signs of disengagement or misalignment."
Majercsik stressed that an annual review is not enough to keep remote workers involved and engaged. Instead, communication should be ongoing.
"Establishing feedback as a necessary part of professional growth opens the door to establishing regular conversations [and] discussing career aspirations and areas of improvement, rather than the once-a-year review check-in," she said. "This helps drive engagement, sets clear expectations and encourages innovative, performance-driven behaviors."
6. Don't Forget to Have Fun.
While it's important to ensure remote employees are productive, it's also a good idea to break up the regular routine with fun activities. For Orban, this means taking an occasional virtual game break or sending silly polls to the team.
"[We make sure] to insert some fun into the day and learn about each other, so being remote doesn't feel lonely," she said. "Despite how busy work and life may get, it's been important to us to make time to get to know each other as people and not just a collection of people who happen to work at the same place."
Jess Munday, HR and people management specialist at Custom Neon, which employs 16 people in Kansas City, Mo., and Los Angeles, said she hosts quarterly interactive online team activities to cultivate remote worker engagement. Together, the team will participate in virtual bingo, make-your-own LED neon workshops, online painting tutorials and music quizzes.
"By engaging the team in activities that are fun and unrelated to their roles, we noticed increased engagement, banter and collaboration across all departments," she said.
[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]