One-fifth of the tech workforce around the world telecommutes, but many managers and HR professionals still find it difficult to engage employees and create an positive office environment in a virtual space. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Beth N. Carvin, the CEO of HR technology company Nobscot Corporation. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies to improve retention and in this interview, she provides employers tips on how to keep their remote workers around.
1. What is the #1 mistake employers make when it comes to retaining their telecommuting employees?
The most common mistake employers make in regard to retaining their telecommuting employees is simply giving the majority of their attention to their in-person employees and forgetting about their telecommuting employees. This can easily occur when they don’t see the employees every day in the office. Employers need to include their telecommuting employees in everything they do — keep them in the loop about activities, make small talk with them, have lunch with them occasionally if geographically possible, etc.
In fact, research shows that telecommuting employees want and need more frequent dialogue than onsite employees. In many organizations, geographically distant employees feel as if they are frequently left “out of the loop,” which can lead to disengagement and employee turnover. Continuous communication through multiple channels, such as telephone calls, emails, instant messenger, web and video conferencing, etc., helps remote employees feel aligned with the rest of the team. Telecommuters should be included in all corporate events and communications, as well.
2. What can “micromanagers” do to facilitate remote workers’ productivity without being overbearing and chasing them off?
One of the first things managers can do is have a face-to-face manager orientation. It is pretty much 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 the employee’s own work site. This can help build the leader influence that is critical for inspiring good work and creating trust.
Telecommuting employees typically need more training support than they get on a conference call or WebEx to compensate for lack of face time. (One study estimated that nonverbal cues convey as much as two-thirds of the content of a message.) Written recaps of information imparted, online Q&As, and a virtual meeting place to further encourage relationship building and information sharing among all-virtual teams and/or between on-site and off-site employees can be used as additional resources. This can be accomplished through online vehicles like Facebook, or commercial or internally developed corporate social networking programs.
3. What key elements are in an effective, engaged working relationship between company and telecommuter?
- Communication: Along with communicating with their managers and co-workers regularly in a wide variety of mediums, telecommuting employees should be included in all corporate events and communications. Exit interview data shows that many geographically distant workers feel like stepchildren because 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.
- Training: Initial training is key to getting telecommuting employees off to the right start and feeling competent in their positions, so matter where they are located. Utilize a training program that encourages team building, communication, problem solving, etc. Membership-subscription based training services can offer a wide variety of activities that the entire team (onsite and offsite) can do together to build that integral team bond. Bring telecommuting employees into the home office for annual training meetings.
- Measurement: In order to know how telecommuting employees are doing, they must be asked. Measure new hire ‘health’ at 30 and 60 days. 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 also 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.
- Mentoring Programs: Mentoring programs can help foster a sense of inclusiveness, enhance skill development and offset the loss of the informal training that often occurs between employees working in the same office. These types of effective programs can also provide telecommuting employees a sounding board for frustrations of remote working.
4. What is one thing managers can do TODAY to improve their working relationships with telecommuters?
Communicate, communicate, communicate! As mentioned above, it really takes multiple communications on the same topic for it to really sink in with employees. In-person employees get this without managers even thinking about it — via water cooler talk, small talk at the beginning of numerous meetings, etc. But telecommuting employees do not have these casual interactions. It takes two to four times of discussion on the same topic for it to really sink in and get absorbed. Along with regular phone meetings, email, and web and video conferencing, real-time chat, discussion boards, team calendars, interactive whiteboards and other collaborative technologies can help. The effort will pay off by reducing long-distance misinterpretation and ensuring that everyone is on the same page.
5. What would you say to managers who rail against remote work because they can’t “see” their employees?
Telecommuting has been hailed for benefits ranging from better work-life balance to reduced energy consumption, less absenteeism and lower corporate real estate costs. It also allows organizations to get the best candidates, no matter where they live.
To make the most out of telecommuting, plan for 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-meeting, occasional face-to-face contact can go a long way toward overcoming the isolation problem and associated detachment from the organization.
Virtual teams are becoming a staple in the corporate world and there are newer technologies that offer better ways of staying connected. Managers can and must bring off-site employees into the fold. These tactics can help make them productive members of the organization — even if they are working on the other side of the city or across the world.
Beth N. Carvin is President and CEO at Nobscot Corporation (www.nobscot.com), an HR technology company that specializes in key areas of employee retention and development. She has more than 20 years of experience in human resources, staffing, business management, sales and marketing. Beth is a nationally recognized expert on employee retention and exit interviews, and has assisted with exit interviewing strategy for large, multi-national companies, in every industry, and in more than 20 countries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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