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Call it the physics of modern management: getting your staff to pull together when so many of your people are located so far apart.
The forward march of technology – smart devices, Wi-Fi, cloud computing – has created flexibility for employees that has reshaped the workplace. Increasing volumes of employees are working outside the office. And considering the many documented benefits to both the organization and the employee, it seems there’s no turning back.
But with benefits come challenges. As remote employees lose face time with managers and co-workers, they risk losing connection with the company culture, the intangible sense of belonging to a team, and inspiration that comes from striving together toward shared objectives. The task for business leaders? How to keep your virtual workforce invigorated and in sync with the broader organization.
Consider these five tactics for engaging your virtual staff:
There is no ‘i’ in technology
While technology is the force that’s set the stage for today’s virtual workplace reality, it’s also an essential instrument for binding our remote teams together. Use it to your advantage.
Streaming technology, for instance, means every remote worker is a press of a button away from a two-way video conference. Real-time meeting tools make it easy for co-workers to share screens.
Instant messaging allows instant communication. And the advancement of cloud services simplifies file sharing in a way that can further drive collaboration and teamwork.
Recent research shows that 75 percent of telecommuters are regularly utilizing such technology tools in their work lives. It becomes important for managers to have a similar grasp on these advancements, said Sean O’Brien,
Executive Vice President of Strategy and Communications for Premiere Global Services, Inc. (PGi), speaking in a recent interview with CIO magazine. “Managers have to have the same level of familiarity with remote work and collaboration tools,” O’Brien said. “The technology empowers them to have the same kind of relationship and interaction with their workers as they would if the worker was on-site.”
Small talk yields big dividends
Take the time at the beginning of your conference calls to go off-topic with your remote workers. In lieu of the water-cooler moments that your offsite workers have been missing, warm up your meetings with some talk about family, hobbies and vacation plans.
“The first few minutes of any meeting, the off-topic parts that may seem irrelevant or just ‘small talk’ are the biggest contributor to building trust and better personal relationships, as well as ‘contextual intelligence’,” said PGi’s O’Brien. “Talking about your kids, or the game last night, or TV shows — that creates a context for you as a person. The other people in the meeting are then able to connect to you as a parent, a human being, rather than an acquaintance or a stranger.”
A little travel goes a long way
If your remote employees are across town, encourage them to plan in-office days on a regular basis. If they’re located across time zones, then it’s good practice to pony up for airfare and fly them into the main office at least once a year to get up close and personal the team.
Author and software executive Obie Fernandez, himself a remote employee, writes in The Muse that in-person visits engender “friendship and empathy,” which makes it easier to collaborate as a team.
“Effective collaboration hinges on a rich, deep understanding of your employees’ perspectives,” Fernandez said.
“That means you might need to invest in travel at the start of the relationship to really get to know your new team member face-to-face and build rapport.”
Gamify your teamwork
Over the years, companies have learned that applying gaming tactics can build loyalty among customers and encourage more visits to their store or the website. Similar tactics are proving to foster employee engagement.
Introducing team-based goals and competitions can reinforce collaboration and cooperation, said Tony Ventrice, senior games designer at Badgeville, an enterprise gamification platform. “Employees need to feel included, as if they are part of a team,” Ventrice told Business Report Daily. “Teams can be based on function or location, with the key goal being inclusion in striving towards a common objective.”
Game-based systems provide a common standard for measuring performance, which can be particularly beneficial to remote employees who may feel they’re missing out on opportunities to make an impression in person.
Focus on the big picture
Whether a business has two employees, 200, or 200,000, rallying all parties to work toward a common goal is one of the measures of great companies. Consequently, applying a strategy of inclusion to your remote staff becomes essential to the success of an organization.
Ask yourself, how are you positioning remote workers to fulfill their purpose and contribute to the greater good?
“One key element is to help all the players understand the eventual outcomes,” said Rob Bellmar, executive vice president for InterCall, a conferencing and collaboration solutions company. Speaking to CIO magazine, Bellmar said employees need to make sure their remote workers can answer the following questions:
What is the organization trying to accomplish?
Where is company going?
How do I fit into that goal and direction?
As managers, you don’t have the opportunity for hallway chats or stops by the desk. Bellmar said you need to make up for that gap thorough communication and “holistic updates” with the remote worker.
“A lot of this concept of ‘inclusion’ means workers being involved in decision making and driving outcomes for the business,” Bellmar said. “You need to be able to engage your employees in all these discussions so that, regardless of where they’re working from, they still feel part of the team and part of the organization.”
Communication is the cornerstone
However you choose to approach engagement for your remote staff, the common thread through each management tactic is the need for communication. In fact, Fernandez contends that you should encourage “over-communication.” Don’t be shy, share. And share some more.