Tips for keeping remote workers engaged and positive

The following post was first published here in 2015. As many organisations increase the size of their remote workforce, now’s a good time to refresh ourselves on how to keep virtual workers engaged. As we continue on this journey, we’ll share our successes and lessons learned, and I invite you to do the same: does your organisation have a large virtual workforce? If so, how do you support them to ensure they are engaged and productive?

As a good manager, you can often tell just by walking around which of your employees is engaged, and which are becoming disaffected. You’ve probably got various measures or indicators that tell you who’s involved, enthusiastic, positive, and committed to your organisation.

It’s not so easy, though, when you manage people who work remotely. You can’t see them, don’t have the same kind of ‘walking around’ interactions with them, and though you’ve obviously trusted them enough to let them work from home, can you really tell from a phone call or an email if their level of engagement is still ‘up’?

As more and more organisations adopt some kind of ‘remote work’ strategy and policy, it becomes important to make sure those remote workers are engaged. Traditional views of remote work tended to be negative from the employer perspective due to fears that employees will be less productive and communicate less with each other, which will increase costs and decrease the quality of their work.

However, in the last 10 years this mindset has definitively changed – according to ESNA, 77% of companies have more than 2,500 remote employees, 20% of the US workforce worked from home in 2012, 65% of employees believe they are more productive working remotely than working in an office, and 64% report that they would sacrifice pay to telecommute. From 2005 to 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that telecommuting grew by 73%.

Interestingly, today, employees increasingly have concerns about remote work environments. As adoption of remote work arrangements has increased amongst employers in response to employee demand and expectations, approximately 50% of remote employees are now worried about loneliness and being passed over for a promotion, according to a Stanford University study. Still, they work 9.5% longer, are 13% more productive, and quit half as often. But they are also promoted at half the rate of the office-bound workforce, which raises concerns.

The good news is that, while a Gallup report shows that 71% of American employees are emotionally disconnected from the workplace, remote workers may represent a relatively small proportion of that 71% given they tend to log more hours and are more likely to feel their opinions count than non-remote workers.

Of course, managers shouldn’t take engagement for granted among any of their employees. With remote workers, it’s important to pay even more attention to the warning signs of disaffection. Does it take longer to get a response by email, or is someone unusually hard to reach? Do you know what he or she is working on, and do the two of you regularly communicate about progress? And are they paying attention to ongoing developments within the company? It’s important to ‘take the pulse’ of your remote employees via phone calls, chat tools, and off-site meetings, just as you take the pulse of employees in the office by stopping by their desk, running into them in the hallway, or being available to grab lunch.

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There are several simple things a manager can do to keep remote workers engaged and positive about their work.

  • Take advantage of devices and technology. Leveraging technology is key to make employees feel part of a community, whether it be messaging, company intranet boards and chat rooms, WebEx, or video conferencing. Additionally, provide your employees with the tools they need to work from home effectively – high quality VoIP or home phones, second or third monitors, a wireless mouse, printer, standing desk, ergonomic chair, etc.
  • Establish clear communications channels. Create a quick-guide for how remote employees can best reach their managers (and each other) at a moment’s notice. Not only does this help save time in an urgent situation, but knowing when it’s appropriate to call a personal or home number, when to text versus call, and what times during the day are acceptable to reach out during are all important to establishing a productive remote working relationship.
  • Create opportunities for casual check-ins. Managers (and peers) should set up regular check-ins and stay in touch with remote employees. Being physically apart from colleagues for long periods of time can be isolating and ongoing interactions keep engagement high.
  • Make it easy to participate. Remember to include remote employees in in-person meetings– both working group meetings and company-wide town halls – and make it easy for them to attend by providing WebEx and dial-in information, or video conferencing capability.
  • Extend an invitation. Invite remote employees to local events hosted by your company. If they can join, it’s a great opportunity to get to know colleagues they may rarely see, and if they cannot join, the thought of being remembered makes a big difference.
  • Evaluate performance consistently. Ensure remote employees are treated the same way as office employees during the performance management process. Remote employees’ fear of being passed up for promotions can create anxiety and focus on the wrong activities. Any performance issues should be addressed directly and immediately, the same way performance issues with a non-remote employee are handled.
  • Try team-based goals. There is no better way to bring together remote and on-site employees than with team goals, encouraged (or even requiring) them to define these goals together, and collaborate and communicate openly and actively to achieve them.
  • Hold everyone accountable. For remote employees, knowing that they are expected to contribute just like everyone else confirms a sense of purpose and keeps them from disengaging and feeling forgotten or like they can fly under the radar. Managers can schedule a quick monthly update call with the entire team to discuss news, project progress and help clear roadblocks. This also builds team rapport and is an opportunity for team members to interact with each another.
  • Do something fun. It’s easy if you’re remote to feel like it’s always about ‘business’ because you miss happy hour and lunch with the team. If there are travel restrictions due to cost, managers can provide employees with opportunities to treat themselves, such as a spa or restaurant gift card – team outings reduce stress and remote employees should be able to reduce stress on the company’s dime, too!
  • Find the right balance. In its 2013 State of the American Workplace report, engagement of remote workers varies by how much time (of an employee’s total) is spent teleworking. Every employee is different so discuss how it is going every month and recommend adjustments to days-at-home or days-in-the-office (if possible) as needed.
  • Pay a visit. Managers should make an effort to see their remote employees occasionally, whether it’s on a business trip, during an off-site meeting, or at a client event. Ultimately, the value of face-time is hard to equal.

All the indications are that remote workers will become increasingly commonplace. It’s in large part due to the convergence of technology and new generations coming into the workforce. These new generations, whether they be Millennials, Gen Y, Gen Z or Gen X, place greater value on independence and flexibility than ever before and they know how to use technology to achieve this. Engaging employees, and keeping top talent, is no longer about just the money. It’s about being able to offer people the opportunity to be part of something bigger while affording them the flexibility to manage their lives on their terms. And the statistics show that organizations that invest a bit in their remote employees get a high return on investment.