As collaboration and communication have evolved, so has the popularity of hiring remote workers and operating teams in locations far from headquarters. FlexJob’s State of Telecommuting in 2017 report noted that nine million people (2.9 percent of the total U.S. labor force) work from home at least half of the time — up from 1.8 million in 2005.
In the best of cases, this is a win-win for companies as offering a flexible work environment leads to greater employee satisfaction, productivity gains and increased retention. Consider these statistics from Global Workplace Analytics that detail how companies benefit from enabling their employees to work remotely:
Improved Employee Satisfaction
- 80% of employees considered remote work a job perk.
- 36% would choose it over a pay raise.
- A poll of 1500 technology professionals revealed that 37% would take a pay cut of 10% if they could work remotely.
Reduced Employee Turnover
- 46% of companies that allow remote working said it has reduced turnover.
- 72% of employers say remote working had a high impact on employee retention
- Best Buy, British Telecom, Dow Chemical and many others showed that remote workers are 35-40% more productive than their peers working in an office.
- Over two-thirds of employers report increased productivity among their remote workers.
These statistics demonstrate the validity of the reasons behind why a company might implement a flexible work policy and how it has become a coveted employee benefit.
However, it’s far from certain that implementing a telecommuting policy in your company is the right thing to do. Some organizations such as Bank of America, Honeywell and Yahoo took steps to reign in their telecommuting programs, and while the practice is still very popular, many organizations are thinking more pragmatically about how to reap the benefits without incurring the downside of fielding a remote workforce. One challenge faced by most companies who offer telecommuting is how to create and sustain employee engagement among remote employees. After all, it’s a very different experience to work alone at home than it is to be among your colleagues in the office every day. That’s why employee engagement should be an important consideration when evaluating whether to institute or maintain a telecommuting program.
Employee Engagement: The Basics
Forbes defines employee engagement as the “emotional commitment that an employee has to their organization and its goals”. In other words, it’s how committed each employee is to furthering the company’s mission each and every day that they step into the office.
Companies have long been focusing on improving employee engagement levels of on-site employees, and that need clearly extends to remote employees as well. Numerous surveys show an alarming absence of employee engagement today but also point out the huge upside there is in achieving it.
- Only 16% of employees said they felt “connected and engaged” by their employers. (Source: EmployeeChannel)
- Teams with high employee engagement rates are 21% more productive and have 28% less internal theft than those with low engagement. (Source: Gallup)
- Employees who are engaged are 27% more likely to report “excellent” performance. (Source: Gallup)
Here are 5 best practices for managers of remote teams that will go a long way towards ensuring that remote employees are as engaged as those working at HQ.
1. Communicate Often and in Real-Time
It goes without saying that employees who work in teams need to communicate with one another to effectively do their jobs. Remote employees require an even higher level of communication to make up for the fact that they aren’t seeing each other regularly.
Without constant communication, your employees will often feel out of the loop and that can make them feel that they’re not a respected part of the company. To combat this, it’s important for organizations to make the investment in real-time messaging software or other collaboration tools that make communicating more efficient and enable remote workers to contact their peers with ease.
2. Don’t Micromanage
Few things erode trust more rapidly than the feeling an employee gets when their manager is looking over their shoulder, always ready to tell them what to do. Most managers know this, but still find it tempting to apply a higher level of oversight to their remote workers as compared to on-site employees. It’s very demotivating to remote employees if they are subjected to a higher degree of oversight and feels unfair if there are different standards for on site vs remote colleagues. The key to managing remote employees successfully doesn’t lie in enforcement. Rather, it’s a function of the work systems you install and the expectations you set.
3. Conduct Regular Check-Ins
Managers should ensure that there is a predetermined time each week to conduct a one-on-one conversation with each direct report on your remote team. This is an opportunity to discuss their current projects, workload, and performance. Most importantly, a manager should focus on learning which, if any, obstacles their employee is facing to get a task completed and be ready to step in to assist in removing those obstacles. This is the sort of help employees really value and it demonstrates that their manager is vested in helping them succeed.
Remote employees also benefit from a higher degree of responsiveness when they reach out with questions or other help requests. Unlike their on-site colleague, they don’t have the luxury of popping into their manager’s office whenever they have a question or want to discuss an issue, nor can they see that their manager is busy or otherwise unable to respond. These realities dictate that you establish and maintain regular check-ins and are extra responsive to ad hoc questions if at all possible.
4. Set Clear Expectations and Lines of Accountability
It’s important for your employees to realize that while they may not physically be in the office, they are still accountable for their deliverables and are held to the same productivity standards as their colleagues who work on-site. It’s important to set the tone early and avoid ambiguity on this point. Getting everyone on the same page lowers the risk of employees taking advantage of the fact that their managers may be far away.
Setting clear expectations will also come in handy when conducting performance reviews, though feedback on how your employees are doing should be ongoing and not restricted solely to formal review periods.
5. Use a Rewards and Recognition Platform
All employees thrive on recognition and appreciation, but remote employees need it even more since they have fewer opportunities to interact with other colleagues and fewer opportunities to receive verbal and non-verbal cues that on-site employees normally receive.
Recognition and reward systems, both management-driven and peer-to-peer, work well when they are applied consistently, comprehensively and publicly. The key success factor is to avoid the temptation to do this on an ad hoc or departmental basis and instead install a system that works for all employees across all locations.
Recognition systems have been shown to be effective whether employees receive tangible rewards such as gift cards or just the public recognition of their contribution to the company. Recognizing and appreciating employees for their special accomplishments or for upholding company values has beneficial outcomes for all employees but plays an even more critical role in strengthening the ties and commitment that remote employees have with their peers and managers.
The growing popularity of remote teams and the business rationale behind it presents companies with new opportunities, but it also presents new risk. The best practices described in this article can help manage these risks and help ensure that your both your on-site and remote employees perform at their highest levels.