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No Worker Is An Island: 4 Practical Tips For Engaging Remote Employees

POSTED 02/23/2015
By Maria Wood

In one sense, all employees — whether they work onsite or offsite — are the same. All must be immersed in the corporate culture of the organization and feel leadership values their contributions. Those basic tenets of employee engagement apply to both virtual and in-office employees.

Yet team members in far-flung locations require a different managerial skill playbook. What works in a vast network of cubicles may not translate into a virtual network. Simply managing a remote worker in the same manner as one in the next cubicle is a strategy bound to fail and leave the remote employee feeling isolated and unfocused.

Related reading

This article is part of a series on employee engagment. Be sure to check out:

A Beginner’s Guide to Managing a Remote Workforce

Check Here If You’re Engaged — A Manager’s Guide To Employee Engagement Surveys

HR’s Senior Moment: The Case For Retaining, Engaging Mature Workers

Building Engaged Employees Through Skills-Based Volunteering

RAMP it up

OnPoint Consulting did a 2011 study on what makes certain virtual teams successful, while others falter. More than 25 percent of the 48 virtual teams it studied were ineffective, with poor management the root of the problem.

Yet when the firm reviewed 35 highly functioning teams, it found some common traits summarized in the acronym RAMP: Relationships, Accountability, Motivation, Purpose and Process.

In essence, effective managers of virtual teams take the time to communicate clearly and often with remote team members — and not always about work-related subjects — to forge a relationship. They also provide team members actionable, results-oriented goals, spur them to achieve those objectives through effective coaching, and establish processes to share and benchmark progress.

To be successful in a virtual setting, a manager needs to understand the unique challenges a remote worker faces. These could include isolation or the tendency to work round the clock because of time-zone differences, which could lead to a distorted work/life balance, says Rick Lepsinger, president and managing partner at OnPoint Consulting.

“Demonstrating that empathy becomes particularly important,” he says.

Creating a sense of organizational purpose and every team member’s role in that overarching objective is also vital in a virtual workplace because it gives geographically scattered employees a unifying touchstone, Lepsinger adds.

Beyond those lofty philosophical principles, managers can employ some very down-to-earth and practical methods to keep their offsite workers happy, engaged and productive. All revolve around effective and focused communication that can be both serious and at times fun, as well as recognizing the accomplishments of remote workers and keeping them in the loop come meeting time.

Here are four practical tips to keep remote workers engaged.

Take a coffee break in cyberspace

Much of workplace camaraderie develops in the break room and around the water cooler. In the natural flow of the workday in an office, managers can check on how their direct reports are progressing on projects or other job-related items.

However, these conversations don’t need to be all about work. A manager gains a sense of how workers are feeling when he or she sees them in person on a daily basis. Is Joe having a bad or good day? Is Megan sick today? In a virtual setting that element is missing.

Yet it can be replicated in cyberspace. Lepsinger endorses holding a “virtual coffee break.” Have the team hop on video conferencing system such as WebEx or Adobe Connect at a specified time, sit down with their beverage of choice, and chat for 15 minutes.

These virtual meet-ups needn’t be strictly formal or only grounded in work. Those same tech tools can be used to host virtual birthday or holiday parties and even baby showers. How often do office workers debate a favorite movie or what happened during last night’s game at the water cooler or in the break room? Though such chats should be kept to a minimum, they do bond co-workers.

With instant messaging and texting, virtual team members can talk as if they are in the same room. When the World Cup tournament was in full swing, Lepsinger recalls one team leader based in Australia conversed with colleagues as the match was being played “as if they were sitting in the bar, all taking about the game.”

Make time for face time

Cyberspace meetings only go so far in creating a bond of trust among remote team members. Face-to-face meetings are necessary, although how often is left to the discretion of the company or team leader.

Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics — which tracks workplace changes — notes that even fully virtual organizations do meet occasionally in person.

“Research shows virtual teams can be just as effective as co-located teams if they have already developed that bond of trust in working together on a face-to-face basis,” she says. “Once you’ve got that it doesn’t take much to keep it going.”

Get them to the meeting

Alas, work must be accomplished and typically that entails a meeting. (Cue the groans.) When all team members co-locate in the same office, it’s easy to gather them together for a meeting, whether impromptu or regularly scheduled.

When one or several team members are located outside the office, managers must ensure they are brought into the discussion. Megan Carriker, CEO of consulting firm Telek, which helps companies incorporate a remote workforce into their structure, recommends either an HR person or a designated team member oversee all those employees required to be on the conference call are summoned.

“One of the absolute worst feelings is to be working remotely and be forgotten about, especially for a meeting,” she says.

Moreover, modify a cyber meeting in order to make these get-togethers less of time drain on everyone, Lepsinger stresses. Make the meetings shorter, no more than 90 minutes, and have team members hop on only for those agenda items that directly involve them.

With today’s video-conferencing tools like the aforementioned WebEx, small groups can break off from the main meeting to discuss certain issues, Lepsinger notes.  In that way, team members hone in on what it is important to them. He adds this makes them less likely to tune out and check emails, thus promoting full engagement on the call.

He also suggests only calling a meeting when a decision needs to be made or to resolve a problem. Calling a meeting to simply do status updates wastes everyone’s time, he maintains — that information can be provided in another form.

Reward your remote employees

In an office setting, managers routinely give praise to team members for a job well done. An employee miles or states away may miss those important confidence boosters.

Therefore, Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communication at employee recognition company Michael C. Fina, says it’s important to remember those folks outside of the office for special commendations.

Further, singling out virtual workers highlights their contributions to an entire organization. Sometimes unfairly, those workers are forgotten or may be misjudged by co-workers, Himelstein says.

“A lot of times people will wonder, oh, what do they do all day?” Himelstein says. “So recognizing their achievements helps others in the organization understand the contributions the remote workforce is making.”

In summary
  • Communicate often and effectively, and not always about work-related issues.
  • Make sure to meet face-to-face, at least occasionally.
  • Remember to invite remote workers to important virtual meetings.
  • Recognize the accomplishments of remote workers.
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