IBM may have made headlines for calling employees back to the office, but there are plenty of firms that still encourage remote work. In fact, 43 percent of employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely, according to a recent Gallup survey.
To be successful, companies must create an environment that allows remote employees to work productively by themselves and as part of a team. How do companies do it? As the director of leadership and learning at TTEC, I oversee several teams that work remotely in the U.S. and across the globe, and have picked up a number of strategies and tips on keeping remote employees engaged.
First, there are many benefits to having remote employees as part of your team.
Hiring remotely opens up the talent pool. The competition for talented employees is tough, so why limit your options? Advances in technology (more on that later) now make it possible for employees who are tied down by a mortgage, a spouse with a job, or visa complications to still work for a company that’s thousands of miles away. By hiring remotely, we have been able to hire the best people for our team, regardless of where they live.
Remote workers are productive. For certain people, a very short commute, flexible hours, and a quiet office allow them to get more done than if they were to come to an office every day. At the same time, it’s important to set guidelines. Make sure remote employees are able to focus on their work. Especially if employees are interacting with clients, distractions must be removed.
Remote workers can’t hide in the office. We all know the employee who arrives first at the office and is the last to leave. But that person is not necessarily the most productive worker. It’s easy to make it appear that you’re getting a lot of work done at the office, when in reality, you’re wasting time. Remote workers, on the other hand, are mainly judged on the quality of their work. Sure, they might work on a presentation in their sweatpants, but that’s inconsequential.
At the same time, it’s easy for remote workers to feel isolated and so they often need help staying engaged. Here are a few strategies to make that possible.
1. Have a one-stop shop or central space that allows for collaborative communication. We use social collaboration tools and have designated areas for online discussions and projects as well as a content space and library. Team members come here to share information with others or to review information in our online library. Everything is clearly documented, making it easy to find what you need.
2. Make it fun and engaging. Just because you’ve built something, that doesn’t mean people will use it. Unless the collaborative space is useful and engaging, your teammates will ignore it. We make it a point to make our online interactions as enjoyable and “sticky” as possible. For example, we have contests and a Dean’s list of star employees, as well as a discussion board where we share family photos and chat about vacation plans—just like colleagues in the break room. We even have a values committee whose job is to come up with activities that drive communication and uphold our company values.
3. Encourage teammates to use video. Face-to-face communication is important. Researchers have found that face-to-face interactions are critical for the success of virtual teams because it helps drive engagement. One of the ways we do that is by meeting over video once or twice a month at “happy hour” meetings. The values committee creates the agenda, which includes highlighting a certain value and core competency. For instance, we’ll ask members to wear clothing that matches the color of the value and we’ll acknowledge those colors during the call.
A lot of good spirited conversations come from these meetings. We go over birthdays, anniversaries, and client wins in addition to discussing business. Video interactions are also valuable because they reduce distraction and encourage accountability—you’re forced to focus on the person you’re speaking with.
4. Get senior leaders involved. It’s essential for senior leaders to stay connected with the rest of the team. Our entire leadership team makes it a point to come to group meetings, celebrate wins, and share information with teammates. My team meets weekly and are encouraged to use video. I’ve found doing so helps them feel comfortable in coming to their leaders with questions and ideas.
Since we implemented these strategies, our team has seen significant improvements in employee satisfaction scores and retention has improved. Remote teams aren’t for everyone, but with the right engagement efforts, they can be successful. And yes, there are drawbacks—chance encounters between workers are nearly impossible and working remotely is a skill you must hire for—but it’s worth it considering the quality of employees we get and the quality of life we can offer them.