Rising fuel costs and the lure of removing geographical barriers when hiring new workers is leading to an increase in companies willing to consider allowing their employees to work remotely, at least part-time.
However, the productivity of off-site employees came under fire earlier this year when Yahoo!'s new CEO, Marissa Mayer, called the company's remote employees back to the office through a memo saying that face-to-face interaction among employees fosters a more collaborative culture. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire founder and majority owner of Bloomberg L.P., agreed with Mayer's decision, describing working from home as "dumb." But Sir Richard Branson, the British business magnate who founded and chairs Virgin Group, was the knight in shining armor who defended remote workers, describing Mayer's move as "a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever." In a blog post, Branson wrote: "To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision."
Despite the controversy, remote work is becoming increasingly popular and a benefit for both staff members and their employers. Employees can do away with their commutes, which, apart from being inconvenient, can also become costly. Working from home allows employees to better balance family obligations. Organizations, on the other hand, don't have geographical restrictions when hiring new workers. Further, companies can benefit from lower power bills and be able to move into smaller offices.
Considering these benefits it's not surprising that according to a Forrester report, two-thirds of North American and European workers report working outside the office at least occasionally. "Leveraging remote workers is an absolute necessity for businesses which need to get the best talent they can to engage in their business," says Ray Grainger, CEO of Mavenlink.
Michael Idinopulos, chief customer officer at Socialtext, believes that remote workers can be among the highest-performing members of an organization. "But they need to know how to do it, including which tools and processes to use to make sure they are engaged, productive, and meeting the company's goals and objectives," he says.
Here are six tips to retain high levels of employee engagement among a remote workforce:
- Invest in collaborative tools: A major concern for business leaders is that remote employees aren't as productive as their office-based colleagues. Jeff Schick, vice president of social business at IBM, points out that today's socially savvy employees have come to expect a work environment that fosters collaboration. Grainger stresses that managers need to trust that home-based employees are working on what they're supposed to. This headache can be resolved through collaborative tools that allow managers to establish what needs to be done and then monitor their direct reports. IBM's Schick notes that enterprise social networking tools and technology allows employees to quickly connect with their counterparts across the world anytime, anywhere, and from any device.
- Develop a sturdy knowledgebase: Remote employees can't just get up from their desks and walk to a colleague to ask a question. While collaborative tools will help them easily interact with their counterparts, organizations need to create a knowledgebase where they can easily get the information they need. Tracy McCarthy, chief human resources officer at SilkRoad says a sturdy knowledgebase will also help remote employees be more productive by giving them access to the information they require to get their jobs done.
- Create an online work community, and use it: While physical social interaction is necessary in one's life, this isn't continuously needed within the workforce. "There are people who work effectively with others who they've never met," Grainger notes. Rather than emphasize on the importance of face-time, organizations need to leverage social media to have conversations among employees. McCarthy says communication needs to be interactive, allowing employees to get to know each other and have a conversation even when they're not in the same physical location. Schick uses the example of engineering, construction, and project management company Fluor, which has adopted social technologies to create stronger and more productive links among their workforce, allowing them to share knowledge and creativity irrespective of where they are. The company implemented IBM's social business platform, allowing employees across 60 global office locations to communicate and find colleagues with unique expertise to collaborate with.
- Have regular company wide or department-wide calls: In an interview with Fast Company John Mancini, president of the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM,) warns against turning in-office days "into an endless stretch of back-to-back meetings." Instead, employees should be given enough time to do their regular work and interact with colleagues. However, Idinopulos recommends having a standing meeting so that everyone can hear the voice of leadership and talk to each other. This meeting can take place on days when employees are in the office or even when they're working remotely.
- Don't turn remote employees into second class citizens: Organizations need to have the necessary processes in place to make sure that employees who aren't in the office can still participate in meetings and feel part of the workplace. One mistake that companies tend to make is failing to involve employees who are dialing in to meetings held at the office. "Sometimes during meetings there are a lot of things happening in the room that those at home cannot see or hear," Idinopulos notes. Further, he recommends calling on remote employees to see if they have any questions and are brought into the conversation. "Go out of your way to make sure the meeting is happening virtually even if some of you happen to be in the same room," he notes.
- Encourage virtual social cooler conversations: According to Socialtext's Idinopulos, business leaders need to encourage interaction even when it's not directly about work. "It might be difficult to have the informal social interaction that is required for people to work well together," he notes. Idinopulos notes that social networks and collaboration tools are ideal for an organic mixture of business conversation and social interaction.
Finally, Idinopulos has a word of caution for employees who work remotely: "Make sure work doesn't take over your life." While remote employees are more likely to work longer hours especially because they don't waste time commuting, they need to know when to switch off in order to achieve a healthy work-life balance.