Keeping remote workers engaged and productive

By Laura Haight

Originally published as the Digital Maven column in Upstate Business Journal, Feb. 25, 2013

The evidence is all around us: a growing percentage of the work force is working remotely at least some of the time, those that aren’t want to be and the yeoman's share of knowledge-worker jobs are able to be done outside of the office.

In 2011, a research group focusing on telecommuting/telework (a technology misnomer in the days of mobile devices), reported that 50 million employees who want to work from home held jobs that could be done from home, but only 3.1 million were actually able to work from home all or part of the time. 

Although a lot more people want to be teleworking, there are many who actually are. A survey in 2012 by Wrike, a software company that makes product management software for distributed and remote teams, showed that 83 percent of workers say they work remotely at least some of the time. For many, that means checking email or doing after-hours work. 

Technology is certainly doing its part with secure virtual private networking, cloud-based services and server hosting that makes company data available anywhere, virtualized phone systems, accessible video conferencing and free conference calling and now the explosion of mobile technology. So what’s the hangup?

For many businesses, it’s a management issue. How do we make sure that the remote workers are really working? That’s always a challenge, isn’t it. I mean, even with workers who are right down the hall.

As a senior manager at the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company I experienced those challenges first-hand when I led a team with staff in different parts of the country and time zones. Here are some ways to make telework work for both you and the remote employees. Some involve technology; some involve humans.

1. Make smarter decisions. Not every employee is a good candidate. If you have an existing employee who wants to telecommute, you are in a good position to know a lot more about them and determine if that’s the right situation. Are they self-motivated? Do they get work done on time now? Do they require a lower or higher level of supervision? What is their motivation for working at home? In some cases this is a huge question. Many companies have telework agreements  that specify that the employee must have a child care arrangement outside the home. Often parents in two-worker households want to work at home to reduce child care costs. This can be a problem as a parent can hardly focus on their work and their child at the same time.

On the other hand, workers who drive significant distances may need to cut their transportation costs. Allowing them to work at home all or part of the time can make the difference between keeping them or having them jump to another firm closer to home.

2. Use technology to keep remote workers engaged. The biggest challenge you may have is not connecting them technically, but connecting them emotionally - especially for employees who do not live near you and never get to the office.

Schedule time to talk every day with a remote employee using video conferencing (Skype, OoVoo, Google Hangouts - see earlier Maven missive). You can tell a lot by seeing people when you talk to them.

Individuals become a team when they work together, get to know each other and become invested in each other’s success. Tools like Basecamp, Trello, WebEx, Go To Meeting, do.com or 5pmweb are more collaborative ways of getting work done than the insular silos of working independently on documents and spreadsheets and then merging changes after the fact.

3. How are you doing? Take the time to ask your remote staff if they are doing OK, do they have the tools they need to be successful. Often they will know - perhaps better than you - if there’s something out there they would like to try. If possible, try to accommodate trials, which can often be free, of new software; you may learn something and your remote staff will feel they have been heard.

4. Be cognizant of how other employees interact with the remote staff. It is really hard to feel like part of the team when you work remotely. Make sure that staff meetings are video conferences and that everyone can see everyone. That may mean that employees spend at least part of the staff meeting in front of their laptops or mobiles so they can be seen as well as heard. Find reasons to bring your team together IRL (in real life!) even if it means budgeting a little extra travel money. The investment you make in team building can pay huge dividends in productivity.

The bottom line: You have a huge pool of potential employees. Technology coupled with good management practices and leadership can help you branch out and take advantage of it.