Engaging the remote worker

Recruitment, communication, performance management all part of strategy when it comes to engaging virtual employees
By Maysa Hawwash
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/06/2014

As Canadian cities struggle to keep up with ever-increasing traffic congestion and growing demands on infrastructure, employers are responding by offering employees a less-stressful alternative that cuts back on commuting — flexible work arrangements.

The benefits of telecommuting range from the obvious — increased time to spend working, lower stress levels and transportation costs — to benefits not often considered, such as improved productivity, lower absenteeism, lower corporate real estate costs, child-care savings and a smaller carbon footprint.

But telecommuting is no easy task, and employee engagement is a particular challenge. Engaging these virtual employees should be part of a broader strategy supported by top executives. Consider the following areas:

Recruitment

If a company offers and encourages telecommuting, hiring employees with the right core competencies is critical to ensure they have the flexibility and autonomy required to be successful. The same applies when hiring virtual leaders since they need to engage their teams without regularly connecting with them on a face-to-face basis.

Using personality assessments in the hiring process allows employers to define core competencies and measure fit while, most importantly, understanding the developmental needs and creating meaningful development programs.

Communications gap

A lack of communication is often seen as a top contributor to poor employee engagement. Effective communication is even more critical when dealing with virtual employees. They tend to require shorter, more frequent communication and faster turnaround.

Leaders need to keep virtual employees updated on company news and find ways to recreate those small, informal interactions that often happen in the hallways or the cafeteria.

Special attention should be paid to providing virtual employees with quick answers to their questions so they can stay focused on their work and maintain momentum.

Being physically separated from the office and their colleagues, virtual employees can become less motivated and more frustrated if they are not provided with the timely information they need to complete tasks and projects.

Performance management

When it comes to remote employees, the management focus should definitely be on results versus activities. It is also important to set performance goals in collaboration with remote employees.

Feedback on their performance should be provided frequently and as part of a continuous process to maintain a strong connection. And recognition for good performance should also occur often, using different media such as emails or phone calls.

Team

Although virtual employees enjoy a certain level of autonomy, being part of a team and contributing to the broader group is an engagement driver. Consider implementing virtual meetings and events where employees are given an opportunity to learn more about their peers and interact with each other.

Online gamification is a great tool for increasing employee engagement, giving remote employees an opportunity to interact with teammates and other employees. Social networking and online forums can also help boost a team atmosphere.

Face-to-face interaction

Relationships that are strengthened through face-to-face interactions can promote effective virtual work. Leaders should make employee events and in-person meetings part of their engagement strategy.

These “real” interactions should be planned to ensure the right amount of exposure, with the right people, in order to facilitate relationship-building and create a greater sense of belonging.

Avoiding burnout

Special consideration should be given to helping virtual employees avoid burnout. Burnout can occur for a number of reasons: conflicting time zones; difficulties drawing clear boundaries between work and personal life; a feeling of isolation from the company and co-workers; and a lack of informal social conversations that occur over breaks in the traditional workspace.

Employee support programs such as EAPs (employee assistance programs) can also help remote employees manage work-life balance more effectively, with a range of services including counselling, time management strategies and subsidized fitness programs.

It is important to understand that virtual work is not for every employee or employer, and companies can’t move to virtual work overnight. Addressing the engagement of remote employees should be part and parcel of a broader employment branding and engagement strategy — companies can’t rely on technology alone to achieve the higher productivity and savings expected from introducing virtual work.

Most importantly, leaders should know their employees well and on a personal level in order to appreciate what is important to each individual and create a supportive and positive environment.

Maysa Hawwash is national manager of talent management solutions at Drake International in Toronto. She can be reached at (416) 216-1067 or mhawwash@na.drakeintl.com.

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