More and more people are working without being at work.
The phenomenon goes under the name of remote or virtual worker, or the buzzier (and more independent) “digital nomads.” But it’s prompting a new question — how to keep them engaged?
Remote working is an increasingly hyped-up work-arrangement setup made possible by laptops and a steady Internet connection — whether it’s grabbed via home wifi or slurped from an open access point in a library, coffee shop or even a beach by way of a portable hotspot.
To be sure, a lot of the press about digital nomads is about freelance writers, developers and entrepreneurs running online businesses or startups of their own. (When they’re not surfing, snorkelling or hiking, of course. Not jealous.)
But they’re not alone. In fact, working from offsite has long been known under its less-flashy name: telecommuting. Telecommuting — a term coined back in the mainframes-and-time-sharing days of the 1970s — is usually thought of as more part-time remote work rather than the weeks- or months-away situation of the “nomads.”
Call it what you want, but a not-insignificant chunk of the US workforce — 2.6 percent — telecommute for at least half of their work time, according to Global Workplace Analytics.
One reason that workplaces continue to give thumbs-up to the remote/virtual/nomadic worker option is that remote workers really do get things done.
A huge study of nearly 25,000 IBM employees dotted across 75 countries looked at workers with flexible schedules and also the remote-work option in terms of the “breaking point” when their weekly workload began to sabotage work-life balance (i.e., the stress became too much).
The revelation here was that those with the remote-work option could clock 57 hours a week before losing work-life balance, while those working regular schedules tapped out at 38 hours. That’s 50 percent more additional work done by remote staff versus in-office ones — a huge amount of extra productivity and results.
In terms of hours tallied, Gallup reports that remote workers contribute four more hours of work each week than office dwellers do. And the pollster found that away-work isn’t so unusual, with four out of 10 saying they spend some time each week doing it.
Some notable virtual-worker companies include Automattic Inc, the makers of WordPress, who are massively committed to virtual, with employees spread across 141 cities and 28 countries (there’s even a book about it). The reason this works so well for them is the company’s culture, decentralized nature and use of digital tools, such as email alternatives and chat rooms.
But other, non-startup companies have also bought in to virtual work and telecommuting. AT&T, Deloitte and American Express are some notables here.
Regardless of what you call them, outside-office workers have a lot of unique characteristics compared to the cubicle-and-desk ones.
The big one here? From a manager’s perspective, they’re no longer a part of the countless little interactions — including small chat — with superiors and coworkers that fill out the workday. These take the form of the unscheduled exchanges on tasks, or brief how’s-it-going chats. All told, these touchpoints contribute to an employee’s level of engagement.
But just because someone is getting the job done remotely doesn’t mean that word — engagement — can be taken out of the equation like a no-longer-needed cubicle and parking space. It still matters.
When faced with the curveball of virtual workers, how do you keep them engaged and prevent their non-office environment (whether that’s their home or their favourite coffee shop/outside-country new work locale) from contributing to waning commitment? Out of site does not mean out of mind here. Remote workers require some different approaches to employee engagement.
Communicate with video, not audio
Eye contact is a must. Video — over audio — offers face-to-face interaction that does more to maintain relationships over disembodied phone calls. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of video platforms right now that make for easy one-on-one conversations or bringing someone into a meeting with screensharing.
Have fast daily check-ins
These are called scrums in the startup world. Basically, they’re a 5-minutes-each-morning ritual where team members quickly say what they did the day before, and what they plan to do today in quick outline-style form. These are great for keeping people on track and getting them thinking about their immediate tasks and objectives.
Don’t let those working remotely miss out. Even if the connection straddles time-zones, set up a regular time where the off-site worker gives their team a quick briefing on their workflow and accomplishments (even small-scale ones).
Keep remote workers in the loop with the right tools
File this one under “O” for Obvious. There are numerous platforms that will tie workers together regardless of distance — GitHub is a great way for developers to stay on the same (code) page, Google Documents/Office365 for document sharing and collaboration, Dropbox/Google Drive/OneDrive for files and Skype or Google Hangouts for video conferencing to name but a few.
There are a lot of good internal comms tools, like Slack, and project-management software like Trello (two we use here at SoapBox to great effect, along with Google video chat — and our CMO lives in Seattle!).
Have biweekly/monthly status meetings
If you don’t already do this, consider it an extension of the daily check-in. Semi-regular status update meetings don’t have to be as bland as they can sound (the phrase “status update meeting” is largely to blame). A biweekly how’s-it-going to keep people on track is just as important for virtual workers as physical ones.
Perhaps more so. If the outside-office employee is telecommuting or not far away, getting them into the office to join the team for this meeting is also an excellent move. Parallel to this are monthly 1:1 meetings between the employee and their immediate superior, an on-course check-in that doesn’t have to fall by the wayside with offsite employees.