Working remotely, defined as “a situation in which an employee works mainly from home and communicates with the company by email and telephone,”(1) is hardly a new concept. Physicist Jack Niles was designing space vehicles for the US Air Force and NASA in 1973, when he came up with the idea for telecommuting to save his staff valuable time, normally wasted on traveling to work. While the concept is not new, its popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, as technology advances, companies seek to cut over-head and workers strive to improve work-life balance.
In fact, Business Wire reports that by 2020, approximately 72 percent of the total American workforce will be working remotely.(2) As the popularity of deskless employees rises, so do the challenges it creates. Time management, technological hiccups, interruptions and time zone differences are common issues faced by people that work out of their home office, but perhaps the most challenging is adequate communication with the mother office.
Sure, remote workers are regularly emailing and sending in their work, but what about interpersonal relationships? Do they struggle with feelings of isolation, lack of feedback and misunderstood directives, because they work outside of a conventional office? Jason Fried and David Heinemeier explain in their book, Remote: Office Not Required, an example of why communication is such a challenge for remote employees:
“When the bulk of your communication happens via email and the like, it doesn't take much for bad blood to develop, unless everyone is making their best effort to the contrary. Small misunderstandings that could have been nipped in the bud with the wink of an eye, or a certain tone of voice, can quickly snowball into drama.”(3)
In her Zapier blog: The 7 Biggest Remote Work Challenges (and How to Overcome Them), Melanie Pinola writes: “The communication issue is compounded if some of your team works in an office but you don't. You miss all the overheard discussions and cubicle wall meetings…You might feel paranoid that others are having meetings and making decisions without you–and you'd probably be right. Unless the company has built a culture of inclusion for remote workers, you might be out of sight and out of mind.”(4)
So how can companies build this “culture of inclusion” that connects their office staff with their remote workers? There has been much discussion around this topic in recent years, and the most consistent advice centers around using technology to build a sense of community. Video chats are particularly important between workers who seldom, if ever, enjoy meeting face-to-face in person. Companies use Zoom, Skype, Slack or Google Hangouts for regular meetings with remote staff members, and many of them even offer and encourage, the use of open chat rooms that attempt to replace what would be water-cooler chatter in a brick and mortar office.
Tasha “TC” Cooper, President of UpwardAction Media(5), a digital marketing consultancy, and a strong advocate of creating a sense of belonging for remote colleagues writes in a recent Forbes article, “Building community is important to developing an engaged remote workforce. Use technology to create dedicated spaces for celebrating special days (e.g. birthdays), company milestones (e.g., months or years of service), as well as community recognition. Being intentional about creating community helps develop a corporate culture that inspires connection, which can result in increased productivity.”(6)
Susan Walsh, Founder of Sales-Link, Inc. a Sales and Marketing firm for Pharma, Biotech, and Diagnostic industries says, “We use technology to the max at our company. Some like using Slack, Skype, and GoToMeeting and we want everyone to be on video chat. It’s so important to see each other’s face and expressions. It’s a sincere way of doing business and we want our clients to know we are transparent.”
Tonyalynne Wildhaber, of The Courage Practice(7) recommends to “Create a remote workforce atmosphere of engagement and genuine connection. Be intentional in preparing and orienting employees for the remote workforce culture. Establish clear expectations. Make each team meeting count with intentional purpose and opportunities to engage and contribute in a variety of ways. Intentionality is an essential practice, particularly when we cannot readily "see" our people.”
DataCeutics CEO Matt Ferdock believes deeply in the power of corporate philanthropy. “The reciprocal nature of the relationship between philanthropy and business means that doing good and doing well become one and the same,” says Ferdock. He is fond of involving his employees in charitable activities in order to build community. For example, Holiday office parties are always combined with a way to give back, such as arranging for staff to fill backpacks with school supplies for the needy. He believes that encouraging his employees to participate in charity work and social groups, gives them a sense of belonging, and as a whole, makes them happier.
And while remote DataCeutics employees cannot always participate in these group activities physically, they are motivated by photos and blogs shared on the company website and encouraged to contribute in their own way. In fact, Matt Ferdock, and DataCeutics President Paul Gilbert, launched a separate employee website which includes incentive programs that encourage the sharing of sales and marketing ideas, as well as referrals. This open-door opportunity for employees to contribute to the benefit of the whole is a brilliant way to engage remote workers and provide them with a platform where they can be heard.
Our best advice: Do your best to include your remote workers through videos, virtual chat rooms, video conferencing and motivational programs. Use these tools as a way to share the core concepts of your company’s culture, to keep communications clear, and to inspire your people to stay connected and feeling an important part of the whole - whether they work out of the main office, or their home office.