A work from home arrangement makes sense for both employees and their organizations. Remote employees find working from home convenient, and they save time and money when they don't have to go to the office every day. Organizations can retain competent employees who might otherwise have to leave because of relocation or other personal constraints. And if there’s a lack of talent locally, companies look for it in other cities, saving money on the costs associated with having people in an office.
It definitely looks like a win-win arrangement. But consider this:
“We get left off a lot of things because there are meetings we can't go to for cost reasons. We miss out on those opportunities to get together and bond as a group, and that is tough sometimes. And you do feel like stepchildren sometimes.”—A virtual employee
Being a remote or a virtual employee is not easy, because you may feel excluded from the organizational culture. Interacting with other people, working together toward common goals, and engaging in personal and social conversations fosters camaraderie and a sense of belonging that is necessary for our psychological well-being. In a study by Stanford University, at least 50 percent of employees who previously agreed to work from home went back to the office after 10 months, citing loneliness and lack of social interaction. They also faced communication issues that didn’t make the situation any better.
Should we be worried about this?
If our virtual employees are not engaged, feel isolated, and struggle to stay in touch with peers and managers at the office, it is certainly a cause for worry. If this arrangement is to succeed in the long run, we must engage remote employees. We need to put systems in place to ensure that remote employees form an integral part of day-to-day activities.
Because technology has created virtual employees, we can use the same technology for virtual employee engagement. Here are some ways organizations are tackling the issue:
Communicate Regularly and Seamlessly
To foster a sense of belonging, some organizations make sure that their remote employees meet up physically once a month. While this is certainly helpful, it may not be adequate or, in some cases, possible. Companies can use communications technology to bridge this gap.
- Videoconferencing software: David Mizne of 15Five uses a simple but effective way to combat isolation of remote employees. They meet for 15 minutes using videoconferencing software called Zoomrooms just to catch up on work and personal things. Even if you do not want to invest in videoconferencing tools, you can harness the same benefits with tools like Skype and Google Hangouts.
- Cloud-based messaging apps: Tools such as Slack or HipChat enable virtual team members to stay in touch with the team throughout the day. Aleks Peterson has tried cloud-based messaging applications and gives an overview of their features that can be useful to those considering to use one of them.
- Project management tools: Asana, Dapulse, and Trello are examples of project management tools that help remote teams. Choose a tool based on your organization’s requirements—the key is to ensure that there is a platform where remote employees can virtually meet and exchange notes on a day-to-day basis, instead of communicating through formal emails and phone calls.
Involve Them in Brainstorming and Decision Making
Taking what has been discussed earlier, it is important to involve virtual team members in major decisions pertaining to the project or domain that they are involved in. Moreover, when employees are part of the decision-making process, the execution of the project (or the decision) is likely to be smooth, with a more productive outcome. This also keeps up their motivation and encourages them to stay with the organization.
If your team is small, and language and culture barriers are not a hindrance, you might be comfortable with carrying out these brainstorming sessions over Skype, Google Hangout, or other available conference call options. However, you must consider bandwidth and connectivity issues that might hamper the experience. There are many technological aids for brainstorming exercises as well, from simple Google docs to a more sophisticated application such as MURAL, GroupMap, or Morphological Matrix.
Provide Training and Growth Opportunities
Because remote employees are not physically present at the office, they lose out on informal learning and assimilation of knowledge. Therefore, remote employees need training to upgrade their knowledge and skills.
CommLab India flies its virtual employees to the office once a month for a training program. They are updated on new business developments and critical, job-related information. It is a growing organization, with new employees joining it on a regular basis. This exercise serves as an opportunity for the remote workforce to get to know the new members of their team.
Regular employees who choose to work from home need training to handle the transition. Are they familiar with handling the technological tools that enable them to stay in touch with their colleagues? Do they know what it takes to have flexible work arrangements? Not many employees are trained on these aspects and may find the work-from-home option unviable. For this reason, employees who decide to work from home must be well trained on how to make a smooth transition.
If remote employees are a minority in your organization, it is very easy to forget them and their needs for career progression and development. Create a career growth plan and include them in training programs and growth plans. You could provide options for online certification programs or e-learning programs to upgrade their knowledge and skills, based on changing business needs.
Employee engagement is crucial in any organization. When you have virtual employees as a part of your workforce, it pays to have a well-thought-out engagement policy that ensures good employees are retained and continue to contribute to organizational growth. Thankfully, we have technological resources that make it easy to bridge the gap and eliminate the limitations of working remotely, while reaping its varied benefits. The choice of technology, applications, or methods highly depends on individual organizations. For those who are keen to identify the right method, there is ample choice to suit every budget.