The practice of telecommuting—more commonly referred to as “remote work”, is very much on the rise. With remote work trending up, how can companies engage remote employees?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of 2018 more than 26 million of 165 million working Americans were working at home at least part of the time. For employers, remote workers can lead to cost savings and increased productivity, while employees can reduce commuting time and expense and possibly enjoy greater flexibility in their schedule.
Companies that allow remote work experience 25% less employee turnover than companies that don’t. In fact, it’s become such a desirable option that 34% of job candidates say they’d take a 5% pay cut for the opportunity to work remotely at least some of the time.
How to Engage Remote Employees
While there are plenty of benefits related to remote working, it can also be a challenge for remote employees to feel fully engaged with their main office teams. Remote employees cite loneliness, struggles with collaborating/communicating, and difficulty “unplugging” after work as their three top concerns, according to a 2019 survey.
While a majority of companies continue to have main offices where employees work together on-site, some companies are completely cloud-based. Audrey Fairbrother is a marketing manager with Boldy, a subscription remote staffing company with 100% of its 120 employees working remotely across two continents and 23 U.S. states.
“We have a really unique remote culture that we’ve built very strategically,” Fairbrother told The FruitGuys Magazine. “Our main mission is to ensure that ‘remote’ doesn’t feel like ‘alone.’”
She credits Boldy’s success with remote workers to “giving them the environment they need to do an incredible job while also balancing their other life priorities.”
Fairbrother notes that her company employs many people who might be considered a difficult match for more traditional, office-bound 9-to-5 jobs, such as people who are parents or full-time caregivers and military spouses who move on a regular basis. “What we’ve found,” she says, “is when you give these talented people the chance to be in a position that gives them the flexibility to thrive, they utterly shine.”
How can your company make your remote teammates feel, well, more like they’re part of the team? Here are 5 tips to empower and engage remote employees to thrive in their roles and feel the love (remotely).
1. Hire the Right People
Loneliness is one of the biggest struggles remote workers face, along with distractions at home. When making a hire for a remote role, screen for candidates who demonstrate qualities that well help them succeed off-site, such as being self-directed and having strong time management skills. Be sure to set expectations properly about availability requirements, meetings, and HQ visits.
2. Give Them the Tools They Need
In order to thrive and feel relevant, remote workers need to be able to reach teammates and support staff and take part in discussions and meetings in a meaningful way. Thanks to a proliferation of project management and communication tools—such as G-suite, Slack, PukkaTeam, and GoToMeeting, to name just a few—it’s gotten easier than ever to collaborate with colleagues and clients, whether they’re spread across the building or spread around the globe. Make sure that employees are well-trained in how to use all the features of these applications and able take advantage of them.
3. Building Strong Relationships
One downside for remote workers is that they miss out on the random, chance encounters that take place in break rooms, hallways, and other shared workspaces build community and connectedness among co-workers. In the absence of real-world run-ins, make a point to check in regularly with remote employees, and always have part of your conversation touch on non-work topics. Learn more about what matters to them, and what’s going on in their life.
At Boldly, Fairbrother says: “We have team leaders that are there to support our remote team members every step of the way. So if you have a question, concern, or just need help with something, you have someone to go to. Even being remote, our team leaders have built incredible relationships and even friendships with their team members.”
4. Set Clear Expectations
Since difficulty unplugging presents a major challenge for at least 22% of remote workers, be direct about “on” and “off” times, in whatever way makes sense for your team or organization. What are the core hours that you need or expect someone to be available? This can be especially important to coordinate when time zones differ.
Managers and colleagues should have open discussions about team norms and expectations. Technology can be a big help here as well since many programs can display real-time signals for when someone is “on” or available, when they’re in a call or a meeting, and when they’ve stepped away. The better your company is at setting healthy boundaries, the better able your employees will be at maintaining them—and the better they’ll feel about their work.
5. Be Creative
At Boldly, Fairbrother says, “we have this stuffed dog we call “Pugsy.” Pugsy is a physical manifestation of our connectedness. Every month, Pugsy visits a different member of our team at their home. The team member then does a write-up about Pugsy’s visit and gives hints about their home town and our other team members guess where Pugsy has been for a prize. It started as a silly thing, but it has actually led to a lot of camaraderie and connection on our team.”
From time to time, bring remote employees to the mother ship to meet their colleagues in person or for office events. If you don’t have the budget for that, try creating a regular online social meet-up or sending seasonal fruit, company swag, or home office supplies.
For example, The FruitGuys pays for all its workers—remote and on-site—to receive a weekly box of fruit for their personal use.
“Providing our employees with our product for their home use every week not only allows them to experience what our clients are eating, but also helps them and their family stay healthy.” said founder and CEO Chris Mittelstaedt. “Whether it’s The FruitGuys or companies that send our fruit to their remote workers, we all find that having the shared ritual of weekly fruit helps build connection.”
Remote work provides many advantages for employees and employers alike, and the trend of flexible working arrangements is only expected to grow. If remote work is part of your company culture or something you plan to incorporate, it’s important to understand the challenges it can present. But with some thoughtful planning, the right tools in place, and a commitment to strong communication, you can engage remote employees and make them feel valued and included. As a growing number of companies are demonstrating, you don’t have to be in the room to feel like you are part of the team.
Amanda Rebuck is a writer and content specialist who has worked in various industries, including information technology, e-commerce, and finance, as well as staffing and recruiting.