young woman chatting via the webcamThe days of sitting behind a desk are fading fast, a desk inside an office, that is. More and more Americans are turning to the telecommuting lifestyle with an estimated 13.4 million now working from home. And studies predict that by 2020, more than 40 percent (60 million people) of our nation’s workforce will be freelancers, temporary and contract workers. How should employers approach this new rise in contingent labor?

Beth N. Carvin is the CEO of Nobscot Corporation, a global technology firm that focuses on exit interview management software; and as CEO of a predominantly remote workforce, she knows a thing or two about the best practices for hiring, managing and engaging those who telecommute. Check out what tips and insights Carvin offered for those companies currently with or looking to add remote workers:

1. What do you think is the reason behind this new telecommuting trend? Should businesses keep up with it?

There are a variety of things spurring the increase in telecommuting:

  • The recession spurred companies to look at alternatives to expensive office space.
  • More families with two working parents and single-parent households have encouraged companies to create more family-friendly policies to help retain their best employees.
  • The generation that has grown up with the Internet has a different concept of time and space and place.  For this group, relationships are not based on (nor limited by) location. This makes it very natural for young employees to work from anywhere whether it’s the office, home or a local coffee house.
  • Technology has empowered the work-from-anywhere concept. With email, smartphones, tablet computers and other devices, employees can successfully navigate many different types of jobs from home (though it’s not suitable for all jobs).

Should businesses keep up with it? Yes and no.  Managing employees who work remotely is different from managing employees who are right under your nose. When companies move to having more telecommuting employees, they need to be mindful of these differences and learn how to best manage their distant employees.  Otherwise it could negatively impact business. If we look at Yahoo!, clearly new CEO Marissa Mayer felt that the telecommuting employees were not working up to their potential or being managed effectively.  Plus, it can be challenging recruiting employees who will make successful telecommuters.  Although most people are excited about the concept, in reality, there are many who find that once they are working from home, it’s not as glamorous as they had envisioned.

2. What challenges do companies face with having a remote workforce? What obstacles do remote employees encounter?

The main challenges for companies with remote workforces are typically complications in communication, management, team building and extracting peak performance from off-site employees. Managers may have a harder time monitoring and motivating by long distance, which can lead to more errors, less trust, lower productivity and increased employee turnover.

From the remote employee side, the main challenges are usually lost opportunities for job/skill boosters, such as spontaneous learning, non-verbal communication cues, easy bonding with team members, and on-the-spot intervention in the event of a mistake or misunderstanding.

Beth Carvin

Beth Carvin

3. How can employers keep their remote workers engaged?

  1. Maintain continuous communication through multiple channels. Studies have shown that mobile workers need more frequent dialogue than those in the office to absorb new information as well as to feel aligned with the rest of the team. Regular phone meetings, email, and web and video conferencing are obvious choices. Real-time chat, discussion boards, team calendars, interactive whiteboards and other collaborative technologies can help. The efforts will pay off by reducing long-distance misinterpretation and ensuring that everyone is on the same page.
  2. Reinforce training with extra documentation. In addition to more frequent communication, remote employees often need more training support than they get on a conference call or WebEx to compensate for lack of face time. (One study estimated that nonverbal cues convey as much as two-thirds of the content of a message.) Written recaps of information imparted and online Q&As should be used as backup.
  3. Encourage small talk during remote interactions. Since off-site employees lack the benefit of on-site water cooler conversation, phone and video conferences should include time for virtual hallway chatter. This will help establish personal connections and build a team mentality.
  4. Provide a virtual meeting place to further encourage relationship building and information sharing among all-virtual teams and/or between on-site and off-site employees. This can be accomplished through online vehicles like LinkedIn or with your own online group mentoring through programs like Mentor Scout.

5. You are the CEO of a predominantly remote workforce. How do ensure the staff still feels a part of the company while working remotely?

I would not be truthful if I didn’t say it has its challenges. Not only are most of our employees working remotely, they also span a range of time zones.  Luckily for us, the benefits of having great hand-recruited employees who are close to our clients, partners and vendors outweigh the challenges.

We use a variety of strategies to keep in touch, make sure everyone feels like a valued member of the team and to monitor performance results. Some include:

  • Using an encrypted Instant Message program so that all employees have an open-door for others to ask questions at any time or simply say hello.
  • Having an online forum where we share news and information, interesting articles, employee success stories, thank-you’s and congratulations.
  • Holding an annual in-person leadership strategy meeting to help build the personal connections between team members. At this past year’s meeting, we had a variety of projects and exercises, including training activities from Glasstap, to promote team building, enhance communication skills, and practice negotiations. (Including “Sheep Trials” which involved an outside of activity of “farmers” leading their “sheep” through an outdoor course.)

Last, I personally make it a point to keep in touch with all of our staff on a regular basis. I try to be aware of everyone’s interests and areas they would like to grow into. I thank our employees regularly for the work that they do on our behalf. I try to stay aware of what’s happening in our employee’s lives so that we as a company can support them as necessary. And occasionally I provide a one-minute reprimand if needed to hold employees accountable for successful performance.

Interested in learning more? Stay tuned for part 2 of this article where Carvin offers more advice on successfully hiring, managing and engaging remote workers.



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