Remote Work Still Works, If It’s Managed Correctly

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Jun 14, 2017

The idea that remote workers are good for businesses is at a crossroad. On the one hand, more American employees are working remotely. A Gallup survey released in February 2017 showed that 43 percent of U.S. employees now spend at least some time working out of the office, which is an uptick of 4 percent since 2012.

On the other hand, a number of large U.S. companies are telling their remote workers to get back to the office. In May, IBM — which had been a pioneer in the remote-workforce movement — announced that it will no longer allow thousands of its employees to work from home. Bank of America and Aetna also are curtailing their telecommuting workforce. In 2013, Yahoo made headlines when it ordered staff to return to their cubicles.

Most of these companies cite the same reason for their back-to-the-office moves: It’s important to gather employees in a central location to foster teamwork and innovation now more than ever.

It’s called the “water cooler effect.” It’s the notion that many of the best insights and ideas arise during casual encounters between people in the hallway, out at lunch and, yes, in conversations around the water cooler.

IBM’s chief marketing officer, Michelle Peluso, said in an internal video message to employees that the company’s reversal of course was all about teamwork, according to a story in the Register. “There is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and, frankly, hopefully having more fun when they’re shoulder to shoulder,” she reportedly said. “Bringing people together creates its own X factor.”

It sounds reasonable.

Conversely, there’s research that suggests people work better when they can work from home. Strategy firm Global Workplace Analytics looked at more than 4,000 remote workforce studies and concluded that the advantages surpassed the drawbacks by a two-to-one margin. It found telecommuting increases worker productivity, engagement, collaboration, and retention, while also helping organizations save money.

Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report found that engagement rises when employees divide their days between home and the office. The study showed that the highest engagement happens when employees spend 60 percent to less than 80 percent of their workweek offsite.

Gallup’s survey estimated the reason this is so is that employees like balance. They work well remotely but still want to interact at the office and feel part of the team. “All employees who spend at least some (but not all) of their time working remotely have higher engagement than those who don’t ever work remotely,” the study said.

The question many organizations with remote workers are considering now is, “Should we bring our employees back to the office?”

My advice: Not so fast.

Regardless of where your organization’s workforce is, one fact remains: People need to be set up for success, personally and for the benefit of the organization. After all, organizations must consider what they can do to help bring out the best in people and maintain high levels of engagement on an ongoing basis. There are effective strategies to ensure that your remote employees are efficient and productive. Here are a few to consider:

Connect individual work to company goals. It’s easy for remote employees to drift away from the big picture of what the organization is trying to achieve. You can guard against this if you consistently remind people that their work is important to your organization’s overall objectives. In return, you’ll get people focused on the things that matter, which will increase employee engagement and productivity. Regardless of where your team members are, they’ll feel they’re vital contributors.

Create opportunities for workers to share ideas. Every time employees chat in person, the interactions can create sparks of inspiration. But these moments of brilliance can also happen among remote workers. Use communication and file-sharing platforms to help make conversing easier between employees.

Manage by objectives. Managers always worry that their employees might be goofing off at home instead of working. Manage by objectives and you can ensure that high-quality work is getting done. Establish expectations and do it in collaboration with your employees. Because when goal setting is a cooperative process, workers have a sense of ownership and are more likely to feel a connection to the projects and people they’re working with. Then, regularly evaluate employees based on their output. Trust your people to handle their responsibilities while coaching them as needed.

Include remote employees in training programs. Remote workers will be more productive when they feel included. And they will feel included when involve them in learning and development opportunities. Make sure your managers and team leaders remember remote workers when selecting employees to participate in learning and development activities. Offer remote staff opportunities for professional development by inviting them to participate in online courses and webinars. Bring them to trade shows and conferences located close to where they are.

Encourage daily interaction. Regular, informal communication builds the relationships that are critical to successful teamwork. Block out a few minutes at the start of meetings for employees to chat with each other about topics not related to work. If you have the budget, pay for occasional trips to the head office, holiday gatherings, or to annual conferences. Use video conferencing whenever possible. Encouraging face-to-face interactions allows individuals to feel a part of the team in meeting when they are not present in an office.

Provide continuous, real-time feedback. Everyone needs frequent, timely feedback on their performance to know how they’re performing. Many industry-leading companies –including GE, Adobe, and Microsoft — have ditched the annual performance review in favor of informal check-ins and continuous coaching. Even if your company isn’t ready to take the plunge and abandon the formal annual performance review process, managers should still provide frequent, real-time feedback to employees on their performance.

Teach your staff the boundaries of remote work. It’s easy for any employee to feel like they always have to be “on” because of how connected to their work thanks to technology. But that’s a quick way for people to burn out. Set up parameters for communication, work hours, sharing documents, monitoring progress, and handling issues. Some fine tuning should be expected, especially in the early stages, as you build toward a mutually beneficial work arrangement.

Regardless of where workers are physically located, the ultimate goal is to help them be as successful as possible. That includes communicating with employees regularly, keeping them engaged and allowing them to continuously learn. In a dynamic and rapidly changing business environment, a thoughtful talent management strategy can be the engine that enables strategic talent initiatives to take flight. It becomes, in effect, the engine of change, enabling organizations to engage their employees and empower them to grow and thrive.