Not long ago I ran into my friend Bart at the corner Starbucks. Bart has been working from home for a large consulting company for about a year. “How do you like working from home?” I asked. “I like it,” he replied, “But I have to come here for some social stimulation.” As we continued to talk, Bart said he felt as though he was no longer in the loop.
Half of the US workforce holds a job with at least partial telework, the other half would like to telework at some level, and 20-25% of the workforce teleworks at some frequency.*
Who wouldn’t want to have the flexibility? The advantages of working from home abound–less time spent traveling on the road, for starters. Most people desire the perceived freedom that comes with working from home: scheduling their own time, in casual dress with their pets close by.
However, being kept separate from teammates, managers and the conversation at headquarters can take a toll. Employees who work virtually are often unhappy and “on the outside” of their companies in more ways than one. In turn, engagement and productivity are at risk.
So what should people who manage virtual workers do?
According to an Interact Harris Survey,** more than two-thirds of American employees who ever work virtually agree that management needs to communicate better in order to keep them engaged. And 53% of U.S. virtual workers indicate they have to work twice as hard as those in the office to make connections within their organization.
Perhaps most alarmingly, 55% of virtual workers say their boss communicates with them almost exclusively by email. Email ups the probability that people will miscommunicate inadvertently, and people who depend too heavily on email can feel more isolated.
Inspiration must find ways to stay close to employees
In order to keep team members engaged and ensure productivity and growth, leaders who aim to have a personal, authentic voice that initiates change and inspiration must find ways to stay close to employees, no matter how spread out or what size the organization is that they lead. Here are six ways to do that:
Six ways to inspire virtual workers
Blur the lines between technology and personal communication. Create a strategy for a conversational, relationship-based approach to culture that builds a sense of connectedness. Increase the value you put on human-to-human communication.
HUMANIZE CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS
Avoid sending out over-vetted, impersonal documents that feel more institutional than human. Speak with simplicity and clarity. Tell personal stories. Invite feedback, listen, and respond.
BUILD GENUINE, PERSONAL CONNECTIONS
Managers should call virtual employees on a monthly basis and see if they have what they need to be their best. Going further, send a daily thought to employees, or post regular video messages on the intranet.
Pare down the number of people on project teams to allow for intimacy and trust. What virtual workers often lack is the satisfaction of what it means to be a part of a trusting team of people connected by purpose. Bring a virtual team together twice a year to reconnect face-to-face. Use this time to decide how the team wants to work and communicate with one another.
DISCOURAGE AN EMAIL-ONLY CULTURE
Employees are wasting hours managing email that does nothing to build connections much less trust. Consider “No Email Fridays” and “No Email Weekends” for virtual teams. Use Skype and encourage members to pick up the phone for real conversations. It’s important for teams to see each other on videoconference regularly. The standard-issue, audio-only conference call is unsatisfying and draining. We are not influenced and don’t feel engaged by disembodied mediums that allow us to multitask.
BE INCLUSIVE AND LESS HEADQUARTER-CENTRIC
In general, the farther employees are from the home office, the less prioritized they feel. Take this into consideration. For example, pay attention to different time zones and vary meeting times. Recognize the great work being done by virtual employees to the entire organization.
It’s time to take thoughtful inventory of virtual workforces to avoid paying the human and financial cost of separateness.
We cannot forget our most basic, core goal in business: To create connections and relationships. Today’s frontier is not the technology required to run a global company–it is applying technology while bringing along the nurturing, engaging aspect of human communication.