Working with Remote Team Members

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Kathy Madison, Comtech Services

The topic of the March CIDM management round table discussion was about managing and working with remote team members. We defined a remote worker as someone who works outside of a traditional office, such as, an employee who works from home, as opposed to a distributed team member who works at a different corporate site. For the most part, our discussion focused on working with remote and part-time telecommuters but many of the management ideas brought forth are also appropriate for working with distriubuted team members.

According to the State of Workplace report from 2016, only 19% of employers offer a formal telecommuting benefit, though 43% of workers in the same survey reported they work from home some of the time.  About a third of the members on the call reported having remote employees, some were considering it while a few were part of organizations that don’t allow for telecommuting of any kind.

There are many benefits to having remote employees. The study showed that 66.6% of companies allowing remote workers reported an increase in productivity while 80% of remote workers surveyed reported higher morale, 82% felt less stress, 76% were willing to work overtime and felt more loyal to their company, and 80% reported a better work-life balance. Members on the call mentioned that when you have a work-from-home policy it is easier to bring on good talent, especially in a competitive hiring situation and it allows you to retain an existing high contributing employee if that employee wants to relocate.

Of course, there are challenges with having a remote work force. Members stated it’s difficult to build relationships and remote employees do miss out on the impromptu conversations and whiteboard discussions. And in some cases, remote writers don’t get the hands-on experience with the products they are supporting making it difficult to write detailed technical content. Interestingly, the survey reported that 52% of remote workers feel their onsite colleagues don’t treat them equally, 64% think that colleagues make changes to projects without warning them, and 84% say that it takes a few days or more to resolve problems.

To overcome these challenges, members on the call had some great tips and best practices.

  • To increase collaboration & build relationships:
    • Use technology whenever possible to bring remote workers into the conversation, i.e. Videoconferencing, Skype, Slack, WebEx, etc…
    • Schedule regular virtual gatherings where remote workers are encouraged to “shoot the breeze” and get to know their fellow remote workers and in-house counterparts.
    • Make it the responsibility of the remote workers to be pro-active and reach-out to in-house team members; over time, the in-house team members will start to reciprocate.
    • Make the remote workers feel a part of on-site social events in creative ways, i.e. if you are having a pizza lunch” or an after-work gathering, have a pizza delivered to remote worker’s house or send them a gift-card for a local restaurant. Consider setting up video-chat with local attendees and the remote workers during the event, even if it is for a short time.
  • To increase efficiency and ensure a successful remote worker program
    • Set goals and objectives the same for in-house and remote workers.
    • Publicize work-hours and set rules of engagements, i.e. if a remote employee is on an un-scheduled phone call or not available during regular work hours, have them set their chat status to “busy” and if possible to something like “busy but expect to be available at 1pm”.
    • Provide a common working space for remote workers to use when they are able to be on-site.
    • Establish routines and policies for specifically workers who are part-time telecommuters, i.e. remote workers within driving distance that must be in the office at least 2-3 times a week and must attend group meetings in-person once a month.
    • Establish boundaries around email response expectations, i.e., have reasonable “work-hours” for each employee and don’t expect workers to respond to emails outside of those hours. Note: shortly after our roundtable discussion, someone on LinkedIn started a discussion on “Could off-hour work email be banned?”, take a look at the responses, they are quite varied and humorous.

If you are considering establishing a telecommuting policy at your work place, you should also consider the characteristics of a successful remote worker. Besides the obvious traits, such as, the ability to work independently, be disciplined and be a self-starter, they have to be pro-active, not be afraid to ask questions, be tech-savvy and be able to establish rapport with others without meeting them face-to-face.

It’s not clear if the telecommuting trend is on the rise or decline, especially with companies like IBM who are dissolving their remote worker programs and many other companies who are no longer covering the expenses of the internet and phone of their remote employees. Regardless of what the trend is, you’ll want a good strategy to ensure remote workers feel a part of the team in order for them to excel and for your organization to get the best results.