Depending on which direction you are facing, the telecommuting pendulum is either swinging toward you or away from you. While some companies are reeling workers back to the mothership, even to all-the-rage, so-called agile workplaces, the fact remains that the majority of workers, 80-90% according to Global Workplace Analytics, would like the ability to work from home at least part of the time. Millennials are demanding it or going to companies that will accommodate their preferred work style.
Headquartered in Atlanta — home to Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines and the worst traffic this side of the Mississippi — my company decided the best way to recruit and retain a diverse, top-notch team was to allow for a remote workforce. Seventy-five percent of our employees work from home (or their local coffee shop) the majority of the time. This works out great, mostly. But here is what we found: People were feeling disconnected in their virtual environments. Just as with couples in long-distance relationships, for employers and remote workers to remain engaged — that is, interested, committed and enthusiastic about one another — both sides must be flexible and adapt to the other’s needs.
As an employer, having disengaged employees can be just as damaging, if not more so, than losing your biggest clients. The latest Gallup poll to measure employee engagement found it at only 34% — ouch. In its 2017 "State of the American Workplace" report (download required), Gallup estimates disengaged employees cost U.S. employers between $483 billion and $605 billion each year in lost productivity. For the curious, there are even disengagement calculators to help you determine how many tens of thousands of dollars your disengaged workers are costing you every year.
As CEO, the cost of not having engaged employees is a price — in human and coin currency — I am not willing to pay. Here are some intentional actions we have found effective in boosting engagement for workers, whether they are across town or across the country.
1. Scheduled engagement: For us, scheduled engagement comes in the form of a companywide conference call every Monday morning so the entire team can be included in a discussion of what is on the front burner. Our size allows us to do this, but other organizations should adjust according to theirs. Also, schedule a set day each month (in our office it's the third Thursday) as an in-office workday for everyone, if possible. This idea came from a team member, and now people look forward to actually coming into work and engaging with one another. The water cooler is buzzing.
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2. Choose engaging tech tools: The whole reason telecommuting works so well is that technology allows us access to the information we need to do our jobs away from the office. That’s great. But now we need technology that helps keep us engaged — not just connected — even when we are out of the office. Group emails are not the answer. There are a lot of options out there, but beware of introducing too many tech platforms. Choose a platform that is accessible to anyone and that can provide an interactive way to share news, celebrate accomplishments and update the team on important initiatives. We recently implemented Workplace by Facebook, and I look forward to continuing to maximize engagement with this tool.
3. Invest in face time: It’s obvious but can be elusive. People get busy. They travel. It can be tempting to simply touch base by phone — which leaders of remote teams should already make a point to do regularly, and it does have value. But there really is no substitute for good, old-fashioned face time. In addition to a monthly in-office workday, schedule monthly one-on-ones with each of your direct reports.
4. Make personal connections: This can be done in person, through technology or through company-sponsored events (or preferably all the above). The point is, make an effort to get to know your team members as people with families and outside interests, not just as employees. I love seeing pictures of my employees' families on social media and learning about adventures and milestones. When a colleague posted they lost their family dog, we were able to send a memorial plaque for their garden. Plan regular occasions to connect outside the work environment as you bond while serving your communities or celebrating a holiday. None of us are work bots, and we shouldn’t treat each other that way.
5. Discuss work preferences before you hire: We have learned that while many employees do appreciate the remote work option, others prefer being surrounded by co-workers each day. To keep everyone engaged, it is important for us to be aware of people’s preferences before we hire. Ask questions like:
• Have you ever worked remotely before? If so, how did you like it?
• Do you have a home environment that is conducive to working from home?
• What would be your biggest challenge working from home?
• What methods of communication do you like best (face-to-face, email, phone call, etc.)?
My experience has been that workers are more productive when they can work from home and spend extra time with their families instead of in traffic. While operating with a remote workforce does bring challenges, it also brings a work-life balance that satisfies our wants and our needs.