One reason why employers are sometimes reluctant to pursue the potential benefits of having remote workers is that they are worried about lack of employee engagement. To elaborate, a concern for employers is that remote employees won’t identify/connect with the company, its culture, its mission, other team members or with the company’s clients if employees are working from home or from some other out-of-the-office location. Consequently, employers fear that remote employees’ work ethic, work performance, ability to collaborate, dedication to the company or dedication to the company’s clientele will be substandard. In other words, it is a fear that if the company office, employees and customers are out of sight, they will be out of mind.
However there are many potential advantages to small businesses of having out-of-the-office workers, and so before ruling out remote employment, small businesses should consider strategies for maintaining important connections with employees who don’t come to the company’s physical location on a regular basis.
Strategies for Engaging Remote Employees
• Before hiring, identify which job functions are well-suited to remote work and what skills and characteristics an employee needs to possess in order to perform remotely. Hire the right employees for the right remote job functions.
• Understand what metrics are appropriate for evaluating job performance. Ask for, and utilize, employee input in setting goals and objectives. Don’t expect to be micromanaging.
• Hold in-person team meetings periodically. Allow unstructured time for team members to interact, get to know each other, and develop an interest in connecting professionally. While conference calls and video-conferencing can be used to stay in touch between meetings, when possible, they shouldn’t completely replace human interaction.
• Visit remote employees and take time to get to know them. Figure out what communication channels work best for various purposes ranging from quick questions, to emergency situations, to lengthy dialogue about an issue, to sharing a funny story about the day.
• Build trust in both directions and authorize team members to take leadership when appropriate or needed.
• Understand what obstacles they might face and make sure that they have the support and resources that they need, e.g, with respect to technology, access to information, access to professional connections, mentors, finances, and knowing that someone has their back.
• Make effective use of internal social media. Make sure that it is easy to access, attractive, easy to navigate, and that it contains important content for performing job functions such as company policies and procedures. Allowing for interactions between team members based on professional interests can help remote employees develop connections.
• Remember that remote employees are out there working for your business. Make a point of seeing and acknowledging their contributions and achievements. Don’t treat remote employees like they are invisible – out of sight, of out mind can go both ways!
• Put in place professional development and advancement opportunities for remote employees. Feeling like there is no room for development or advancement can undermine motivation.
• Be aware of the potential for burn-out and find ways to mitigate the risk. One of the common characteristics of people who are suited to be remote employees is that they are highly self-motivated. The combination of being goal-driven and working days that don’t have a set ending time can result in a habit of working excessively.
• Remote work is not a viable option for every job function; but for small businesses, when it is a good fit, it can reduce costs, increase the pool of qualified and motivated job candidates, increase productivity, increase coverage area (e.g. time zones covered), reduce employee turn-over, facilitate business continuity, and actually improve employee engagement. So, if offering remote employment might be a good fit for your small business, it is worth considering strategies for cultivating employee engagement.
Laurie Pieper, Ph.D.
Washburn University KSBDC
America’s SBDC Kansas