Ensuring an enriching experience for remote employees

With the labor market as tight as it is, employers are feeling pressure to learn about the employee experience–what it’s like for individuals to be employees of their organization. This knowledge enables employers to create an enriching employment experience that attracts, engages and retains talent.

The remote employee experience can be difficult to assess. The successes and struggles of remote employees are less easily observable, and the experience may be unique within the organization. It’s for exactly those reasons, however, that managers need to be especially intentional in how they manage their remote employees’ experiences.

For many organizations, managing remote employees is new ground. For others, it’s a labor model that’s becoming increasingly prolific. Here are three simple guidelines managers can follow to ensure remote employees have a successful experience, whether they’re just starting out or increasing their remote workforce.

  1. It’s all about trust.

Remote employees typically expect a relatively high degree of autonomy because, in most cases, they do their day-to-day work unsupervised. No manager is on site to make sure they’re at their desk or workstation when they’re supposed to be. They could go for a walk, run an errand or take a nap, with their absence likely going unnoticed.

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Fortunately, managing the performance of remote employees doesn’t require anything special. Managers can inspire trust by establishing clear performance expectations, implementing transparent ways to measure performance and instituting regular check-ins to keep an active dialogue with the employee. Evaluations and even corrective action help build trust when employees know what to expect, when they see that individuals are held accountable for their actions and when they understand how excellence is rewarded.

Put simply: Managers and their remote employees are most successful when there’s clear agreement on “what” needs to be accomplished, and the employee is empowered and entrusted to solve “how” it will be accomplished.

  1. Invest in collaboration tools–and training.

Technology has closed the gap between in-person and technology-enabled communication. Video conferencing, messaging apps and high-speed internet enable people to have effective meetings across multiple locations.

Nevertheless, a significant amount of interpersonal data is lost when people are only communicating through technology. Most commonly, people express frustration about not being able to fully “read” the room. Subtle facial expressions, tone changes, body language and context can be difficult to catch and interpret, even over video conference.

More and more employers are investing in conferencing technology. The challenge is that, often, managers assume the work ends once the camera and conference line are installed.

On their own, conferencing tools can enable communication with remote employees, but they will not fully engage those employees. Managers need to couple the technology with training their teams on how to conduct productive and inclusive meetings that engage all participants.

For phone conferencing, the techniques include ensuring that all meeting participants are introduced, that speakers regularly pause to allow dialogue, and that whoever is facilitating the meeting proactively checks in with remote employees–for instance, by asking them if they have anything to add.

For video conferencing, the same techniques can be supplemented by ensuring that meeting participants sit close to and face the camera and that lighting is sufficient to see people’s faces.

By investing in both collaboration technology and some simple training on how to fully utilize it, managers will set both their remote and local teams up for success.

  1. Build a remote-accessible workplace.

In most workplaces, people don’t have to go out of their way to interact with their colleagues. Whether they are structured or informal, planned or accidental, employees within an office have opportunities to engage each other, even if it’s with only a smile, a high five or a few minutes of small talk. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh refers to these events as “collisions”–serendipitous encounters that build culture, engagement and innovation.

But these exchanges, even if purely social, may be absent from the remote employee experience. Workers without close friends at work are more at risk of feeling forgotten, ignored and lonely, which can harm their health, diminish their productivity and further disengage them from their co-workers.

Managers need to begin by making their local offices transparent to their remote team members. Often, managers fear that remote employees will become envious or feel left out if they see the activities, events and interactions occurring at the local office. But most remote employees say the opposite: They love to see the positive activities occurring within an office. An impromptu lunch celebration doesn’t make a remote employee angry; it makes that employee proud to be part of a company and team that celebrate each other.

If done within a broader context of positive engagement, enabling remote employees to see these activities, whether by announcing them in a public way or live streaming them on the company intranet, builds a remote team member’s sense of belonging.

A manager’s next step is to not only share the office experience with remote employees, but to proactively invite remote employees into this experience. Bringing remote employees on site periodically, sending them treats to open at the same time local employees are celebrating or creating platforms for remote employees to engage in companywide initiatives, such as through committees or task forces, can all further enrich the remote experience.

Managers should also regularly check in with their remote employees and encourage their team members to do the same, even if there’s nothing business-related to discuss. If there is business to discuss, it’s important to make time for personal, friendly conversations as well. Of course, communication goes both ways, and remote employees need to take initiative too, reaching out to their co-workers and fellow remote employees.

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Remote work is not for everyone but, for employees and employers who can make it work, it has valuable benefits. For employees, it offers increased flexibility and autonomy, reduces commuting costs and empowers them to be productive in the environment of their choice. For employers, a remote workforce expands the available labor market, enables the employer to efficiently serve clients and customers across multiple time zones and diversifies labor costs. It can also be a valuable way to retain valuable talent, such as new parents or those balancing work and elder care.

The challenges of remote work shouldn’t deter employers from investing in a remote workforce. Like everything else, remote work just needs to be managed proactively, which starts with understanding the remote employee experience.

Nathan Christensen will speak on these and other topics at Select HR Tech, a new conference debuting this summer from the creators of Human Resource Executive® and the HR Technology Conference & Exposition®. The event will be held June 9-11 in Las Vegas. For more information, visit selecthrtech.com.