Understanding why remote workers are more engaged can help your entire staff

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One of the trends spurred by the widespread adoption of mobile technology and cloud services is working away from the office. This can mean working at home after hours and it can mean working while traveling for business (or vacation). Increasingly, however, it means working almost exclusively in a home office, shared office space that's separate from the rest of your organization, a coworking space, or any other location.

When I started my career as a writer just over fifteen years ago, I remember family members being flabbergasted that the Internet allowed me to work full time from home. Things have changed dramatically over those fifteen years and working remotely, or "teleworking" as the federal government dubs it, has become increasingly common. In fact, the federal government, an employer that is virtually synonymous with bureaucracy that moves just faster than continental drift, uses the term telework because it actively encourages the practice where it's feasible.

One of the presumed challenges of managing a remote workforce is that keeping everyone engaged, on target, and productive is harder than if they're all on the same space. I've never subscribed to that belief, but then again I've spent a pretty significant time working remotely (I'm even doing it at this moment while I write this.

It turns out that belief is often a fallacy.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review blog, business consultant Scott Edinger recently told the story of a company that discovered, to its surprise, that remote workers were more engaged and more in touch with their supervisors than employees that worked in the same office. Although the difference was small, it was still significant and worth noting.

Edinger identified four points that explain the phenomenon:

  • Proximity breeds complacency. If easy water cooler discussions are available, employees tend to take such commonplace interactions for granted while remote employees value personal interactions more and are more apt to take better advantage of facetime, phone calls, internal social media connections, and so forth than their in-office peers.
  • Absence makes people try harder to connect. If one of your closest friends moves to a new city, you might find yourself making extra efforts to maintain contact after they move. The same is true in business. Remote workers are often more inclined to schedule weekly check-in calls, follow-up more stringently on emails, and work to preserve as much connection to their supervisors and colleagues as possible. Often, managers of remote staff also make it a point to reach to those staff members on a regular basis to make sure they feel connected and part of the team, which they may not do for workers outside their door because of the physical proximity.
  • Leaders of virtual teams make a better use of tools. Managers of remote workforces are more in touch with the range of communications tools that can deliver a sense of connection. Often that means phone and email, but it also includes instant messages, chat rooms, texting, social media, Skype or other video chat systems, and other tools. These tools can actually create deeper impact than managers that interact primarily in conversations around the office. They can also provide an easy reference of past communications in the form of email chains, saved texts, and instant message logging.
  • Leaders of far-flung teams maximize the time their teams spend together. When time for in-person meetings is rare, it's natural to make the most of it. Managers and workers that see each other only quarterly (or even less often) want to cover a lot of ground and don't want to waste time with distractions. That means in-office meetings, sharing a lunch, or meetings outside of the office tend to be much more focused. If you know you can address a point with a brief stop in someone's cube, it's easier to step out of a meeting to take a phone call or handle a task.

All of those are excellent points.

But they don't need to apply just to remote workers. All of the practices that make remote workers more engaged can be incorporated for in-office staff as well. Here's a quick list of some ways to make that happen.

  • Use multiple communication options. Skype might be absurd for people in the same office, but instant messages and social media (particularly social networks that are internal to the company) are excellent options.
  • Schedule check-in meetings. If it's common to schedule a weekly check-in call with a remote worker, why not extend that same courtesy to employees onsite?
  • Keep meetings distraction-free. Keeping meetings, official staff meetings or impromptu discussions, focused and on track makes the meetings more appealing and keeps them only as long as they need to be.
  • Plan multiple forms of interactions. Instead of the stuffy conference room, schedule a meeting over lunch at a local restaurant or even outdoors in a nearby park. Set aside a volunteer day working in a soup kitchen, build homes for Habitat for Humanity, or participating in a walkathon. Just as people learn differently, they also engage with each other differently.
  • Encourage working remotely. If it's feasible, encourage staff to work remotely on a regular basis. Working from home every day might not be an option, but one week each month or one day each week is probably doable in most workplaces with today's technologies.
  • Embrace coworking. Consider a corporate membership with a coworking space - particularly one that offers access to other spaces in different cities as part of its membership features. That works for allowing in-office workers to work remotely as well as for employees in other cities to still have an office space beyond their home or coffee shop.

In the end technology and remote working options can help engage all employees, but it requires effort and initiative to make such plans a success.  

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