In this guest column, Vivian Maza, chief people officer at Ultimate Software, looks at the best ways to cultivate and engage a remote workforce.
As the workplace has evolved over the last decade, there’s been a top trend shaping the way people work: They spend less time in traditional offices. Employees are now more mobile than ever and technology, alongside shifting social trends, has made working remotely an increasingly effective option for both managers and employees. In fact, the number of virtual workers has risen 115 percent in the last decade, according to a report from Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs. Almost 4 million workers (nearly 3 percent of the U.S. workforce) reported working from home at least half the time in 2015, up from 1.8 million in 2005.
Cultivating a remote workforce, and ensuring your virtual employees feel trusted, valued and a part of your culture, is critical to your company’s long-term success. That’s true for businesses of all sizes and across industries. (At Ultimate Software, about 40 percent of our 4,000-plus employees work virtually.) To attract the best talent—people who have the necessary skills and experience, and who believe in your company mission—you must be willing to hire outside your office locations. Besides being good for business, this flexibility is great for people: Employees who telecommute report lower stress levels and higher productivity.
But even organizations with strong, positive cultures within their office walls face challenges in providing that same great experience to employees everywhere. And, just as inclusion can be hard to foster, managing someone who works a few desks away requires a completely different set of skills than managing someone whose office is the local coffee shop a few states over. Fortunately, with the right practices and tech tools, HR leaders can support, engage and motivate their virtual employees from even thousands of miles away.
Leverage Emerging Communication Technologies
Providing remote employees with the technology needed to turn a spare room into a functioning office is the first step toward both maximizing worker potential and giving them a connection to company headquarters. The key is using tools that make coworkers feel like they’re next door, rather than across the state. Instant messaging, video conferencing and virtual hangouts are becoming more popular, and can be equally effective for collaboration among teams. Video calls are an easy way to keep meetings face-to-face, even at a distance, and taking the extra step to equip your conference rooms will encourage teams to add face-to-face communication to meetings big and small.
Use Social Media to Create a Sense of Community
Social networking sites, as well as internal communities and virtual forums, can be creative venues for managers to provide visible, collaborative feedback and recognition no matter where your employees work. Offering praise for a job well done is always a valuable method of motivating your people, but it’s not just for a conference room. Using social networks to deliver feedback or share ideas helps remote workers remain connected and enables all team members, regardless of location, to see, share and comment together.
If your company has active social channels, leverage them to recognize virtual employees or remote offices. We present our Virtual Office of the Year award to someone whose home office exemplifies our “People First” culture. The announcement is made during a company-wide ceremony in our South Florida headquarters, but we stream it live, so all our employees can participate in the celebration. Creating shareable cultural moments based around remote workers and encouraging your entire company to celebrate them shows your virtual employees they’re as valuable as the team members you see daily.
Make Sure Managers are set up for Success
With an increasingly dispersed workforce, managers experience new challenges as they oversee more remote workers. The relationship between managers and their direct reports is a crucial one—in our recent survey, over half of employees we asked said they’d turn down a 10 percent pay raise to stay with a manager they trust and respect.
So how do you keep the relationship strong, even at a distance? Make sure your leadership development includes strategies for managing remote workers. This includes ensuring managers can access a full range of tools for connecting with virtual employees. Also, encourage ongoing check-ins and conversations among managers and direct reports (whether virtual or in the office). Suggest that managers send weekly kudos emails with recognition for outstanding work, and set up digital channels among teams for sharing funny notes and personal stories to help employees bond.
Keep Your Office Connected Within the Cloud
The rise of cloud technology has had a major impact on the management of remote workers, as it allows all employees to access the information, content and tools they need to remain productive. Among the many benefits that these Software-as-a-Service solutions can offer is a complete reproduction of the office work environment, accessible at any time and from anywhere. Teams can brainstorm and collaborate on documents in real time, managers can receive reminders to schedule one-on-ones with direct reports and employees can complete HR tasks—everything from selecting benefits to viewing pay history to requesting vacation—through self-service portals. Some solutions even offer mobile apps, further extending the power and capability of the virtual employee.
When You Can, Get Everyone Together in Person
Of course, nothing truly compares to meeting, collaborating and connecting with people in person. So, as resources and time allow, gather your employees together for face-to-face meetings. If possible, ensure your teams convene in person at least once a year. Consider also offering virtual meetups for remote workers in various regions across the country. These events can pack all the elements of your culture, from team building to community service, into one or more days of productive collaboration and fun.
Remember: Building a productive and connected virtual workforce won’t always be easy, but it’ll definitely be rewarding for you and your people. As the number of remote workers increases, companies that embrace this influential change stand to benefit for years to come.
Vivian Maza has served as chief people officer at Ultimate Software since 2004. Before then, she was Ultimate’s office manager since the company’s inception in 1990. Prior to joining Ultimate, she was a systems analyst for the wholesale division of ADP. Based in Weston, Fla., Ultimate Software is a sponsor of the HCM Technology Report.
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