Working from home, hundreds of miles away from your boss, may sound like a perk, but that’s not always the case.
Ken Condren remembers the moment when he experienced the frustration his remote employees face. He was working from home, participating in a conference call and heard a side conversation going on, but had no idea what was being said. “I felt so out of the loop,” Condren recalls.
Today, businesses want the talent they want – and are more willing to hire or retain someone to fill a job even if they live or move thousands of miles away. Yet even with a great number of employees working remotely, nobody wants to be that guy who doesn’t get the inside joke during a conference call.
When the success of a team depends on the people, and all the people are scattered, it’s the manager who must make sure relationships stay vital and productivity high. Getting the most out of remote workers takes a manager who knows how to motivate and communicate from a distance. “Virtual workers still need a personal connection,” says strategic business futurist Joyce Goia, president of The Herman Group. “They want camaraderie and to feel like they are part of a team.”
More managers are using technologies such as videoconferencing, instant messenger and other collaborative software to help make remote workers feel like they are “there” in the office. Not being able to speak face-to-face can quickly be solved with Skype, Face Time or simple VoIP systems.
Condren, vice president of technology at C3/CustomerContactChan-
nels in Plantation, uses Microsoft Lync to connect virtually with a team spread across geographies and time zones. Employees see a green light on their screen when a colleague is available, signaling it’s a good time to video chat or instant message. Instead of meeting in physical conference rooms, team members get together in a virtual work room where they can hold side conversations during conference calls or meet in advance to prepare for the call. “You lose the visibility of waving hands during an in person meeting, but we can build that with virtual workspaces.”
Beyond that, Condren says he holds weekly video conference calls with his staff to help his remote workers become better team players. He also sets aside 45 minutes to an hour each week to check in with his remote workers. “It’s a little extra effort to make sure they are giving me the updates that happen casually in the office.”
Condren says adapting to a virtual workforce has allowed him to hire talent in any geographic market with the skill set he wants. And he has been able to hire them at competitive salaries.
In the current economy, such flexibility can be critical for a company looking to attract top talent. CareerBuilder’s Jennifer Grasz says the recession has created a less transient workforce, making it difficult for workers to sell their homes and relocate. “Employers are turning to remote work opportunities to navigate the skills deficit.”
Even from a distance, managers say there are ways to hone in on remote workers who are having problems. Billie Williamson managed virtual teams as a partner for Ernst & Young and would focus on the tone of someone’s voice during a group conference call. She would even listen for silences. “Silence can mean consent, or it can mean the person you’re not hearing disagrees or is disengaged.” If she sensed a team member was lacking engagement, she would follow up immediately.