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Integrating Remote Employees Well
by David C. Baker
Not too many years ago it was unheard of to have an employee telecommute, primarily because the technology wasn’t yet available to make it feasible. When the technology caught up and the IT boom was also attracting some of the best employees, it was not only possible to work remotely, but some prospective employees demanded it. The power had swung in their direction, and so some employers reluctantly agreed to see if they could make it work.
Over time, the employees loved it (mostly), but the employers didn’t. Having a remote workforce required more cultural change and adjustment in management styles than managers were capable of over such a relatively short period of time.
We are at a different place now, and principals are polarized. They either hate it or love it—this article is addressed to both. To those who hate it, you may find a safer way to experiment. To those already doing it, you may find ways to improve the practice. Let’s look first at the advantages and disadvantages.
Here are the advantages of allowing employees to work remotely. You save on leased space and the overhead that comes with it. You can grow without adding more space and financial commitment. You attract more self-starters because those are the employees who will thrive. Some (not all) employees will be happier, and happier employees do better work. You’ll cut down on your carbon footprint because there is no more commuting. There will be fewer distractions from other things going on in the office. You’ll have many more choices of great employees, because some of them will only take the job if they can work remotely. And finally, if you adapt well to remote workers, you’ll be more likely to work better with completely remote offices, and those same habits will help you work better with remote clients.
There can be less collaboration simply because there is more isolation. Often remote employees are not promoted as often, partly because principals view remote managers differently than remote employees. The remote employee can feel out of the loop, and therefore a bit undervalued. And there is the expense of the travel and lodging for those occasional times when the remote employee must visit the established office.
IMPACT OF VARIOUS ROLES
Of all the functions at a creative services firm, the ones that are least likely to lend themselves to fruitful remote arrangements are these: those responsible for client management, for project management and any role with significant management responsibilities over others (like a creative director). It is much more difficult to make this work, and I would advise against it.
MEETING THE CRITERIA
Working remotely should be viewed as a reward and not as a right. In fact, your written policy should list clear milestones that must be achieved before remote employment is allowed for existing employees. For someone to be given this privilege, they should be responsible, self-motivated, disciplined, goal oriented (without you having to outline each step of the process to get to the goal) and they must consistently meet deadlines.
MANAGERS MUST CHANGE
Using remote employees brings an entirely new paradigm to the management process, and if you are a manager, there are some things you’ll need to do differently or to at least emphasize. You should have unusual skills in interpersonal communication and a clear vision for the culture that you want to create. If you don’t have those skills, work with a coach.
You have to get used to managing by results instead of managing by presence. That means identifying very clear roles, goals and priorities. And you’ll be even more effective if you understand how each remote worker prefers to communicate, and adapt to their style: mode, frequency, directness, time of day, etc. Pay attention to time zone differences, too, remembering that when someone might be fully energized, someone else might be winding down for the day.
Sometimes make a phone call instead of writing an e-mail to relieve that sense of isolation they might feel. Remote employees will work hard not to be a bother to you, the manager, and you need to get a feel for their mood and their engagement level, and the phone (or Skype/FaceTime) is the most reliable way to determine what’s up. Ask specific questions to uncover the truth.
Don’t leave remote employees out of the “thank you” loop; go out of your way to make them feel appreciated, since you won’t be as likely to pass them in the hall where you can do it in a more natural setting. Make sure remote employees are celebrated as much as local ones.