Engagement in the Remote Workforce
Employee engagement. By now, we’re all familiar with the term. Many of us include employee engagement as a measurable KPI and deliverable PMO. I’ve sat through classes and listened to “the experts” extoll the immeasurable benefits of leaving your office door open, bringing in birthday treats, or dropping by your staff’s cubicles frequently to inquire how their day is going. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that stuff works. But inevitably, I do the internal eye-roll when I hear these tips while asking myself, “How am I going to do those things with Fred?” who today is on a 3-hour drive to repair a widget in some little town in the middle of nowhere whose name I can’t even pronounce. What about Mary, the analyst who’s so good at what she does that we opted to keep her on board remotely when her spouse’s job took her half-way across the county?
Don’t get me wrong. Employee engagement is a very real thing. It weighs heavily on our ability to conduct business and remain financially viable. At the end of the day, it’s all about people. We may work on devices, but we work for people. We may deliver products or services, but we deliver these things to people. Disinterested staff leads to a less-than-stellar customer experience which can ruin sales and kill the business. I’ve also personally witnessed the devastating effects high employee turnover can have on organizations. One need look no further than the rising cost of recruiting and training and of staffing shortage related overtime to see that it’s in our best interest to keep great talent. We also know this is a vicious cycle that repeats itself over and over again as other teammates burn out and leave because of increased workload and diminished morale. If that picture isn’t dismal enough, we can also look forward to the additional woes associated with favorable job markets, rising demand, decreased talent pools, and the dreaded “millennial effect” of staff which need constant affirmation, have unrealistic career progression expectations, and are already looking for a new job before they’re out of orientation. I think the jury’s still out on that last one though.
But wait. Things aren’t as bad as they seem. Come to find out, the aforementioned experts weren’t wrong. It’s just that the “quick-fix” tricks that we usually latch on to during these training sessions don’t work with remote workers and field-based employees. As it turns out, there’s a little millennial in all of us. Our hectic lives and constant digital connectivity cause us to quickly scan information in an attempt to pluck out a few useful tidbits and rock on to the next task. Well, it’s not that easy. We must understand the underlying emotional benefits those techniques are meant to elicit and find ways to achieve the same results remotely. By no means am I an expert, but I can tell you what I’ve found that works. Here’s an example: Every conversation I have with a remote employee begins with “How’s it going?” or “What are you doing?” or “What’s going on in your world?”. Every conversation ends with a sincere “Thank you,” “Be safe,” and “Call me if you need me.” Of course, you can adjust the verbiage to reflect what’s appropriate to your locale and the nature of the interaction. It only takes about 60 seconds to interject that added content, but as crazy as it may sound, you’ve just created a virtual open door and turned every interaction into a virtual cubicle visit.
Team “buy-in” is critical. As a parent, I learned a nifty little trick which worked extremely well with my children. Later, I found it equally effective with staff. I would articulate what actions or behaviors would make them a “good boy” along with the associated benefits and rewards. Then, I would articulate what actions or behaviors constitute bad behavior and subsequent ramifications of those actions. I would let them decide and verbalize their desire to be good. Almost everyone wants to be a “good employee.” The trick to achieving that goal is accepting and agreeing upon what actions and behaviors constitute a specific standard. Individual acceptance and acknowledgment can then be used to empower entire teams to rally around common goals and objectives where everyone has the right and the responsibility to hold themselves and each other accountable to the agreed upon standard(s). No longer is it “I’m doing what I’m told.” Instead, it’s “I’m doing what I chose to do because it achieves my desired outcome(s).” Of course, this can only happen if you foster an environment where achievement is praised and acknowledged, honest feedback is welcomed and encouraged, and struggles are handled with understanding and appropriate coaching. As an added benefit, tough conversations can be made easier by reminding folks of the agreed upon standard(s) and teaming up with them against the perceived “boogeyman,” i.e., looming deadlines, budget shortfalls, difficult customer situations (take your pick).
Lastly, put all those new-fangled digital tools to work for you. If you’re having a conversation with one person that may need input from additional teammates, don’t wait and set up the dreaded “meeting” unless it’s so complex that a meeting is warranted. Instead, call a quick “huddle” and knock out the task right then and there. Applications such as Slack™, Skype for Business™, and Microsoft’s OneDrive™ & OneNote™, make remote collaboration just as easy and effective as being in the same room. And don’t forget the watercooler conversations. Creating a forum for the sharing of personal content (HR compliant) such as birthdays, anniversaries, holiday photos, family milestones, etc. will afford remote workers the ability to see each other as human beings on the other end of the line; not just as more cogs in the corporate machine. Trust me. If someone’s heart is in the right place, the rest will follow. And in the end, when our remote staff is truly engaged, we all win.