Working from home is a growing phenomenon in the modern work arena.
A virtual workforce offers many benefits for employers — for instance, it reduces major office costs. Employees also enjoy the flexibility of being able to work from home and not having to spend hours in traffic commuting.
However, it’s often difficult to get remote workers to feel as though they are a part of the company culture. They are not there for town halls, don’t participate in every conference call, and, many times, they need the folks at corporate to push things through.
What these workers need most is a connection to the vision and direction of the company and their co-workers. They need ways of working better together, which ultimately leads to more collaboration.
Questions employees need to answer
They also need to see the comings and goings that employees at the office see, including what the team is focused on and the latest news. They need easy ways to give feedback and get feedback. They are fresh with ideas, so it’s important that we all take advantage them by leveraging their inspiration and accepting their momentum.
Some simple ways to do this include leveraging cloud technology and publishing important information. Help employees answer these questions:
- What is the direction of the company?
- What are the goals of the team?
- Other sites?
- Other departments?
Providing all of this information and collaborating through technology is the only way remote employees can self-manage, and helps push your virtual workforce into a result-only workforce.
Technology has made it possible for many companies — that would otherwise function primarily out of physical locations — to allow many of their employees to complete their projects from home, often never stepping into the office. The Internet also makes it possible virtual companies to exist, with employees scattered across the country.
While setting up a virtual workforce or even having a percentage of employees telecommute may seem like a simple endeavor, those employees still need to be engaged and made to feel as part of the company, just as employees present in the office feel they are part of a team. Technology makes it easy to set up an office in your home and do your job, but that same technology also presents barriers that make could potentially make it hard to retain the virtual workforce.
What employers can do
What are some things employers can do to assure that their telecommuting employees still function as full-fledged team members?
1. Set them up with the right tools and technology — Use collaborative tools to help your virtual workers connect with the rest of the team from home. Some excellent tools for this include:
- Google Docs and Box for sharing documents and images;
- Jive software (mid to large organizations) for intranets;
- Basecamp and Manymoon for project management;
- Yammer, Chatter and SocialCast for communication and collaboration;
- Skype, Google chat and talk, and other instant messaging programs to stay in the loop;
- WorkSimple for sharing work and goals;
- UserVoice and Get Satisfaction for customer feedback and community; and,
- ZenDesk and Lighthouse for customer service.
2. Collaboration tools — Even if your employees and teams are spread out all over the country, constant communication is necessary in a well-functioning team. Creating a virtual water cooler is necessary for employees as they like to be able to blow off steam in between tasks. Whether the communication is work-related or more about getting to know colleagues, it is no less important for a virtual workforce.
So, whether you choose some sort of instant messaging system that employees log into everyday like Skype, or have regular staff meetings, online communication tools can make brainstorming and decision making much easier for the virtual workforce.
Here are some great tools to check out for your needs:
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- GoToMeeting, AnyMeeting and BigMarker for online meetings and web conferencing;
- Tungle.me, Doodle, ShiftBoard and BookFresh for online scheduling and booking meetings;
- MyClientSpot, Planzone, Teambox and DeskAway for project collaboration and workgroups;
- Kindling to encourage idea sharing, engagement and innovation;
- SlideRocket, Slideshare and SlideBoom to share presentations;
- Batchbook and Bizroof for contact and customer relationship management;
- OfficeDrop or Glasscubes for file storage and sharing.
3. Be clear about directions and spell out tasks — Misinterpretation of directions is easier to fix when workers are around the corner to ask questions and clarify. However, with a virtual workforce, employees have to be far more independent and e-mails or IMs can be misinterpreted very often. You can help employees by being clear about their projects or tasks and setting specific deadlines so they can better manage their time.
4. Consider assigning remote workers a mentor — someone who they can go to with questions other than their direct manager. This should be part of your onboarding process. You don’t want virtual employees to feel isolated working from home; instead, they should feel like they have multiple levels of support within their team.
5. Keep them in the loop — Whether it is exciting office news (like a new hire), or even bad news about a product or client that you must relay to your team, be sure to share the news with your virtual workforce at the same time. Online tools like Yammer or WorkSimple can keep them in the loop and helps remote workers feel connected to the rest of the team. If you leave this to managers and executives, nothing will get done. Let it happen socially. If you want them to feel like a full-time employee, share the same news and communicate with them the way you do with your non-virtual employees. Communication is key at any office — and a virtual workforce is no different.
6. Invest in a cloud — Whether it is Dropbox or Google Docs, keep all resources and documents in the cloud so your virtual employees can refer to them whenever they need. Since people will be working in different time zones, it is hard to rely on others to be online just to ask them to forward a link for an article or proposal. As a manager, make it easier on the employee and yourself by giving them full access to any company or client’s documents that they may need to complete their projects.
No clear-cut solution
Collaboration is the future for remote hires. Invest in the cloud and commit to new levels of going social. What departments are social in your company? How can you help team connect? Are remote hires left outside of the company walls?
As Star Trek‘s Captain Picard would say, “Engage.” It’s important to keep a pulse on virtual workers and give them feedback in real-time. This means sending both written feedback and picking up the phone. We are humans; we need human connections. The best way to work with remote hires is to do pulse calls just to see what resources they need and determine where you can help them to better understand processes or obstacles.
While there is no crystal clear solution for retaining a virtual workforce, it’s obvious that communication and clarification from an employer side is even more important than in traditional offices. Those employees are still part of the team and should not be forgotten.
While technology is a big part of maintaining a virtual workforce, it cannot always be relied on to make communication easier. Misinterpretations will still occur and it is up to an employer to make sure virtual employees have the right tools and directions to succeed.
Does a virtual workforce work for your company?