The number of remote workers and globally distributed teams is increasing in today's international working environment, and research indicates that within the next few years, up to 40 percent of us will directly answer to someone who doesn't work in the organization's central headquarters.
So while companies may reap the benefits of lower overhead costs with more and more work-from-home employees, as well as the benefits that stem from collaboration with across-the-ocean cross-functional teams, the challenges this phenomena represents for organizations are numerous. Employees working from home or distant peripheral offices can quickly become disconnected from a central office, feel demotivated and lose self-discipline.
The same engagement and recognition program that works for the home office, typically works for offsite workers, said Kimberly Abel-Lanier, vice president and general manager, Workforce Solutions, Maritz, Fenton, Mo. "Good program design ensures the entire team is aligned, wherever they sit, to the purpose and goals of the business. The real difference lies in the tools used to manage, communicate and report on the program," she said.
In this respect, virtual workers are different. Virtual workers are on the go—so programs that are accessible via mobile device will have higher participation rates than simply being online. Offsite employees also like communications that show how they're doing and dashboards or reports that highlight how their work is meaningful and making an impact to the organization.
"They often don't get the spontaneous 'positive strokes' that happen in the office environment, Abel-Lanier said, "so ensuring that happens with the right tools and frequent recognition is essential."
That's right, agreed Mike Ryan, senior vice president, client strategy, Madison Performance Group, New York. "A big part of the remote issue is not just a physical and technological issue. To me, it is also an intellectual and emotional issue that executives and managers have to deal with. Consider this: In sophisticated organizations, managers aren't necessarily responsible for individuals, but are responsible for projects. In many cases, project managers call on people based upon their competency, not based on their location or not based on their affiliation in the hierarchy."
So, besides having to motivate people that may be in different parts of the country or the world, or affiliated with different business units, managers have got to do it in a way where often their own project is competing with a variety of other projects that are on a particular employee's plate.
There are several important factors that involve the engagement and productivity of remote workers, noted Ira Ozer, CEO and president, Engagement Partners, Chappaqua, N.Y., and that includes mutual understanding of responsibilities and timing. "Each party also needs to trust the other and know they are mutually accountable to the tasks and deliverables," Ozer said. And recognition and continual reinforcement are important, especially since normal eye contact and physical cues do not exist.
The ability to motivate, engage and inform a remote workforce "technically" has never been easier, contends Paul Gordon, senior vice president, Sales, Rymax Marketing Services Inc., Pine Brook, N.J. "We've come a long way from communicating via the U.S. mail and fax machines," he said.
The connectivity of smart devices, e-mails and business apps has given companies multiple and diverse employee touch points. What is troubling, however, is the widespread misperception that with today's technology, all of these vehicles automatically improve communication and productivity, when the reality is that this is only true when it is executed properly.
"In many cases," Ryan noted, "these workers are not in the same time zones, so you need access to each other 24/7. You need your recognition program, and any other business tool, to be built in responsive design, which means that it renders and appears and functions in the same way no matter what type of mobile device somebody is using."
This is critical, since the bring-your-own device to work philosophy is one that many organizations have adopted. One group of employees might be using an Apple iPhone, another a Samsung Android phone; you want to make sure that whatever technology you are using does not get corrupted if it is not on the same type of a platform.
Meanwhile, companies need to think of their employees' profile and communicate with a few key points in mind, Gordon explained. "A topic needs to be on point in an e-mail or company app and reinforced on the company's website," he said. "In explaining an engagement program, get to the point quickly. Present benefits, but don't bombard employees with a multiple of action items. And finally, measure the effectiveness of the program by incorporating a reward for acting or participating. With employee recognition programs, always use a points system and have communication tied into rewards points. This lets management know who is engaged and also helps spur on additional information."
Strategies for Success
Make sure you have a mechanism in place within your recognition program that is as democracy-based as possible, encouraging all co-workers to be involved in the recognition and feedback process. A manager, working with teams that they may not be familiar with, or working with teams that are geographically dispersed, wants to rely upon, encourage and call upon the opinions and expertise of other people that are working on the project every day. Therefore, components of peer-to-peer recognition and the ability for one employee to recognize another employee or project leader who has done something notable is key to keeping a very cohesive team of virtual workers in place.
The other side of encouraging and involving co-workers is that you expand the impact of the recognition process and help to build that level of camaraderie across a geographically spread audience, Ryan said, "but by expanding the recognition process you are also sharing best practices. You are encouraging dialogues where individuals that may be in one part of the world are chiming in and saying, 'Way to solve that problem.' Or 'Thank you so much for your postings, you helped us figure out what we were doing inefficiently on our end.'"
Such peer-to-peer conversation encourages a level of dialogue that is not only purely recognition-driven but also efficiency- and process-driven. Design a virtual place to celebrate success and recognize achievements, perhaps an online or mobile platform that enables workers to recognize and appreciate each other, celebrate accomplishments quickly and easily, as well as socialize these positive outcomes with their personal and professional network. This goes a long way to establishing a global, integrated and inclusive culture.
Encouraging teamwork is particularly relevant to millennial workers. "Young work teams are getting younger, especially work teams that are remote work teams," Ryan continued. "I find that in more and more organizations, the likelihood the team that is spread out, the team that is remote, or working in the client's office and operating in kind of a consultative mindset, tends to be comprised of the younger employees. And millennials as a group really value what their colleagues say about them. To have the ability for the recognition process to be as horizontal as possible, where you are getting feedback from people you work with, not just people you work for, is a great way to keep team members motivated and engaged."
Other winning tactics include ensuring that all employees have the opportunity to be immersed in the organization's purpose and values. Offer virtual workers casual learning opportunities, suggested Abel-Lanier. Offsite workers value knowledge but don't always have the time to participate in the learning workshops offered at the office.
Instead, mobile workers are often attracted to short, "snack-size" casual learning offered on mobile devices that enables them to consume content "on-the-go." Have your HR department create communication channels that build connections between distributed teams; tools like video, Slack or Bonfyre provide simple-yet-powerful alternative communication channels to the typical conference room meeting or e-mail.
Signs of Trouble
When there is a lack of trust of remote workers, companies can get overly bureaucratic and insist that they log on to a time management system and continuously report their productivity and whereabouts. This leads to resentment, time wasting and people trying to "game the system." Other things that can go wrong are:
No commitment from senior management to maintain the communication on a regular basis and have a well-thought-out list of topics. For example, inventory turns and SKU focus, social initiatives, compensation, new product launches.
The communication is not tied to an employee recognition program. Success breeds success. Have your employees recognized and engaged.
The employee culture does not feel connected.
The best way to ensure remote worker engagement and productivity is to establish mutual understanding, accountability, provide incentives and recognition and trust that the work will get done. Companies often find that remote workers are more productive than office workers because there is less time wasted on idle chitchat and irrelevant meetings.
Use video to communicate, Gordon, of Rymax, suggested. In social media, more than 70 percent of effective communication is now done via video. And it's never been easier. There is no need for big budgets or an investment in equipment. A 30- or 60-second message recorded on a smart device and disseminated is very powerful, quick to create and costs next to nothing to produce.
"Rehearse the message, but don't make it feel canned," Gordon said. "Stay on point but make them fun. Remember you're competing for your employees' time."
"The manager is the key conduit of participation," Ryan emphasized. "Make sure through analytics that your manager is paving the way in terms of the micro-cultures that exist within work teams. And using analytics, you can measure how much a manager is issuing recognition, commenting on, and encouraging the recognition of others. You can also see if a team is participating at par or better than participating teams that are receiving recognition."
You also want to address things that are cultural. From a design point of view, you want to attend to nuances, everything from color to graphics to pictures in graphics that you might use, which reflect the level of desire and diversity.
Some business models want their employees to use English because their customers use English, but in many cases the language of choice is the preferred option. You'll want your system to support that. If you are issuing specific tangible awards, make sure they are redeemed in the country of selection. The last thing you need is for an award to be shipped internationally, where you can run into tariff issues. Shipping internationally often leads to customer service nightmares because there are geographic boundaries that need to be addressed.
You want to bring your recognition down as close to the point of operation as possible, and there are many ways from an administrative and a process point of view to make sure that happens.
To recap: make sure your managers are involved, make sure your managers have the tools to be involved, use your analytics, compare and contrast how their inactivity or activity may be skewing the results in a positive or a negative way, and make sure that from an employee's perspective they feel like that recognition process is not being delivered from 6,000 miles away, but rather feels like it's coming from right around the corner.
Rick Dandes is a reporter/feature writer at The Daily Item in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared in Premium Incentive Products magazine.