Smart devices, cloud computing, and virtually ubiquitous internet access enables most desk jobs to be done from almost anywhere. Because of this, more people are working from home than ever, and the number increases each year. Last year, 43 percent of employed Americans spent at least part of their time working remotely, according to a Gallup survey.
While remote working is a major benefit that companies can offer employees, telecommuting is a big responsibility that implies a significant amount of trust on the employer's part. You also lose valuable face time with employees who don't report to the office: You may be able to video chat with a remote worker every day, but they still miss out on day-to-day company culture, which can play a large role in an employee's engagement levels.
"Some managers haven't yet developed the skills to motivate [in-office] workers, and virtual workers are even harder [to engage]," said Ellen Raineri, an assistant professor at Kaplan University. "The sense of belonging is very challenging for virtual workers, who seem to be all alone out in cyberland."
Tony Ventrice, senior product manager at BetterWorks, agreed, noting that remote employees who take part in group projects may not feel as invested as their colleagues who are physically present to watch it all come together.
"Initiatives that rise out of the collective discussion and gain momentum as they transfer from person to person are invisible to remote workers," said Ventrice. "Employees who have contributed to the creation of processes and policies are more invested, more likely to see the inherent value and more likely to adopt. Remote employees are out of the creative and cultural loop. Without this collaborative feedback, they can feel isolated, and this can lead to disengagement."
But geographic distance from one's co-workers doesn't automatically mean a virtual employee will feel disconnected, not if the group is able to communicate effectively. Jana McDonough and Chris King, two full-time remote staff members at Maracaibo Media Group, both said they feel just as engaged as any of their in-office colleagues. [Overcoming the Challenges of Managing Remote Employees]
"We really take advantage of technology and communicate on a constant basis," said McDonough, a publicist. "We have a great IM program that enables us to speak to one another in live time to ask questions or to discuss a client. We are always brainstorming and throwing ideas out via email to one another, and everyone's opinion and thoughts are welcomed. Our employer really gives credit where it is deserved and appreciates all of us."
"I'm in constant touch with the office using some technological platform or another," added King, a content strategist. "And there are opportunities to get together face-to-face every few weeks, whether it's for a client meeting, an actual day at the office or even for a team luncheon."
Clearly, when managers and company leaders make priorities of employee engagement and teamwork, regardless of an employee's location, the organization as a whole thrives. Here are a few ways you can make your virtual staff feel like they're truly part of the team.
Keep the lines of communication open
Remote employees, especially those who work nontraditional hours or are outside the headquarters' time zone, can sometimes get the sense that the rest of their team isn't around when they are, and vice versa. While it's impossible to expect everyone to be available 24/7, knowing that they can reach out to their colleagues and stay in touch through digital communication methods can help virtual workers feel more connected.
"Online communities, social collaboration software and chat clients help bring remote employees inside the cultural conversation," Ventrice said. "It's important that not all of these communications are even completely serious — much of what brings a team together is the shared banter."
When the whole team is working, a voice or video conference call can go a long way to encourage group collaboration.
"It's really important for employers to communicate [and] keep all the employees involved in what's going on day to day," McDonough told Business News Daily. "Some of our team's best work is when we all get on a call to discuss each client's projects, and everyone's thoughts are put on the table."
Gamify your teamwork
Gamification, the application of game-playing elements to nongame environments, has become a popular tactic for companies who want to encourage customer loyalty and engagement in a fun way. But the same tactics of encouraging competitions and rewards for everyday activities can also be an effective employee engagement strategy.
"Employees need to feel included, as if they are part of a team," Ventrice said. "Team-based goals and competitions help build a sense of collaboration and cooperation. Teams can be based on function or location, with the key goal being inclusion in striving towards a common objective."
Ventrice also noted that game-based performance management systems can help standardize performance metrics and evaluation criteria. This is especially important for remote employees, who may feel like they are missing out on vital promotional opportunities by not being physically present.
Implement personalized digital employee recognition programs
Like gamification, a digital recognition program that's used for all employees can level the playing field for out-of-office workers. By awarding virtual badges or rewards for employee achievements, you can show your staff that you're really recognizing their efforts.
"Badging as a whole has shown through time to be effective, [such as in] the military or Boy and Girl Scouts," Raineri said. "It's a proven method for rewarding [individuals], and it's natural to use it now as we go into the virtual world. It's inexpensive and you can customize it for your own company, whether you're looking for individual or team rewards."
Even with something as simple as benefits or bonuses, communicating with employees about their own individual experience in a personalized, relevant way will really stand out to a remote worker.
"Businesses struggle with one-size-fits-all communication, [because] it doesn't necessarily work," said Chris Wakely, executive vice president of global enterprise for Benify. "Sending information based on the circumstances of the individual is a great way to get a person's attention."
Above all, companies must remember that transparency and honesty is key to cultivating strong employee engagement, in or out of the office.
"Build stronger relationships with virtual workers," Wakely said. "Personal, short, direct and honest [communication] is crucial."
Additional reporting by Adam C. Uzialko. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.