Great employee engagement can be a challenge even when all workers are in one place. So how do you successfully engage a distributed workforce scattered across the country—or the globe?
As Aon Hewitt’s global engagement research—which involved 6.7 million employees representing more than 2,900 organizations—found, it’s worth the effort. The resulting report, “Trends in Global Employee Engagement,” says:
“The companies that have a highly engaged workforce … proactively respond to the environment, competition, and changing workforce needs. They evolve, but stay true to the values that made them successful, and are well positioned for continued success in the future.”
The study identifies 3 top engagement drivers critical to success:
- Providing career opportunities
- Ensuring all employees understand and align with the company’s brand
- Recognizing employees for a job well done.
That’s true of any workforce, but there are special challenges when striving to engage a distributed workforce. A report prepared by James Ware and Charles Grantham, founders of The Work Design Collaborative, LLC, called “Connecting and Engaging Teams in a Distributed Workforce,” finds:
“a virtual explosion of distributed/mobile/flexible work across all market segments, including large organizations, small businesses, and free agents/entrepreneurs. In fact, our research suggests that fully 15% of the U.S. workforce now spends one or more days a week outside a corporate facility, and we project that number to grow beyond 25% within five years.”
Connecting and engaging distributed workforces is not mission impossible, the report says.
“It just requires some new tactics, new policies and guidelines, new technology tools, and updated HR management practices. It’s not simple, but it is certainly doable; and the payoff in increased productivity and performance makes the effort well worthwhile.”
While managing distributed employees calls for many of the same practices any good manager uses:
“To be successful, managers of distributed workers must master major and often unrecognized new behaviors and skills to ensure success.”
6 Keys to Successfully Engaging a Distributed Workforce
1. Use highly participative approaches to establishing distributed work environments. Reach out proactively to ensure that all workers understand and accept your ideas and directives, and listen for team members’ performance-improving suggestions.
2. Define and publish formal policies and procedures for distributed work.
Communicate policies such as: when an employee working at home trips and breaks an arm, is he or she eligible for workers’ compensation? Who will pay for the home office furnishings, the telephone that is being used for work, or the Internet connection? And when is the employee expected to be accessible to other employees and management?
3. Establish explicit, tangible performance measures.
Establish clear guidelines and common expectations about how each employee will be measured and rewarded. This helps team members stay focused on assigned tasks, creates accountability in both directions across the organization, provides clear evidence of how cost-effective distributed work arrangements are, and helps shift the management culture from focusing on time spent on tasks to the results produced.
4. Develop formal agreements about regular interaction.
Schedule online conferences regularly and meet face-to-face when it matters most: at the start of a team project to clarify roles and objectives; when you shift from the planning to the implementing phase; and at a project’s conclusion, to overcome a let-down feeling, celebrate, and bond before moving on.
Finally, the report says, to engage a distributed workforce:
“Be very clear about your expectations for these team meetings, whether they are ‘real’ or virtual. You can’t restate the team’s purpose and goals often enough.”
5. Empower managers to be role models of team cohesiveness and well-being. Management is the glue that holds a team together, the report notes.
“The most important thing a manager of a distributed team can do is become a role model of empathy and caring. Demonstrate your active concern for team members and their wellbeing on a consistent and ongoing basis.”
6. Don’t Forget the Home Team!
While working hard to engage a distributed workforce, remember the people sitting in cubicles outside your office, or working on the floors above or below you.
Surprisingly, a Harvard Business Review report, “Why Remote Workers Are More (Yes, More) Engaged,” by Scott Edinger, founder of Edinger Consulting Group, shows that team members not in the same location with their leaders are more engaged and committed—and rated the same leader higher—than employees sitting near their leaders.
The reasons for this, Edinger believes, are:
Proximity breeds complacency.
“I’ve worked with leaders who sit in the same office with those they manage but go for weeks without having any substantive face-time with them.”
Absence makes people try harder to connect.
“When I managed a team of professionals in nine different locations, I made a point of deliberately reaching out to each of them by phone at least once a week, and frequently more often.”
Leaders of virtual teams make a better use of tools.
“Because leaders of far-flung teams have to use videoconferencing, instant messaging, email, voicemail, and yes, the telephone, to make contact, they become proficient in multiple forms of communication.”
Leaders of far-flung teams maximize the time their teams spend together.
“Having had to make such an effort to get the team together, these leaders naturally want to make the best use of their precious time. They take care to filter out as many distractions as possible so they can focus on the work to be done together. They also typically spend more than an ordinary work day together, socializing at planned luncheons, dinners, and activities.”
Remember, someone working in the same office with their leader needs just as much effective communication as someone located in a different office.
It’s just that, ironically, they’re less likely to get it,” Edinger concludes.
So when you think about who to ‘thank’ today, remember to connect with hard-working employees both near and far.
For a comprehensive guide to growing a sustained workplace culture of engagement and appreciation, download our FREE eBook: Transform Your Workplace with Gratitude.
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