Kevin Sheridan is one of the most sought-after voices on the topic of employee engagement and, in particular, engaging a distributed workforce.
As an upper-level Human Capital Management consultant with over 30 years of experience, Sheridan has helped some of the world’s largest corporations successfully rebuild a workplace culture that fosters productive engagement. He shares secrets of his award-winning, industry-changing innovation in his two books, “Building A Magnetic Culture” and “The Virtual Manager”.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with Kevin Sheridan recently about the challenges and rewards of engaging a distributed workforce.
Liz King: When we think about building a magnetic culture, what are the unique challenges that a distributed workforce faces?
Kevin Sheridan: Well, the big one is a feeling of isolation and separation and that you’re going to be forgotten about — and that plays into each of the key drivers of employee engagement. So beginning with the number one driver, which is recognition, how often do you get an attaboy or an attagirl, or “I noticed the work that you did, and you did a great job on that”? Not only are you yearning for more of that, but more than likely because you’re not seen, you’re not hearing as much of that as if you were in a corporate environment or going to an office where your boss and your peers are seeing you every day. So, that’s one of the greatest challenges: changing the behavior of how you manage people at work remotely so that they’re not feeling that sense of isolation and separation, and that they’re not going to be passed over for promotions or career advancements simply because they’re not seen. So that’s the big challenge.
The second challenge is one that is germane to both a remote worker as well as the manager who’s managing people that are working remotely, and that is the issue of trust. I was actually trained quite effectively by two of my Millennial employees who saw me as an old-school manager that needed to see people in order to trust that they were doing their work and getting the job done. What they taught me is as long as you’re hiring the right people for these remote positions, you need to let go. You need to let them come and go as they want, work when they want — which, by the way, is more than the typical worker that is showing up to an office every day. It’s been proven that the virtual worker actually puts in four more hours per week than someone that goes into a corporate environment, and they’re more engaged.
KS: So as long as you’re hiring the right people, and you trust them, you need to let ’em go. And frankly, if they’re achieving the outcomes that you desired and they’re in a mall shopping or at a golf course during business hours, your attitude should be, “Good for them.”
LK: Right, right.
KS: It’s about trusting and letting go. And I actually quote Ronald Reagan when he had a very decisive press conference with Mikhail Gorbachev next to him, during the nuclear disarmament. His key message was, “Trust, but verify.” Trust your remote worker, and then just verify that they’re actually getting the job done that you’d hoped they would get done.
LK: So, how do these characteristics affect the job of building engagement with remote workers?
KS: The key is that the manager recognize that the remote worker needs to be managed differently. They would like regular check-ins, so one of the best practices is to have a weekly call with the individual, ideally a Skype call where you have video going so you can actually see each other. Another change in behavior that I learned very quickly when I was managing remote people was always reply to their emails, always reply to their texts. Even if what they send you is information-only, always reply. You want to feel the feeling of connectedness, so don’t just delete their email or their text, always get back to them.
Inclusion is also key to engaging a distributed workforce. The employee who’s working in, say, Peoria, Illinois, out of their basement, hears that corporate is celebrating a new client success and having a pizza party. Rather than just assume, “Oh well, they’re in Peoria, they can’t join us at the pizza party,” why not send them a coupon so that they can have a slice of pizza at the very same time, and maybe call in and celebrate the win as well?
LK: Based on the research you’ve done, do you find that worker needs are different in a centralized location versus a distributed workforce, or is it simply what you’ve described, which is that they need to be managed differently?
KS: The worker needs are different, and as such, they need to be managed differently. I’ve already covered the recognition driver. The second most impactful way to drive engagement is career development. So, for me as a remote worker, how are my needs different on career development? Well, I need to know I’m being considered for promotions. I need to know that I’m not being forgotten about vis-a-vis my career development. I need to know when my next scheduled conversation is with my manager about my career. If I don’t, then I’m wondering, “Was I forgotten about?” So, as a virtual manager, you need to be regularly checking in with your remote employees and let them know, “By the way, we’re due to talk again about your career in three months — is that on your calendar?” That way, they know they’re not forgotten about.
And then the third most impactful way of driving engagement is just the genuineness and the authenticity of the relationship that I have with my manager. Does this person genuinely care about me? Because, again, as a remote worker, I’m feeling separate. As long as I know my boss is in my corner — did that person take the time to learn how many kids I have, where they go to school, what my passions are outside of work? It needs to be genuine.
LK: You’ve obviously seen a lot in your research. What are some of the industry best practices that you’ve seen out there for building engagement in a distributed workforce?
KS: A pre-planned program for recognizing employees. If you are just relying upon your memory to recognize remote workers, you’re going to forget. We know from our focus groups with both in-house as well as remote workers that half the time when employees are feeling under-appreciated, it’s because they’re reporting to a manager that, frankly, doesn’t really care. The other half of the time the manager may care but they’re just so busy, so they forget. The recognition and the “thank you” is haphazard. It is inconsistent.
When I give speeches, I bring up a great Zig Zigler quote about motivation. He says, “Motivation needs to be consistent.“ It’s a lot like the need to bathe daily. It has to be a regular occurrence. And so one of the best practices that I employed myself, as well as what I’d recommend to my clients, is put recognition in your Outlook calendar. Carve out two hours on a Friday afternoon every week when you’re going to call your remote worker and say ‘thank you’ —and go beyond just saying thank you and explain to them why what they did was off-the-charts great and a good job. But explain to them, “This is why what you did is so meaningful to our organization,” tying what they did back to the organization’s purpose and strategy and mission. Now the employee is going to feel enlightened and say, “Wow, not only was I thanked for a job well done, but now I understand why what I did was so meaningful.” That’s a home run.
LK: Sure, sure. Is there anything else that particularly successful companies do for building engagement of a virtual workforce?
KS: They hire the right people. This is one of my key messages. If you are going to take the time, money and energy to build a magnetic culture among your virtual workers, only hire magnetic people. Only hire people that you number one trust and that have evidence that they can thrive in a remote position — they’re self-starters, they’re self-motivated, they’re going to take things to the finish line without the nudge or the kick in the butt from a manager. Those qualities are the ones that should be used when hiring the right people for these remote positions. It is critical that you are judicious about who you hire for these remote positions.
LK: What about hiring for distributed workforces with hundreds of small offices? How do you talk about hiring right in that situation?
KS: When you’re hiring, you’ve got to bring the people in. You can’t just interview over the phone. It needs to be an in-person thing. Also, get them to come to the main office at least once a year, even if it’s in a different time zone.
LK: Any last words of advice for managers of distributed workforces trying to build magnetic workplace cultures?
KS: The key is that they know the levers, the key drivers, of engagement and then prioritize their actions and the way they manage based upon those levers. Those are featured in both of my books — the top ten drivers of engagement. And then recognize that people working remotely need a little more love, a little more attention.
Interested in more from Kevin Sheridan? Visit his website and blog, order his books here and follow him on Twitter. He’s available for speaking engagements. Have a specific issue of engagement or workplace culture you’re wondering about? He welcomes questions and consulting inquiries from gThankYou! customers and blog readers.
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