Making Distant Engagement Work

telecommutingMost of us have dreamt of working from home at least once in our career.  Being at home would mean dressing comfortably, eating what we want, and avoiding workplace distractions that make even a simple task take hours.  We might even attain a better work-life balance if we could plan our time around our personal and professional obligations instead of meeting a fixed work schedule.  Increasing technology availability as well as more task-focused vocations coupled with growing requirements to reduce overhead costs ushered in a new era of working remotely.  WorldatWork estimates that approximately 20 percent of the US workforce works remotely.

After years of experience with this alternative work arrangement, most organizations have developed appropriate policies, created multi-national as well as multi-locational workforces, increased productivity by making sure the right people are on the right team, implemented interactive tools, and reduced costs.  What most organizations lost during this transformation pertains to collective identity and stronger linkages.  The heart of engagement is the relationship between the employee and his or her work, supervisor, coworkers, and work environment.  Although we may reach the point that online interaction provides a fulfilling relationship to more than a few, we are not there yet.  So, why would I be loyal to where I work now if I can do the same work I do now, still work from home, and make more?

The answer is the same in the traditional workplace as in the remote world: the connection (no pun intended).  Even with the plethora of social networking, video conferencing, and interactive software available, some connections and relationships develop best through human interaction. Think about the success of online dating.  Recent estimates indicate that 20 percent of marriages come from first contact being online.  Yet, the purpose of joining an online dating community is not to have someone to email or text, but to meet and move to the next level of the relationship.

In our last post, we discussed how outsourcing engagement through distant leadership might seem desirable in the short-term, but results in more dire consequences over time.  A common misperception is that less management supportiveness is needed in a decentralized environment.  However, just like any other relationship, if unattended, it tends to wither and eventually dies.  As modern leaders, we need to develop the skills and behaviors necessary to support this model of interaction. Not only do these skills require some new ways of thinking, but actually increases the workload on the manager from an engagement standpoint.

What are three simple things we can do to improve engagement in this type of environment?

Create One-on-One Opportunities

Unlike in a traditional office setting, a manager does not gain the insight and connection that comes from daily interaction.  Consequently, it is much harder to identify personal as well as professional interests as comprehensively.  In order to address this inhibitor, a manager should set aside time to talk to each employee on a regular basis at a fixed time. These “check in” conversations should address overall concerns or thoughts as well as task specific issues.  This regular interaction serves as the basis of a relationship between the manager and the employee.

Use Multiple Interaction Methods

Engagement relates closely to interaction and being in different locations makes interaction harder.  Consequently, having regular online meetings or utilizing more advanced, interactive software should be the minimum standard and not the only plan.  Online interaction needs to be supplemented with regular in-person meetings, joint project interaction, and team building exercises.  Although team building is expensive and might be considered superfluous, it is critical when that may be the basis of relationship formation for a team.

Encourage Work-Life Balance

Although in the early stages of telecommuting managers expressed concerns over people being less productive or spending work time on personal concerns, methods and tools for tracking work have improved dramatically and provide a nonintrusive “check and balance” system of management.  Today, more task or outcome based measures are utilized by managers and should be the focus of assessing performance in most settings, including remote working.  The other extreme of this continuum may be more of an issue: not dividing work time from home time.  For some, working from home may mean always working.  As a manager, it is important that you assist your employees with setting boundaries to avoid burnout.

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