The way we work is changing, moving away from 9-to-5 rigidity and deeper into more flexible, make-your-own working conditions and the 21st-century professional landscape is a direct reflection of this. According to a 2017 Gallup report, 43 percent of American workers worked remotely at some point in 2016, up from 39 percent in 2012. What's more, the report also found that flex hours and the ability to work from home "play a major role in an employee's decision to take or leave a job."
Personally, I've been a full-time, work-from-home freelancer for four years now, and my monthly workflow is a patchwork of gigs from a variety of clients. As a remote worker, my biggest challenge, believe it or not, isn't productivity. In fact, there's a substantial amount of research, as cited in the Harvard Business Review, suggesting that remote workers may be more productive than in-office employees. For me, and many others, the challenge of working remotely is engagement with the culture and values of a company where I may never meet the people I am working with face-to-face.
How can companies engage remote workers so that they really feel like part of the team? As our culture at large rethinks the way work takes place, office and people and culture managers can lean into the change and take actionable steps to bridge the gap between remote employees and their in-office colleagues.
Rethink employee engagement with your onboarding process
Whether you're bringing on a full-time remote employee or a steady work-from-home freelancer, communicating your organization's values and mission is key to engagement. Unfortunately, as I can tell you from my own experience, this doesn’t always happen. When working with new clients, I'm sometimes given assignments without any context.
For those bringing on remote hires, brief them on the basics such as: What is your company's big-picture goal? Who are you trying to reach? What matters to you and why? When I don’t get this information, I have to spent a lot of searching on my client’s website and social media handles to try to understand who they are and what their message is so I can ensure my work is hitting the right cultural note. Even with background research, without hearing about a team's culture directly from a company, remote workers can often feel like they are guessing.
"It’s important to brief remote workers on company culture and values because they will have to live with it, breathe it, and accept the culture even if they're working remotely," says Jocelyn Greenky, office culture, politics and diversity expert.
Greenky adds that in-office mentors can be hugely impactful for engaging remote workers because they foster natural, organic relationships that can better relay the big-picture culture. Consider connecting them with an in-house employee who can fill them in on company-wide initiatives and happenings, which can help engage workers who aren't physically in the office.
Create opportunities for unity, engagement, and cohesion
While it may not be possible for far-flung workers to make it into the office, there's a lot to be said for those who can. As Victor Fleischer reported in The New York Times, some experts link casual personal interactions with boosted employee engagement, creativity, and innovation.
"One of the most important things a remote worker can do is show up as much as possible," says Greenky, adding that distant workers can take advantage of video platforms to stay visible and connected.
Is it possible to incentivize coming into the office once or twice a week? Something as simple as a weekly staff breakfast can provide opportunities for organic connections and engagement. When it comes to big company events, like annual sales meetings, for instance, is there room in the budget to accommodate remote workers, especially who are part of the core team?
You can also extend this way of thinking to company retreats; it's all about finding creative ways to physically bring everyone together whenever possible.
Modern offices are not starved for tech. Platforms like Slack, GoToMeeting and Join.me have become ubiquitous in 21st-century office life. This kind of connective tech is even more important for engaging remote workers, who can feel out of the loop with regard to day-to-day operations. Greenky is a big fan of Zoom, which allows for on-the-spot video conferencing, and I agree.
In my own experience, this kind of face-to-face communication is refreshing and really makes me feel engaged and more like part of the team. As HR expert Susan M. Heathfield laid out in The Balance, the importance of nonverbal communication can't be overstated. Things like eye contact, body language and facial expressions go a long way when it comes to emotionally connecting. Unfortunately, this all falls through the cracks when communicating via email, Slack messages and traditional phone calls.
"I'm a big believer in the power of a video call," says Rebecca Fairbanks, a remote digital producer for Coalition Technologies, a California-based web design agency. "Team trainings and almost all of our company meetings are done through a video call. Whether I'm using Google Hangouts or Skype, a video call is a great way for me and other remote workers to feel a personal connection with those in office."
Some companies with remote workers set up a video stream of a common area, such as a kitchen or lounge, that remote employees can tune into to see what’s going on in the main office and get a sense of the rhythm of office life there.
Widen the relationship to a personal level
Creating authentic relationships with remote workers can be a challenge. While in-office employees can chat about last night's Game of Thrones while waiting for the copy machine, fostering those engaging connections for remote workers take a little more forethought.
"Once a year, my team does a company-wide talent show where all team members are encouraged to sign up and submit a video showcasing their talent," says Fairbanks, adding that the tradition helps bring all workers together on a personal level. "A deadline is provided and once all team members have placed their submissions, the entire company watches each submission video as a group and votes on the best talent."
Her company also holds a biweekly "beer and brainstorming session" where everyone comes together to talk shop in a more relaxed way. Using video chat software, remote workers can easily pull up a chair (and their favorite drink) and engage with the rest of the team.
"I’ve personally noticed that some of the greatest company improvement ideas have stemmed from one of our beer and brainstorming sessions," says Fairbanks.
Even something as simple as creating a silly Slack channel can help humanize remote workers and in-office employees alike. These types of outlets also ensure that remote employees remain visible to their colleagues, even if they are not present in the office. For example, one company I worked for had a Slack channel devoted to ridiculous GIFs that had nothing to do with work. Nine times out of 10, they provided a good laugh.
Every company is structured slightly differently and has different expectations for their employees. Creating a culture that is welcoming for a remote workforce is about clearly communicating your company values and expectations and finding unique ways to cultivate a sense of employee engagement, community, and personal investment for all, whether in-office or remote.
Illustration by Tin Nguyen