by Tiffany Robinson

Employee engagement has been a hot topic over the past decade with many companies increasing the number of perks and benefits offered in order to become an attractive place to work and a hard place to leave.

If your company hasn’t embraced the idea of “work hard play hard” yet, it’s past the time to get on that bandwagon in order to stay in the competition. You can check out how the employee reviews at Glass Door rate these top companies when it comes to onsite engagement. And be sure to type in your own company to see how you fare amongst the competition.

Now that “anybody who’s anybody enjoys being at work,” what’s next? Has the world of work hit its peak? Are you saying we couldn’t possibly make it any better?

Of course not. The world of work will always be in a continuous flux, mainly due to emerging technologies designed to change our lives every day. So just when you think everything is hunky dorey, BAM, you’ve got a new problem to solve. Thus is life.

Since 2012 I have worked as a “virtual employee”, not to be confused with “virtually an employee”, which I’ve found is often and unwittingly confused when working in organizations that have both virtual and brick and mortar teams.

While companies have soared in their success to engage their workforce through game rooms as break rooms, endless candy in the lobby, department soccer leagues, and even scheduled nap times, these incredible perks hold very little engagement value for me, the virtual team member, working at home 1,000 miles away from my nearest co-worker, and desperately wanting that lobby candy. (Although, admittedly, I do partake in nap perks from time to time).

Along with the missing perks and benefits, there is also the sense of value that can be easily lost when you are sitting alone at home 5 days out of the week, waiting for someone to remember you are there.

(Cue the tiny violin)

The fact is, watching co-workers enjoy the perks of working at the office from afar, and not being able to partake in the day-to-day can be professionally crippling for a virtual employee. And with technology moving our workforce out of the brick and mortar setting and into the world of remote teams, we run the risk of alienating a majority of the work force and losing the overall employee engagement, and we have already discovered that a happy team is the key to any company’s profitable success.

So, it’s time to jump on a new bandwagon. A “virtual bandwagon”… not to be confused with “virtually a bandwagon”.

It’s hard to add any perks.

In an office, engagement tactics appear to center around perks. Lobby Candy, company soccer leagues, and all the rest are offerings to keep your team happy, but very few have anything to do with the actual job. They are really geared toward unwinding, bonding, and balancing work and life.

The first concept to embrace is that working remotely is already the biggest perk a company can offer, and many (including myself) argue that it is the best perk! It allows employees the freedom and flexibility to perform their work around their life, instead of the other way around and unwind whenever they need to, which essentially replaces all the extra effort put into the bells and whistles at the brick and mortar office. Leaving the last piece of traditional engagement practices to tackle; team bonding.

Define the long distance relationship

Working on or managing a virtual team is quite similar to a long distance relationship. It requires regular and frequent check-ins and a fair amount of trust in order to survive.

As in any work relationship, setting ground rules up front makes it so everyone knows what’s expected of them, and leaves very little to be wondered (I wonder if I’m doing this right?). Consider these:

  • Work Times: Is the employee required to work a strict set of hours, or will the team or organization thrive with the team members flexing their time? Make sure everyone on the team is on the same page when it comes to when they are or need to be available.
  • Contact: Is it imperative that you are able to reach the employee at any time, or is it acceptable for the employee to return a message during the time they’ve designated for work? Only your business can tell you that, but this brings up the question of whether or not a virtual employee needs to install their email or instant messaging program on their mobile device.
  • Information Access: How will your team members receive important information? And also, how can they share it? Are you using a shared storage drive? A web site? A software program? Have one place that everyone has access to share working documents, files and even calendar entries (such as vacations), and make it the only place so everyone knows where to go to get the most current information to do their job.
  • Communication Style: Which way do you personally prefer to be contacted? Is it best to send a quick IM, or write it all out in an email? Perhaps you appreciate a spontaneous phone call, or perhaps you find phone calls an unpleasant distraction. Communicate your preferences to your team so they know best how to work with you.
  • Progress Updates: Regular meetings will need to occur in order for everyone to be on the same page. What does that schedule look like? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Set that expectation up front so team mates can plan their workloads accordingly.

Don’t hold your meetings at the water cooler.

If you are working in a blended environment, it’s important to even the playing field as much as possible. Now it will never be perfect, if you are working in an office next to Susie Q all day, you are bound to talk to her, learn about her kids, her new house she’s buying, office gossip, and anything else that goes along with sitting next to someone for 40 hours each week.

But when it comes to information about work that the whole team should know about, STOP.

Make it a point to hold meetings with the entire team in order to share information about changes in process, feedback on projects, issues, anything really that pertains to WORK.

Too often does Susie Q know what’s happening before the rest of the team because you were chatting over lunch in the break room. Two things happen when this occurs:

  1. You’ll never deliver information the same way twice, or 3 times and especially not 4 or 5 times if you decide to tell each team member individually. A message dilutes each time you relay it.
  2. Susie Q is seen as a contact for inside information BEFORE you can tell your team, which creates distrust, and having your team reach out to random people for information that you should be delivering, leads to misunderstandings, rumors, resentment, and overall bad productivity.

“Out of Sight, Keep in Mind”

Just because someone chooses to perform their career from home, doesn’t mean they aren’t as valuable as someone who chooses to work in an office. Often times when an employee isn’t seen every day, they run the risk of being overlooked in daily business tasks. While it is a reflex to move your chair over to Susie Q’s desk for some help, make it a reflex to pick up the phone and contact other team mates when it comes to brainstorming ideas, problem solving, and project opportunities.

Reaching out regularly for input on the business not only cements that your employee is seen as a valuable addition to the team, but gives them the opportunity to gain insight into a business that they are typically removed from. And the more insight your employees have, they more strategic they can be in their work.

Embrace Technology

Collaboration tools are invaluable in the world of remote work. My company uses Skype for Business which allows us to chat at any time individually or as a group, share our screens, make instant phone calls, and even VIDEO calls! At any time (if willing)we can turn on our cameras and talk face to face. And there is no better way to bond then to share a cup of coffee with your co-worker in the morning.

Collaborating on projects is simple when using these tools. And it also allows for impromptu brainstorming sessions, troubleshooting, or anything else that you would typically roll your chair over to Susie Q for.

Release the need to Control

If a team mate is working virtually, you honestly have no idea where they are or what they are doing, which means it takes a specific type of person to work remotely. One who is independent, self-reliant, a decent communicator, and trustworthy.

When I first started on virtual team, my then manager told me something that stuck with me. Whereas normally you need to earn a co-workers trust, deciding to engage in a virtual team relationship means you have no choice but to start off with a fair amount of trust.

Whether your 1000 miles away at your desk, or 1001 miles away at the coffee shop… it really doesn’t make a difference in how you interact, what makes a difference is how well you do your job, and that’s up to you.

It’s completely normal to wonder what everyone else is doing when you’re sequestered in a little room all by yourself each day. With my team, I imagine them creating incredible work, diving in at all hours, dedicated spirits that will stop at nothing to do the best job they can, 24 hours a day!!! And then I feel bad about myself and the amount of work that I do. Which is why there is nothing more important than…

Pulse Checks

This is the most important part of being a virtual employee, and not virtually an employee. I AM A PERSON! And I need other people.

Pick up the phone, send an IM, and reach out in some way to your team mates AT LEAST once a day. See how they are doing, because in my experience if you do not do this, they too are sitting there thinking of how incredible you are at our job and feeling alone and sequestered themselves.

Random interactions throughout the day imitate what you would experience in a brick and mortar office when you stop by someone’s cube to see how their kid’s school play went the night before. You get a sense for a person’s well-being, their stress levels, their project loads, and their home life, everything you would typically know about your office co-workers. Pulse checks are the single most important piece of engagement in creating a bond that can span time zones.

Meet in person

I know this is contradictory to the whole idea of working remotely, but virtual teams who gather at least once a year form a stronger working bond, creating loyalty to their team and their organization. Making the financial investment to fly your team members to a centralized location (typically the corporate office), will pay for itself in increased productivity and less turnover. Meeting your team mates in person and spending a good chunk of time together (say a week?) allows you to gain insight into each other’s personalities, communication styles, and increase the bond that has already been created throughout the year. These meetings are perfect to get to know one another on a more personal level, develop strategies for your team to move forward, and FINALLY take advantage of that lobby candy!

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