Keeping Remote Employees Engaged

woman working on her laptop in a living room

Confessions of a Digital Nomad

She’s a millennial. Part of a 40-person technology team. Like her engineer colleagues who work from different geographic locations across North America, she’s one of many remote employees. A member of a global nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas. Most of us know her employer as TED Talks.

Twice a year, Brenna O’Brien and her cohorts gather for a “Summit” at different cities of their choosing for face-to-face time. They discuss big picture issues, consider recent technologies and new processes, and enjoy spirited camaraderie. Outside of these two onsite events, engineers work from their own preferred location. Brenna mostly works from her home office, a dedicated space lush with plants and a bright bay window overlooking Toronto. Occasionally she co-works at mutually convenient coffee shops with friends who work remotely too. And as a cottage owner, she’s known to sets up shop in a space with vistas of rippling water, granite shorelines, and towering pine.  All she really needs is a laptop and internet connection and she’s good to go. No wonder 82 per cent of telecommuters like her report low stress levels.

How does Brenna find the life of a digital nomad? “I LOVE it,” she enthuses. A survey by AfterCollege suggests policies that cultivate a flexible, fun, and casual work environment have a positive impact on young talent. The stat to support this? Well, seemingly some 68 percent of job-seeking millennials say they’d jump at the opportunity to work remotely. Suffice it to say that option greatly increases their interest in employers who offer it.

The same can be said for baby boomers too, those people with decades of knowledge and experience coursing through their veins. A jackpot of talent worthy of attention. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, “Americans over the age of 64 are working more than any other time since the turn of the century.” And according to a survey by the AARP, “74 percent of older Americans want work flexibility and 34 percent would like to work from home.”

Trust Employees to be Accountable

Brenna also confesses she works more effectively, not having a lot of interruptions or meetings. The stimulation level, the noise and activity is a lot less. Studies from a variety of sources support this sentiment. According to data from SurePayroll, 86 percent of at-home employees say they prefer to work alone to hit maximum productivity. Two-thirds of managers say employees who work remotely increase their overall productivity. And a ConnectSolutions survey of remote workers found some 30 percent of respondents report they accomplish more in less time.

By 2020, it’s estimated nearly 168 million people in the U.S. will fall under the transient talent umbrella.  It’s a trend shaking up businesses worldwide. A global survey by PGi reports 79 percent of knowledge workers work from home. This same survey notes 60 percent of people who have had a taste of working remotely say they’d leave their current job for a full-time remote position at the same pay rate if the opportunity presented.

Reassess Organizational Culture and Structure

Welcome to the world of the virtual employee; a culture of empowerment, autonomy and engagement.

TED’s Technology Team knows this well and has intentionally adopted a vertical organizational structure. Within its group are smaller teams working on different projects. Reporting to the Chief Technology Officer, Brenna works as a front-end engineer building web apps for TED’s internal staff audience. Meetings for her group tend to be on a weekly basis. Some others do multiple check-ins each week. It varies.

There’s no management overlord. People with different skill sets work collaboratively with a team lead serving as the go-to liaison between the project group and their in-house or external clients. They also have core working hours within North American time zones. Hours can be flexed or shifted as needed, though the expectation for Brenna is to be online by 10:00a.m. EST. “I still get up and dressed and go through the morning routine as if I’m heading out to work,” she says.  It’s that wee bit of discipline that makes remote work, work for her, and TED.

Consider Bottom Line Benefits

Organizations with a remote workforce benefit from lower real estate and overhead costs say nothing of the environmentally conscientious image that comes with a smaller footprint. According to Forbes, Aetna shed 2.7 million square feet of office space, saving $78 million (some 14,500 of 35,000 employees don’t have an “in-office” desk). American Express reported annual savings of $10 million to $15 million because of its remote work options.

Additional studies cited by Remote.Co indicate employers who have embraced telecommuting have reduced their carbon footprint. Fewer folks commuting to and from work means less gas consumption, yes? And as oxymoron-ish as it may seem, remote employees like those at TED, Athena, and American Express are often more engaged with their work and colleagues than onsite workers.

Using Technology Functionally and Creatively

Brenna vouches for this. When she opted to work during TED’s annual two-week summer shutdown, she was taken aback. “I soon realized how much contact I have through phone calls and online chat. Day to day we keep in touch using a group chat app. For status update meetings or if there’s something to talk about face to face, problem-solving with another person for instance, then it’s video conferencing.”

Some of TED’s more novel efforts to keep remote employees connected and engaged include a chat line called watercooler that mimics the idea of social chit chat at the office (around the watercooler of course). Brenna regularly taps into a video call-in for daily afternoon exercise breaks.  And one of her colleagues took advantage of a TED Technology Team hack week to develop a chat room and tracking system that motivates coworkers to exercise with the support of exercise buddies accountable for their pals’ activity.

Is employee engagement a legit outcome of virtual working arrangements? Well, given Brenna’s end of chat comments about how TED is looking for employees (content writers included nudge-nudge, wink-wink), it would seem she’s a definite company ambassador. And we know from academic and empirical studies, including survey data from TalentMap, an engagement survey and software thought leader, top indicators of employee engagement are pride in your workplace and willingness to recommend your employer to others. Be that as it may, Brenna is one small voice in an ocean of many. But the stats cited earlier are compelling. And if the World Economic Forum carries any weight, its forecast (calling flexible work including remote employment one the biggest drivers of transformation in the workplace) might just be the nudge you need to get your organization on the telecommuting bandwagon and your employees ever more engaged.

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