When I first started working for Continuant in 2000, my commute was more than one hour each way—on a good day. Fortunately, I was able to work remotely three days a week. Someone from our IT department came to my house and set up the VPN and I was connected to the network. Soon after, an IP softphone was installed, and I had everything I could possibly need. Well, almost.
Those three days, although convenient, left me feeling disconnected from my team. We were growing fast and face-to-face communication with my team was vital. I quickly moved from working remotely three days a week to two, and eventually settled at no more than one. I knew the best way to achieve a real team environment and true collaboration was by being together under one roof. For the next several years, I sacrificed opportunities to hire great people if they couldn't work in our local headquarters. I was adamant that to be wildly successful we needed to have the entire team in the office.
Technology has come a long way since then. So has my view on creating successful cultures with remote team members. I now have a team that spans several cities and states, and I have come to learn that sometimes to get the best people it means providing the ability to work remotely. That said, I am still just as passionate about our creating an environment that cultivates collaboration and esprit de corps—one that actually enhances the world-class customer service culture that we have created.
The 2013 move by Marissa Meyer to bring the Yahoo! remote workforce back in-house initiated numerous articles and blog posts debating this topic, so I know it can be a sensitive one, but here are my thoughts.
Can Remote Workers Really Be a Part of the Team?
As a leader, it is my job to make business decisions that are ultimately in the best interests of the company. My priority is hiring the right people for the job and creating an environment that fosters the same passion I have for delivering an exceptional experience. But can a remote employee really feel like he or she is a part of the team? I firmly believe that if I first create an exceptional experience for my people, they will create an exceptional experience for our customers. And that means considering factors that impact my team and are important to them. The great thing about where technology has brought us today is that we have the ability to create distant and diverse teams that can operate even more effectively than teams drawn solely from local talent.
Here are three things to consider that will help you create an effective culture that embraces remote workers and fosters teamwork:
1. Use available technology
Instant Messaging (IM): IMing is a great tool for quick conversations. For me, it’s also an appropriate time for friendly conversation—“How is your morning going? How did your call with the customer go? Is it sunny in Virginia?” Because I have an open door policy and people can stop by and say hi, or ask a question, I want to make sure that remote workers feel they can do the same thing. Professional IM applications also provide a feature to enable conversation archives, which can be helpful when referring to a past conversation.
IP softphones: As I mentioned above, this technology has been around for several years. While mobile devices are ubiquitous, it is important that remote workers have access to all of the same features and functionality that they would have in the office—not only for them, but to provide a seamless experience for our customer.
Video: Video makes all the difference, in my opinion. There is nothing that beats face-to-face interaction. And, today’s video applications are simple and easy to use. Camera enabled laptops are affordable, as are accessory cameras. During a person-to-person interaction, less than 20% of communication is verbal. Video enables both parties to capture additional communication components like body language and facial expression. Not only is video necessary for creating positive team interaction, it is also a very under-utilized tool for creating a great customer experience.
2. Be thoughtful
Have regularly scheduled meetings: I mentioned earlier that people can just stop by my office. A remote worker doesn’t have this ability. He/she can’t just see if I’m in my office and available. And, if I am unavailable, instant messaging is not an option. Therefore, to stay current and connected, it is important that everyone has dedicated time that is consistently scheduled. Have remote workers attend meetings via video. Include them in everything that is said—don’t forget they are there. Email pertinent documents prior to the meeting so they have everything they need to participate like they were actually in the room. Ensure that everyone in the room is sensitive to remote workers being heard and having an opportunity to engage in the conversation.
Have regularly scheduled gatherings: I bring all of my team in to the office at least once a month. Each of them has a desk at our headquarters that belongs to them, so they feel this is their office as well. Whenever we have team events, trainings, or company-wide meetings they are encouraged to join in person. We make it easy for them to travel and work around their schedule as much as possible. Traveling can be hard, but it is my goal that when they want or need to come into the office, they enjoy it when they are here.
3. Create a collaborative culture
Use contests, games, and challenges to build camaraderie: I love to play. For example, I am currently running a fun contest modeled after the television show “Shark Tank”. For Shark Tank competition, we have divided the entire customer experience team into several smaller teams that include both local and remote workers who will collaborate through video conference, IM, email, etc. to come up with a new, innovative idea to improve the Continuant customer experience. Then, they will present their idea to the management team Shark Tank-style. The winning team will not only roll out their idea to the Customer Service Center for implementation, but will also be taken out for a celebratory lunch. Remote workers will be brought into the office for both the presentation and lunch.
Not only do contests like this create a fun and competitive environment, but it also keeps the team, both remote and onsite, working closely together. With smart use of technology and the right culture, remote workers can thrive as a valued member of the team.