Managing Remote Worker Morale

Mobile Worker

For years proponents of the mobile and remote workforce have been citing studies that show the benefits of letting your employees work outside the office.  These studies often focus on productivity (which is increased) and employee morale (which is often—initially—improved).  Indeed, as Estelle James of HR Magazine notes, “flexible working can alleviate stress caused by the inability to balance work and family while also eliminating (or reducing) the cost of traveling and childcare expenses. This can result in a tighter focus and higher work quality.”

The results have been so well propagated in the media that somewhere near 50% of companies (plus or minus depending on whose figures you trust) will offer remote work opportunities in 2013.  However, remote work has a darker side as well.

According to statistics obtained through online poling by SurveyMonkey, 46% of the 500 employees questioned reported that they wouldn’t be nearly as satisfied with their work environment if their employer forced them to come back to the office.  This sense of entitlement is deep rooted and 6% said they’d quit if the issue was forced.

So, as you can see, once the door to remote working is opened it’s very hard to close.

And in spite of all the positive effects and popularity of remote work, morale often does take a hit after extended periods.  As Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s controversial new CEO, discovered remote workers can become disassociated with their fellow employees, their company, and the company’s goals.  This often leads to a sense of isolation and disenfranchisement.

So how can you keep a remote workforce in place and overcome the eventual slump in morale?

1)     Let Them Work When They Want

Even in an office setting no two people work the same way.  Some may be more active in the morning when they’re fresh and rested while others prefer to put their nose to the grindstone in the afternoon…after they’ve had a chance for a pot or two of coffee to soak in.  When a company okays remote work, those differences are magnified.  People love working outside the office because it allows them to structure their job around their personal life (to some extent anyway).  That means that employers must be willing to let them do just that.  You can’t dictate that your remote workers be at their home office from 8AM to 5Pm Monday through Friday.  You can, however, ensure that they complete all of the tasks they’re responsible for.

When embracing a remote work environment, managers and owners have to shift their criteria for evaluation from work habits to results.  As long as your people are getting everything done, it’s okay to let them burnt he midnight oil.

2)     Communicate Better (And More)

It’s a faulty assumption that remote workers need less communication with the company as a whole and their managers on an individual level.  Remote workers needs just as much communications (maybe more so) than their office-bound compatriots in order to feel like they’re a part of the organization.  Increased communication counteracts the tendency remote employees have of becoming “lone wolves” who refuse to work as part of the team.  Keep in mind that weekly conference call may not be enough.  You may need a daily chat, video call, or email just to stay in touch and make them feel like what they’re doing actually has an effect on the company as a whole.  And don’t forget about face time.  Even if your remote employees are very remote it’s always a good idea to bring them in from the cold on occasion and meet face to face.

But communication isn’t a one-way street.  Managers need to keep the lines open and accessible for when an employee has a question, needs reassurance, or just wants to suggest an alternative procedure.

3)      Give Feedback Religiously

Part of your regular communication should be on an interpersonal level, not just formal performance reviews, to help your remote workers “bond” with the company but a majority should be constructive feedback (positive or critical) that helps them see what they’re doing and the way they should be doing it.  Not only will the feedback shape the overall outcome, it will reinforce the connection between employer and remote employee.

But again, feedback isn’t a one-way street.  You should be listening to the suggestion your remote workers are offering up because they could lead to better ways to work.

4)     Let Them See You Working

One of the biggest complaints that employees have (whether remote or in-house) is that their bosses never seem to do anything.  Sometimes, realistically, the boss isn’t doing anything.  But most of the time that negative impression is created when the employees just don’t see the work that goes on while they’re not looking.  While you can’t (and shouldn’t) broadcast your daily tasks across the company’s website, you can engage with your workers in a way that makes them see the value of what you do.  Additionally, by modeling successful, productive behaviors rather than putting on airs you provide a good example of the ethic they should be aspiring to.

5)     Establish Respect

A large part of this interpersonal and professional relationship building is about respect.  By showing your employee that you respect (and trust) them enough to offer them the ability to work from outside the office, you’re really building a positive impression of yourself and the company.  However, you can’t just let a remote worker run wild.  By engaging in informative and worthwhile communication, delivering feedback, and inviting communication upstream you’re really strengthening that relationship and showcasing the benefits of their unique position.  Treat everyone as you would be treated yourself—you can’t demand respect.

6)     Build a Team and Team Players

Make time for team building exercises—and include everybody on the team (don’t forget about your remote workers).  These exercises don’t have to be expensive long weekends doing rope courses or paintball excursions (but they could be).  Something as simple as a pot luck company picnic at a local park or a charity bowling event can bring remote employees in to socialize with their coworkers and provide a sense of unity.  You may also want to take the morale building down to a more personal level.  As Jacqueline Hames of Inc.com says, recognize special events in the lives of your employees and their families.  By acknowledging birthdays, births, anniversaries, etc. you create a sense of caring and community—that goes a long way

Cultivate Inclusion To Keep Morale High

All of these suggestions essentially boil down to creating a sense of inclusion.  Your remote employees need to feel like they’re a valued part of the company and that what they’re doing really does make a difference.  Of course, they also need to know what’s going on in the office in order to do their jobs correctly, so don’t leave them out in the cold.  Keep in touch regularly, reward diligence, model enviable behaviors, and loosen the leash a little—but not too much!  Remote employees are still employees and should be held to the same standards as everyone in the office.

Managing Remote Worker Morale