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5 ways to engage remote workers

It is increasingly common for employees to wish to work from home on the
odd occasion, in cases like transport strikes or last year’s snowy weather, or on a permanent basis to give them a better work-life balance.  Many not for profit managers also have to manage ground staff based overseas or in distant locations.

This means that enabling and managing remote working is becoming increasingly important to not for profit organisations - 86% of third sector decision makers say it is their key technical challenge.

But remote working can lead to employees feeling isolated and demotivated, as well as leaving their line managers in the dark about progress.  How can you manage remote staff to make them an effective part of a team?

Why use remote workers?

One of the most common reasons for employees choosing to work from home is to improve their work-life balance, eg giving them time to pick their kids up from school.  Flexible working is one of the key benefits that attracts staff to a third sector organisation (as shown in TPP’s fundraising recruitment survey), so being able to offer remote working is a definite advantage in sourcing top-quality employees.

Working remotely is also traditionally perceived to improve efficiency, as employees are happier and less stressed.  BT claim that flexible employees who choose remote working are 20% more productive than their office-based counterparts, while absenteeism has been reduced by 60%.   Allowing primarily office-based employees to work from home on the odd occasion can also greatly improve morale and therefore productivity.

Remote working also opens up opportunities for people living with disabilities, who might find it hard to work if they had to travel to an office, helping to improve your organisation’s diversity and giving you a wider pool of potential employees.

Many not for profit organisations, particularly those working in international development, prefer to employ local staff who are native speakers to run their programmes overseas.  However, these employees are often ultimately managed from the UK.

Enabling employees to work from home can also allow money-conscious charities to save, as overhead costs are cut and productivity is maintained if staff cannot get in to work, as in last year’s period of snowy weather, in which snow absence rates in the UK were estimated to reach almost 14% and cost the economy £0.5bn a day.

1.  Hire the right employees

Managing your home workers to ensure they stay effective starts right at the point of recruitment.  Selecting the right staff is important – look for employees with previous successful experience of remote working and justifiable reasons for wanting to work from home.  Even if they are not office-based, it is still important that they fit with the organisation and team culture.

It is also important to make sure that contracts set down the terms of remote working clearly, and measures of performance are in place from the start.   Make sure these are consistent across all your remote and office-based staff to avoid generating resentment.

Also detail the parameters of this type of work arrangement. If employees are working off-site, how quickly do you expect them to respond to e-mails, pages or phone calls? Can they work a flexible schedule or do they need to perform their jobs during specific hours? What technologies will be made available to employees to facilitate working remotely? How many days a week can people telecommute? etc.  Not every position lends itself to a teleworking arrangement

The more effort you put into defining requirements such as these early on, the less complicated it will be to supervise people once they are off-site.  TPP has recruited many remote workers to the third sector, and we can offer great advice and help to organisations looking to recruit home workers.

2.  Keep remote workers included

Managing remote workers is all about inclusion – it is all too easy to overlook employees not in the office.  Include remote workers in all team meetings, either in person or via a conference call or on speakerphone, and make sure they are invited to staff events, even informal ones like team drinks.

Lack of opportunities to chat informally with colleagues can also hinder working relationships, as it makes it harder for fellow employees to build the rapport that helps with collaborative projects.  Encouraging all group members to hold frequent discussions can help to keep teleworkers engaged, even if it’s just to let everyone know that work is progressing to schedule.

Where possible, you should also encourage your remote workers to visit the office on a regular basis, eg for monthly catch-ups or for important group meetings.  This allows them to meet their colleagues face-to-face.  If this is not possible, organisation charts and staff profiles with pictures can help remote employees put faces to names.

3.  Train in steps

It’s important to make sure that remote workers aren’t forgotten about when it comes to staff training, both at the start and throughout their careers.

When office staff are trained, a manager can constantly oversee their progress and give instant feedback.  With remote staff, this process is much harder but can be avoided by training in chunks, or scaffolding.  Essentially, the training programme is split into steps and a new employee must be able to demonstrate that they are fully competent in each stage before they can progress.

Training this way means that a manager can be fully confident that their remote employee can handle tasks on their own without constant feedback and support.

4.  Set goals and monitor progress

It is usually necessary to have a more formal schedule of update meetings with remote employees than office-based staff.  Ideally, you should aim to have a quick daily phone call with each remote worker, followed by a longer weekly catch-up.

You need to be even more clear when setting goals for remote workers; making sure that the expectations of both parties are agreed at the start of each project and a schedule of formal contact to monitor progress is set.  There should be clear procedures in place for remote workers to follow and people to contact if things start to go wrong at any point.

When it comes to monitoring the productivity of remote workers, managers have an advantage, in that there is usually an extensive document trail to help them investigate concerns or problems, for example by checking when employees were logged into a network.

5.  Keep improving your processes

If you are successfully using remote workers, it is important to keep evaluating and improving your processes.  Feedback from both remote and office-based workers about how the situation is progressing is vital to make sure both sides remain happy.  New technology is constantly being developed that can help to make remote workers more integrated with the rest of the team.

Most importantly - don't distance yourself from team members. Be available to them, this will increase the trust they have in you and let's you show them that you respect them.

Examples

Some case studies on remote working from the not for profit sector:

NPC slashes ICT costs and risk to maximize its impact
Home-based workers fundraise for charity: Actionaid's NTT operation
Case Study: New Charter Housing Group