Your organization might not have a single remote employee to its name, but it’s likely that will change sooner than you think. Year after year, the remote workforce is increasing its share of the working population, and we need to be building company culture to support them.
In the recently released State of the American Workplace 2017 report, Gallup estimates 43% of the US labor force works outside of the office at least some of the time. What’s more, nearly a third of all remote employees do more than 80% of their work off-site. That statistic in particular has seen a marked increase from 2012, where just 24% of telecommuting employees performed the majority of their work remotely.
On the surface, it may appear that remote employees receive a more flexible and indulgent work experience than their on-site colleagues. They don’t have to work with their boss over their shoulder. There is no formal dress code which means they can work in their pajamas. Their “office” can change location at their whim, including the coffee shop or the couch.
But remote work comes with its own set of challenges. Despite the ostensible freedoms of telecommuting, remote employees are often left high and dry when it comes to being included in company culture.
Before the hyper-connected world in which we now inhabit, we didn’t have to worry about where company culture lived or how to extend it beyond the confines of the company’s headquarters. Regardless of whether or not it had formal documentation, building company culture was traditionally created and led by the founders of an organization. It was, and still is, the guiding principles and beliefs that manifest themselves in the norms, traditions, and behaviors that we uphold and perform while we’re doing our work. Culture permeates every aspect of a company in written, unwritten, formal, and informal capacities. It exists in the way we create our work policies, hangs in the air while we collaborate together at our workstations, and guides our hiring practices.
In the past, I’ve likened the way we experience culture to an employee’s first day on the job. When new hires start work, they experience an onboarding process—training, meetings, first assignments, appointments with HR—where people tell them how things should work. Later that day, they go out to lunch and, through socializing with their colleagues, learn how things really work. In the span of one day, they’ve experienced a unique combination of the company culture’s formal and informal elements, preparing them for their tenure with the organization.
These dynamic elements, however, can be lost in translation when it comes to remote employees. And although the first day comparison is just one of the many ways company culture manifests itself, we need to think holistically about how building company culture can become inclusive to remote employees.
Be intentionally inclusive
Everybody, from leadership to remote staff to their on-site colleagues, needs to stay vigilant about the fact that not everyone is reporting to work under the same roof. Humans have a natural tendency to be self-involved creatures—the saying out of sight, out of mind comes to, well, mind. If you have remote employees, you might be aware of how easy it is to forget to dial them in for important meetings. Leadership must be more rigorous about remembering to involve these out of sight employees in important company functions, but remote employees also need to be more vocal about making themselves known. A person working off-site often has to do more of the heavy lifting to stay top-of-mind and in-the-know. They must be prepared to chase down their colleagues to be included in important discussions and initiatives.
Beyond that, the reduced visibility of remote employees should not equate to reduced opportunity. Make sure you’re challenging your remote staff with growth opportunities. It’s all too easy to give the most engaging work opportunities to the employees you can see. But you can mitigate this unconscious bias by discussing professional development opportunities with your remote employees during weekly check-ins.
The same technology that enables your employees to work remotely can bring also bring them into a more involved experience at company headquarters. When you’re planning meetings, don’t relegate your remote staff to being just disembodied voices over the phone. Video conferencing solutions are now ubiquitous and inexpensive enough that there’s no excuse for your remote employees not to have some form of visual presence in your meetings.
Video calls are more than just the latest attempt to replicate face-to-face communication. They’re literally a more engaging way to hold your meetings. Studies show that when conference calls are just phone calls, employees are more likely to disengage from the meeting and perform other work or discretionary tasks. By contrast, multi-sensory calls like video conferencing demand more of your attention. Although nothing can quite replicate the feeling of another person’s presence in a shared space, video calls will lead to more enriching workplace communication with your remote staff.
Looking outside the scope of productivity communications, consider implementing mobile communications technology to leverage social interactions between your remote and on-site teams. These tools are vehicles for expressive social communication, and can help your remote staff build important relationships with their colleagues. As we’ve written in the past, human relationships play a critical role in shaping engagement and culture at work.
Trust your people
At Bonfyre, we talk a lot about the importance of trust in everything from the relationships that form between colleagues to the engagement and culture initiatives put forth by an organization. It doesn’t matter if trust isn’t one of your core values; if you don’t make trust a priority, it’ll erode your relationships with your remote employees.
Trust is the secret ingredient that makes digital workplaces successful. Although you may not be able to directly monitor your remote staff’s performance, you don’t have carte blanche to micromanage them. In fact, remote employees are often more productive than their on-site counterparts. Trust them to do the job you hired them for and direct your energy to more valuable endeavors.
Instead of focusing solely on outcomes, clearly define your expectations of your remote employees, and how they can perform their duties with integrity on an individual-level. By establishing proper guidelines, you give your remote employees explicit cultural benchmarks to uphold, which you can in turn manage for. When a problem arises, you can point to your guidelines to guide and redirect the behavior.
Reimagine your employee experiences & events
In the past, it was assumed that one of the disadvantages of telecommuting was that remote employees would naturally miss out on company happenings. However, as remote employees consume a larger and larger share of the labor force, this belief becomes an actively exclusionary practice. Building company culture in a way that includes these virtual workers in its experiences communicates that those people are just a valued as on-site staff.
Recently, Bonfyre held an in-office event in observance of Equal Pay Day. We were fortunate that our entire staff was on-site and eager to participate in the event, but if we had people working remotely that day, we’d rescale our efforts to create a shared experience. This starts by communicating with your remote employees and giving them the flexibility to choose how they want to engage in the event.
If there are few enough employees, and it’s financially feasible, you could fly your remote staff in for the event. But in all likelihood, you’ll incorporate a technology solution. If you have a guest speaker, as we did for the Bonfyre Women Ignite event, you could video conference them in. If there are enough remote employees within close proximity you could arrange for a separate guest speaking event near their location. Again, mobile communications platforms are valuable tools for driving digital connections alongside these employee experiences. These tools enable remote employees to share expressive content and drive conversations themed all around the event’s core focus.
We’re well on our way to experiencing the widespread integration of remote employees into our workforce, but the time to prepare is now. If company culture is not flexible enough to adapt to shifting work demographics, we’ll be neglecting an increasingly significant segment of our work population.