John Stelmach is the President and CFO of Computhink, the developer of the document management Contentverse, a virtual document management system used by parts of the US Government and small to large businesses all over the world.
For every desk-bound cubicle-dweller, the dream is to work from home. No physical demands. No need to look over your shoulder. No need for pants. The glorious green grass of the work-from-home employee is a goal for many successful people (and not-so-successful people) and a great way to hire the best talent without having to pay to relocate them.
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The truth, for those of you demanding your boss lets you do it, is that it’s one of the more intensely hard-to-manage business processes. You go to work in an office because you at times do need to be near people. Or you won’t feel quite as part of the team if you’re not there.
Contrary to that belief, you can successfully run a well-cultured company with many parts located across a state, a country or even the world. It’s just challenging and requires even more discipline than might be necessary for a normal employee.
While companies like Google instill a company culture through a giant, all-encompassing campus, that’s not so practical when you need to hire a designer in the Czech Republic and a social media expert in Chicago. They may be ‘part of the company,’ but no amount of hands-on meetings and Skype chats are going to make them feel as important or engaged as the people in the office – unless you learn how to get them there.
To quote Harvard Business Review’s Frances Frei and Anne Morriss (cited by KISSMetrics in a fantastic post on Company Culture), “Culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off.”
The problem? Many virtual employees either don’t get one or find it irrelevant to their home office. You have to make that bridge.
1. Build or but the right tools and enforce them
While there may be no way for tools to make up for a sub-standard employee, the groundwork has to be laid to position them for success. You should attempt to combine both digital/social tools – such as Yammer.com for text communication, Google Hangouts for voice and video chat and – if it’s a particularly valuable person – spring for a robot.
Make it even easier to get in touch with their employees than if they were there in person – and make it clear that they need to be on these communication channels. While I’m hesitant to say there needs to be punishments enforced, you need to treat their presence on online channels as if you would someone not coming to the office.
2. Make them WANT to engage
While it’s great to be away from the hustle and bustle of the office, it’s lonely. They need to know they’re not only wanted but needed by the company.
Employees should be encouraged, if not rewarded, to actively work with the in-office employees. Require them to be on meeting calls with them, and tie (small – and not necessarily monetary) bonuses to participation. Make it clear that it’s required, but make it enjoyable.
It may seem ridiculous, but while it’s relieving to not have someone bearing down on you, it removes the requirement to stay focused. And by integrating them into the daily life of the company, you’re doing them a favor.
3. Bring the mountain to the home office
Take what you’re saving on real estate from that extra employee one or two months out of the year and bring them to the main office. Alternatively, take some members of the team to them.
The world of instant communication means you can hire just about anyone and put them to work – but you should show them they’re important enough to get your physical attention. It can be as simple as a nice dinner and a sit-down – all the way to hiring office space for a day and having a full team work there.
It might not be practical to do this with part-timers, but if you have to pay them a full-time salary, pay them a full-timer’s face-time.
4. Make them interact in their community (and benefit from their distance)
The disadvantage of a virtual employee is that they’re not based in your main office. However, that’s actually a great advantage. If you’re based in New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. or any major market and hire a long-distance employee outside of the particular business centers, you’re doing yourself a service.
Get that person – and make sure to pay their way – to attend any and all relevant networking and/or Chamber of Commerce events. Encourage them represent your company somewhere that you’re not. It’ll add virtual growth to your company without the physical extension of your own presence.
On top of that, you can also benefit from their objectivity. An employee not locked into the groupthink of the Silicon Valley elite can oftentimes tell you the facts about the real world.
For example, the average San Francisco tech-obsessed coder will sometimes overlook things that an average human being – such as a more ‘normal’ in, say, Atlanta. That knowledge is critical for your business if you’re looking to be more than just for the tech elite.
5. Make the base employees want to work with them (and distract them)
Employee interaction on a virtual level is ephemeral – it’s hard to make it stick beyond the professional. However, I’d consider an element (though not too powerful) of play added to any virtual workforce’s interaction with the office.
Make them play online games – perhaps if it’s a younger crowd – that encourage teamwork (for sports games – make sure it’s not too competitive on a person-to-person level). Perhaps a collaborative corner of WebCanvas could be dedicated to the entire company. Make it something that everyone is working on and building together.
We live in a time when geography in the workplace is becoming increasingly but not totally irrelevant. It’s really easy to hire someone and stick them with a laptop and a Skype account – it’s much harder to make them a cooperative and engaged worker.
Focus them by creating a company that they are part of not working for, one that they want to stay with despite their distance, and you’ll create an amazing extension of yourself.