Because virtual workers don’t necessarily interact with their coworkers every day–and miss out on having the informal conversations that pop up on-site–they can often struggle to establish and maintain friendships with their colleagues.
Not only can missing out on the after-work happy hours, lunch breaks, and other on-the-fly activities that help on-site employees bond make them feel a little alienated…sometimes, being out of sight can lead to off-site workers feeling less committed to your team.
And if you think we’re talking about just a few folks here and there, think again: last year, believe it or not, 40% (!) of the worldwide workforce worked remotely, according to a Harvard Business Review study.
Considering this current landscape, it seems pretty clear that managers need to be extra thoughtful and strategic about making sure remote workers feel valued and connected with the culture of the organization. So beyond just ‘being nice’–what might this actually look like?
Well, here are five practical things managers of remote workers can start doing right now. (And if you’re not a manager of virtual folks yourself, consider passing these on to the people at your company who are!)
1. When you hire a new virtual worker try to onboard them on site, as opposed to from afar.
Think of this event not only as a team-building event, but a celebration of the new person. That’s right. Celebrate the contributions the virtual employee has already made to the organization (if this applies) and explain how her contributions will be even greater in the presence of her on-site colleagues.
Introduce her to the entire team to foster coworker relations, and encourage onsite team members to reach out and make her feel comfortable. And last but not least, provide the appropriate keys, supplies, and office space so the employee feels there really is a spot for her within the organization. (It’s amazing how something as simple as providing a space in which to work can make off-site folks feel included.)
2. Schedule regular check-ins to your virtual workers.
Start with establishing a weekly 15-minute telephone call to ‘catch up,’ have fun, and assess progress. Adjust the frequency of the meetings according to your and your employees’ needs.
3. Reward them with place-specific treats.
Practically every town or city has a restaurant or store that all the locals go to. When a virtual employee does great work, take ten minutes to find out what that place is…and send them something from there. Does everybody in Appletown love Grandma Vetter’s Donuts? Send over a box of the chocolate glazed as a gift. Not only will this employee feel touched that you bothered to reward them, they’ll be touched that you bothered to find out a little about the place they call home.
4. Find creative ways to include them in company events held on-site.
If the team at ‘home office’ is having a pizza party, send over a coupon for a pizza from a local joint (or better yet, send a pizza directly). If possible, patch virtual employees in via video/Skype so they can see and hear what’s going on. Make sure to invite virtual employees to the one or two big company events–the holiday party or the big summer cookout.
5.Take special pains to reply to emails in a timely fashion.
When you work in the same space with someone you can quickly swing by their desk to follow up on something. And you can gauge how busy they are–or what mood they’re in–by just glancing over at their desk.
This obviously isn’t possible for virtual employees. As a result, if you don’t return a phone call, or forget to reply to an email–virtual employees are more likely to let their imaginations run wild and presume there’s a negative reason for the gap in communication. There’s something you’re not telling them. You don’t consider their time important. And so forth.
So…make an extra effort to reply back to their emails and phone calls in a timely matter, to make virtual employees feel connected to the whole…and to remind them how much you care about them. To use a baseball analogy, these consistent singles lead to regular game wins, and, ultimately, a winning season.
In short, if you’re in a position to advise managers on how to deal with remote employees–or if you’re one yourself–make sure to reject the old adage: out of sight, out of mind. Instead, take a few extra minutes out of your day to provide the human touch virtual employees appreciate so much.