It might sound contradictory, but letting people work from home creates a more engaged staff. At BECU ($10.8B; Seattle, WA), 40% of employees work remotely in a program that has been in place since 2007. According to remote workforce manager Nathan Hickman, absenteeism is 30% less for workers who toil off site compared to those who commute to the office every day. The program has been an especially good fit for call center agents whose work requires few face-to-face meetings with the boss. Still, keeping tabs on far-flung employees calls for a different management style, one that allows supervisors to rest easy knowing that the work is getting done even as it reassures home-based staff members that they haven't been forgotten. With that in mind, Hickman offers these tips for managing a remote workforce.
1. Create Visibility
People who are out of sight shouldn't be invisible. Those brief glimpses we have of colleagues throughout the day — passing them in the hallway or walking by their desks — tell us who's in the office and who isn't. To re-create that visibility virtually, Hickman and his staff rely on an instant messaging feature that places color-coded dots next to the names of every employee so the entire team knows at a glance who's present and who's not.
2. Stay Connected
Communication is a two-way street: Managers want regular updates from their home-based employees who in turn need to know how they can contact their supervisor if a problem or question arises. One BECU call center supervisor emails her staff each morning with her schedule, sharing where and how employees can reach her throughout the day. Regularly checking in with remote employees helps managers stay abreast of developments, including project progression and whether they need to iron out any difficulties.
"It's the same conversation we have with people on-site except it has to be more structured because it can't happen as informally as it would in the office," Hickman says.
3. Be Inclusive
Just because someone works off-site doesn't mean managers can't consult them in a pinch.
"A lot of things in the office happen off the cuff," Hickman says. "If you're in a meeting and a question suddenly comes up, you might decide to reach out to this person who works remotely."
That strategy satisfies on two fronts. Managers get their questions answered promptly and the remote staffer feels included.
4. Host Regular Visits
Credit unions simply can't replicate some activities virtually, which is why Hickman invites the entire team to come to the office once or twice a month for luncheons and meetings. This gives all staff, remote and on-site alike, the chance to mix and mingle. When BECU introduced this practice, Hickman made an important discovery.
"People who work in the office benefit just as much from seeing their peers who work off-site," he says. "It's just as important for them to feel connected to their colleagues as it is for those who work from home."
5. Go For A Test Drive
Although their job is generally better suited to working on-site, managers should work from home periodically to understand what it's like.
"You can speak the language of working remotely better if you've done it yourself," Hickman says.
Working from home also enables managers to test the tools and practices remote employees use daily to secure sensitive information, which helps alleviate or address technical concerns a manager might have.
6. Keep Technology Simple
Along with instant messaging, BECU managers use email, phone calls, and Skype to stay in touch with their off-site employees, but Hickman cautions, "don't over-think technology." Managers tend to believe more sophisticated tools produce better results, which isn't always the case.
"If web and video conferencing aren't culturally inherent to your organization, don't use them," he says. "The best ways to engage your staff generally don't involve technology."
7. Make The Intranet Your Water Cooler
Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are fine for employees who want to socialize outside of the office, but the credit union needs to provide an official channel for workday interaction. SharePoint, the same Intranet-based tool BECU uses for sharing files, also serves as a virtual water cooler, enabling home-based employees to collaborate with their peers and post comments. The software even acts as a kind of office bulletin board for alerting staff about upcoming events and recognizing exemplary employees.
8. Streamline The Vetting Process
Initially, BECU introduced its remote work program in a controlled fashion, limiting who could apply and relying on a lengthy, rigorous vetting process for those who did. The process included evaluating applications and interviewing prospective candidates before allowing them to work from home.
"We created a lot of work for ourselves," Hickman says ruefully.
Since then, the credit union has shifted its policy and invites anyone to apply using a more streamlined process.
"Now that we have identified the criteria that remote employees need to meet, we ask them to go through some assessments on their own," says Hickman, who estimates the new policy eliminates 20 hours of work determining who is suitable for every individual that applies.
9. Re-Evaluate Periodically
Although any BECU staff member can apply, working remotely remains a privilege not a right, and all managers reserve the option to bring back into the office any member of their flock if performance suffers. Employees who no longer want to work from home can also ask for an on-site reassignment, no questions asked. There's no shame in admitting that remote work isn't for you, Hickman says.
"Although the program is more than just a ‘feel good initiative,' it should never stop feeling good for participating employees."
WHO IS ELIGIBLE
To work from home, BECU employees must meet each of these requirements:
At least six months of employment at BECU
Satisfactory on-the-job performance for at least 90 days
Not on any disciplinary action
Ability to attend meetings on BECU premises as required
Live within a 60-minute commute of one of BECU’s facilities
Ability to provide appropriate ergonomic equipment in a dedicated workspace
BECU assess workspace based on the employee’s responses to the application, which asks whether the work area is free of distractions or if the employee can close it off from the rest of the home, among other things. In addition, the application requires employees to supply details about their home computer such as the type of anti-virus software used, the operating platform, and the modem’s make and model. Remote candidates also log onto a test site from home so the credit union can measure the computer’s ping, download, and upload speeds. BECU also asks for three photos of the workspace, even if it is still unfurnished, so the credit union has an idea of where and how the person will work.