Going Remote: How HR Engages Employees from a Distance

Jun 27, 2017 - Joe Matar
Raise your hands: How many of you still work in an office? There are a lot less of us nowadays. Buffer, for example, uses a 100% remote workforce. They have no corporate offices or cubicles, which means they don’t have the overhead that goes with all of those things. One of their number one strengths is that they are very open about their company, their policies, and how they work with and communicate with employees. They do share an issue with many of the companies who are adopting remote workforces: company culture. How do you keep employees engaged and connected when they are scattered all over the country, or in the case of Buffer, the world? Buffer is far from the only company that works entirely with remote employees. Automattic, the company responsible for developing Wordpress and countless Wordpress plugins, operates with a 400 person team scattered in 40 countries who not only don’t share an office, but don’t use email. Zapier has been 100% remote from the beginning, and has even written a guide to help remote workers and other companies learn from their experience. There are dozens, no, hundreds more examples. A quick Google search shows 125 companies with completely remote workers. What was once an outlying trend is now the norm. Company culture has endured a significant shift. So, how is remote company culture different, and how is it the same as that of companies made up of co-located employees?

Myths about company culture

First, we need to bust some myths about what company culture actually is. Often, company culture is ignored in a traditional environment because it is expected that it will form organically. The problem with this thinking is that the current climate of the workplace might consist of a culture of fear or laziness, and can destroy a company, if left uncontrolled, before anyone in management knows exactly what went wrong. Sometimes, human resources and management think company culture is a gimmick, and they share stories of how getting a pool table or a video game system totally turned around their company culture. The truth is those actions usually just fed into a culture that was already in place, but it misses the mark. Yes, company culture can be about the atmosphere, or having fun together, but it is always primarily about the work: how do we do the work we need to do, and how do we communicate about that work? Really, company culture is about two things: respect and trust. This is true whether you work in an office or work remotely. So how do you build these values, especially from a distance?

Set communication expectations and standards

Too often, this is a one-sided affair: a company sets expectations and standards for remote workers, including how much work they are expected to do and when. However, the employee often does not know what to expect from management or other members of their team. Communication is a two-way street. Employees need to know who is going to respond to them, and what to do if they need something from management or another team member they can’t reach. This is often an issue, even in a physical office, though there you have an “open door” policy, which means “if I am in my office and not in a meeting, and I have time to discuss your request.” In a remote setting, the employee cannot “see” a closed door or an empty desk. Status updates, schedules, and who to contact as a back up if they can’t get in touch with the primary person they need to contact are essential for remote workers. How should communication take place? Messaging apps like Slack are great. You can share documents through Google Drive, OneDrive, or even a custom app using Microsoft Graph or Sharepoint, depending on your company needs. To chat with remote workers and keep them engaged, or to hire new staff and ease the onboarding process, you can use an online chat platform like Brazen that lets you keep track of results, cvs, and conversations. Automattic does not use email at all, since the P2 app for Wordpress is an easy communication tool that lets employees and teams post updates that are easy to follow, without the chore of having to remember to “reply all” or CC and BCC the right list of individuals. Besides specific apps, which each company needs to determine for themselves, the rules of communication should be pretty simple:
  • Use email or similar communication for work you want a record of, but is not extremely urgent.
  • Use programs like Slack or Google Messaging for immediate needs and fun communications.
  • Use program management tools like Asana or Basecamp to track workflow of certain projects, and communicate details about each.
  • Use video whenever possible: Hangouts for quick, individual chats, and something like GoToMeeting for conference calls, virtual meetings, and presentations.
  • Set times to touch base, no matter what, and never reschedule a remote one-on-one (other than for extreme circumstances).
While communication is probably the number one issue with remote employees, it is by far not the only one.

Let employees be themselves, within reason

HR recruiting Humor, joking around, GIFs and memes are almost always appropriate and should be allowed, provided they do not violate simple HR standards: they should not be rude or condescending, racially motivated, or offensive based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. At the same time, trying to legislate this from a management perspective is really tough: Too many rules will cause your chat app to become a ghost town, where everyone is afraid to post anything. Too few, and your chat can become an offensive free-for-all, where a few employees dominate the conversation. This is where a culture of respect comes in. Establishing a culture that values everyone equally from the start is essential. This, of course, sounds easy, but it is tougher in practice. The key is this: legislation doesn’t work. Culture and peer pressure do. Employees often reprimand each other in chats and other communication. Anything from a “Dude, that wasn’t cool. Knock it off,” to even more direct responses. Before management or HR interferes, they should gauge the reaction of the person being corrected, to see if peer response is working. hr recruiting

Let flex and remote work be what it is

You have a remote workforce for a reason. One of the advantages of being scattered through time zones around the world, and having employees that work at different times of the day when they are most productive, is your customers can reach someone at any time of the day or night. Set realistic work goals and expectations, but at the same time give employees the freedom to pick times that work best for them, and work the best you can within their schedules. Most people who want to work remotely are self-motivated, driven, and focused. Overly managing them not only shows them you don’t trust them to do what you have asked, but it interrupts their workflow. If an employee does not have or display these qualities, don’t be afraid to let them go: remote work may not be a fit for them, and you may have misjudged their fit for your company. Many remote workforces come with a trial period: the employee must complete a paid project on their own time, have it evaluated (or work for two weeks), and have a conversation at the end of that time about whether or not things are working on both sides. Your company culture can be damaged significantly by one slacker who is not pulling their weight, if you let them get away with it. If you have a group of such employees, get rid of them as soon as possible. Everyone can see who is and is not producing. In a remote workforce, it becomes obvious very quickly. This shows your employees what you will tolerate. At the same time, have a clear and transparent process. Don’t let anyone go, and just leave the rest of the employees wondering where they went. Let employees know what happened, the reasons for it, and what you value about them and other workers. A good hiring process will prevent this in the first place. Automattic has virtually no employee turnover, but the hiring process is rigorous and thorough. Culture comes from who is already working for you, but is fed by who you hire, and who you continue to employ. If you have done your job properly, you can have a motivated remote workforce with a culture that embraces clear communication, fun, and positive peer pressure. There have been books written on this subject. Thousands of posts. Companies sharing their experiences. As remote workforces become the norm, you should continue to educate yourself about how best to hire, communicate with, and engage your remote employees to have a successful company culture. What have your experiences been? Let us know in the comments.   Troy Lambert is a freelance business writer, content strategist, and author passionate about conservation of resources by businesses and individuals alike. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.