Revved Up On The Go

Tips For Motivating The Mobile Workforce

The JetsonsMany distributor principals manage far-flung employees and salespeople. How can they effectively motivate the mobile workforce?

For nearly five years the sales force at Tip-Top Branding LLC (asi/344851) has been out of the office as much as in. The fact that the company's sales team "wanted that flexibility of freedom" worked well with the Chicago-based company, where office space is at a premium, and overhead costs can be steep, says Brad Akers, the company's CEO. "For me as a business owner, it makes perfect sense."

These days, a more mobile workforce is making sense for a lot of distributors who are realizing that telecommuting employees can offer their company a lot of advantages. And it's not just salespeople. Plenty of distributors are asking customer service teams, art staffs and administrative employees to pack up and vacate their cubicles in the name of greater workplace flexibility.

They're tapping into an overall trend in Corporate America today that has employees working from just about anywhere – except in the office. A recent report from research firm WorkSimple shows that about 20% of the adult working population in the United States telecommutes for their jobs. Even further, 62% of companies reported having some employees who work remotely either full-time or part-time, and 61% believe their companies will allow more people to telecommute in the near future.

"More organizations than ever before are encouraging their employees to work remotely in a bid to increase productivity, cut costs and improve employees' motivation by giving them a better work-life balance," global recruiting firm Hays wrote in a recent report to its clients. "Using the latest mobile tools, video conferencing, laptops, smartphones and tablets, employees can liaise with colleagues and clients from home, a customer's office or further afield in business centers or Internet cafés. There has also been an increase in virtual offices, which allow employees to work from any location."

But managing a far-flung staff can be tricky. The traditional office-based get-togethers and meetings and HR programs need to be thrown out the window in this new telecommuter nation. The key, experts say, is focusing on the benefits achieved from being out of the office environment.

Proponents of mobile workers point to less downtime in office chat sessions. "You're not wasting a lot of time in unnecessary meetings or water cooler chat," says Allison O'Kelly, founder and CEO of Mom Corps, a staffing firm based in Atlanta whose staff is comprised of a virtual workforce.

Building Camaraderie
Of course, what's missing from companies that rely on mobile workforces is the so-called water-cooler chatter that can result in brainstorming and strategy-sharing. That eliminates a lot of opportunity for rich communication, whether it's orchestrated or organic, which is often the foundation of an office culture – and something that can disappear in a mobile workforce.

Building that communication among a staff that's spread out in different parts of the country starts with clearly defining it, says Halley Bock, president and CEO of Fierce Inc., a leadership development and training company based in Seattle. "It's one thing to say, ‘Let's communicate all the time,' " says Bock, "but I may interpret that very differently than you."

Bock suggests that managers detail how often workers should communicate and how. "Is it once a day? Twice a week? And what information needs to be communicated on a regular basis? Are we going to use e-mail daily or Skype once a week?"

These are all questions that should be answered between distributors and their mobile workers, she says. What's more, Bock adds, managers and employees should agree upon acceptable response times – e-mail within one hour and a phone call within two, for example. "Otherwise people will fill in the blanks, and there's going to be frustration and suspicion from the get-go. Where we go isn't, ‘They've been working so hard they haven't had time to get back to me,' " Bock says. "The story we tell ourselves is: ‘They're on a boat on a lake and taking advantage of me.' "

In that sense, say Bock and other experts, communication is obviously a two-way street. It's as important for managers to be accountable for communicating as it is for staff. "Ask your team, ‘What information would be most useful from me on a regular basis?' " Bock says. "And keep checking on that."

And, in the case of distributors, communication with vendors is important as well. Suppliers like Mark Trotzuk, president of Boardroom Eco Apparel (asi/40705) in Vancouver, who's noticed a proliferation of mobile teams, says whether or not distributors go mobile makes no difference to him. What matters, Trotzuk says, is the accessibility of distributor sales reps who are working remotely. At times "you can't get in touch with that person and you're talking to an administrative person who doesn't have access to all the information" related to an order, Trotzuk says.

That can cause delays and make order processing sluggish on his end. Yes, a virtual workplace saves distributors money and makes sense from a management standpoint, Trotzuk allows. But, "you need to get back to clients quicker than ever before," he says, and distributors who want to be successful with a mobile workforce need processes to make sure that happens.

Jetsons InsertEfficiency Gains Despite the obvious communication challenges that a mobile workforce can create, distributors say having staffers outside of the office can actually contribute to a company's efficiency. The need for a more streamlined organization drove WorkflowOne (asi/333647), a Top 40 distributor based in Atlanta, to create a management system so that its mobile workforce of salespeople and customer service reps could be constantly backed up by a regional support team, says Jeff Grippando, the company's vice president.

Three years ago, in an effort to become more financially and managerially streamlined, the company began closing small-town offices and asking staff in those locations to work remotely. Nobody objected, Grippando says, except a few clients who were uncertain about no longer having a WorkflowOne office in their town, such as Columbus, GA, where the company's area salesperson and customer service rep are preparing to work virtually later this year. When that office closes, the Columbus team will report to a support center in Atlanta an hour away. "Eventually we'll have eight to ten supercenters across the country with support, but the reps will still be out there" working remotely in the field in their respective hometowns, Grippando says. Doing so, he says, allows the company to save on office rent (upwards of $1,200 a month in many places) and has virtually no negative impact on employee productivity.

In fact, the move, he says, has had unforeseen benefits. Having a more mobile workforce has prompted the company to hold monthly webinars where workers can come together and share best practices, which Grippando insists has been a motivating factor for all employees. And customer service reps in places like Florida, where WorkflowOne doesn't have a physical office, have been better served by backup from their Atlanta counterparts. Monthly sales reports show equally strong sales for virtual workers as for those in WorkflowOne's offices, Grippando says, theorizing that mobile workers are never fully checked out of the workday, since they've merged their personal and professional lives at home now that they work remotely.

For many managers, however, that constant attachment to work can be worrisome. Keeping employees emotionally connected to coworkers is the key to making them an integral part of the company even if they don't occupy its physical workplace. Remote workers, some worry, run the risk of becoming too distant from a company's culture, focusing exclusively on tasks and not teamwork.

"It's imperative that you keep lines of communication open among people," Grippando says. "Otherwise human nature would dictate that you silo yourself. Then you get the whole renegade mentality."

And that's a challenge, says Mark Ziskind, COO of Caliendo Savio Enterprises (asi/155807), a distributor in New Berlin, WI, where a third of the company's 11-member sales force works remotely. To help mobile workers feel like part of the team, CSE asks them to attend monthly sales meetings as well as sales team and company events. E-mail, he says, doesn't replace a face-to-face encounter for building office culture.

But with sellers mobilized nationwide, it's not always possible to bring them face to face for every meeting. At Tip-Top Branding, Akers takes advantage of industry trade shows to gather mobile employees under one roof. Other distributors say they rely on webinars, Skype and other videoconferencing services.

Ultimately, nothing replaces the culture that develops from face-to-face interactions, experts say. "There are times, for whatever reason, you're working on a new strategic initiative, and you want to really look somebody in the eye and make decisions together," says O'Kelly.

While that doesn't have to happen every day with far-flung employees, it is a good idea to build in monthly work meetings or social opportunities. That can range from an afternoon at the movies to a Saturday volunteer project, says Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin, founder and CEO of Tribe, Inc., an internal communications agency in Atlanta. The activity a company chooses can also help form a leadership message and cultural impression among workers, Baskin says.

"We're about to do a big charitable event with this study hall for underprivileged kids," Baskin says. "A lot of people who work here are very young – late 20s or early 30s – so our activities reflect that."

Use Tools at Your Disposal
In between those activities and in-person meetings, there's plenty distributors can do to keep mobile workers connected. One way is to leverage social networking. Building online communities can be essential to building a corporate culture, says Baskin, whose company requires employee blogging.

Every Friday "somebody writes a blog that says what's going on with him or her, whether it's about rattlesnakes or somebody's grandmother," Baskin says. Each employee at her company is asked to contribute to the blog periodically and can write about any topic.

Allowing bloggers to get personal (within reason, of course) keeps the blog fresh, humorous and engaging for other staff members. It also helps employees get to know each other. For those working remotely, it's a way to feel connected to their company and hear the kind of coworker anecdotes that are normally office environment fodder. It may seem trivial, Baskin says, but it helps bond remote workers and build staff camaraderie.

"Once you know them, you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt" when workplace disagreements arise, Baskin says, because you've built "equity in the relationship. If you've read the blog, seen pictures of their kids, played softball with them, then you start that reservoir of humanness and it's harder for people to lash out" at one another.

After all, distributors want their remote employees to feel a sense of community with each other – which is likely to increase their loyalty to the company. There are ways to do that remotely, experts insist. One way is through contests. Baskin says friendly competition among coworkers who don't share cubicle space can help build camaraderie for those who work out of an office. The key, she explains, is to make the contest friendly – a fitness challenge where progress is tracked online, for example – but important enough that workers will take it seriously. Keeping it personal helps avoid cutthroat sales contests that may diminish relationships.

Regardless of how distributors build cultures and foster communities with a mobile workforce, it's key to realize that working remotely is becoming an increasing business model in the marketplace, says Andy Abramson, CEO of Comunicano Inc., a communications firm in Delmar, CA. "These days," he says, "offices are getting smaller, not bigger."