How to Keep Off-Site Workers Engaged

Tips for boosting communication and recognition.

Tips for boosting communication and recognition.

Nearly 40% of the world’s employees now work remotely, studies show, and experts believe that number will only grow over time. “This is not a trend that’s going away,” says Kevin Sheridan, author of The Virtual Manager. “This is the trend of the future, and as long as it’s set up appropriately, this is going to be successful.”

What’s more, a recent Gallup survey suggested most remote employees are actually more productive than on-site workers. “Of the people that have worked remotely, 81% of them said, ‘Yes, I am more productive.’ And pollsters asked them, ‘Why are you more productive in your pajamas?’ They said, ‘Well, I wasn’t being interrupted like I was in a corporate environment,’” Sheridan says.

Data shows the average American worker is interrupted as many as 60 times each day in the office. “That’s what I call a thief of productivity,” Sheridan says. “But probably the more telling statistic is that, of the 60 times each day that person is interrupted, only 40% of the time they get back to the task at hand.”

Besides boosting efficiency, there are a host of others reasons off-site employees could make sense for your company – including higher talent retention and lower overhead costs. Here’s a guide to hiring the right remote workers, along with advice for helping them feel like part of the team.

Identify Remote Jobs

What types of roles are best for off-site work? This is the first question you have to ask if you’re thinking about hiring remote staffers. Terrence Gargiulo, organizational development consultant and president of, believes employees involved in sales, customer service and marketing are all good off-site candidates. Anything finance-related, however, is best kept on-site.

“This is true even for just simple bookkeeping, but certainly anything more significant such as accounting, auditing, dealing with anything that’s going to impact a company’s cash flow,” Gargiulo says. “I think that person really needs to be physically there.”

Look for Certain Traits

Of course, while some positions are well-suited for remote work, you still need to hire the right person to do the job. Gargiulo thinks hiring employees with previous remote experience is beneficial, but not necessary.

“I would never build a job posting that says you must have remote experience in order to qualify for the job,” he says. “I’d really want to pay more attention to the individual and know where they are in their life.”

Reward Tips

Adopt Virtual Recognition Programs

Along with the traditional recognition programs that can be used to reward remote employees, Kevin Sheridan says employers might want to explore more personalized ideas, as well. Sheridan, author of The Virtual Manager, recommends looking into Terryberry, an online service that provides a number of virtual incentive programs tailored to remote workers. “They’ve got a whole process and tools to help recognize remote workers,” he says.

Terryberry offers a WOW Peer-to-Peer Recognition Platform that allows employees to recognize one another via social media. On the supervisor side, there’s even an AwardYourTeam platform that enables managers of any sized company to recognize excellent remote employees on the spot.

If Terryberry isn’t quite what you’re looking for, keep looking. Sheridan says an increased number of remote employees has led to a larger number of online incentive programs that provide ways for rewarding off-site employees.

The best remote employees, according to Gargiulo, possess four “self” characteristics: They’re self-starters, self-motivated, self-disciplined and self-sufficient. “Ask them flat-out: What are the characteristics of a great remote employee? By asking that question, you’re going to see if they carefully thought that out. If they have a blah answer, it’s clear that they have not thought out this job of working remotely,” Gargiulo says.

Set Expectations

Regardless of experience level and employee traits, Gargiulo says outlining company rules and procedures with remote workers – and discussing them on a regular basis – is crucial to off-site success. “Set strong expectations, a written standard operating procedure, and then work collaboratively,” he says. “Don’t just have it as a first conversation. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it needs to have a life.”

Gargiulo suggests that employers should be open to input from remote workers as to how those procedures and expectations are established. “You don’t want it to work one way,” he says. “You want them to have some say in how they structure the work arrangement and any expectations they have and needs they have of you.”

     Sheridan agrees that clear instructions and regular updates from off-site people are important. “Make sure they have specific goals for each week, and then tell them that you expect an update with progress on those goals,” he says. “That regular checking in is so important. It shouldn’t be from a co-worker, but from the manager that eventually is going to do the performance evaluation.”

Communicate Openly

Gargiulo says managers must make themselves as available to their remote employees as they are with the workers they see in the office every day.

“One thing I don’t see remote managers do enough is basically set up office hours,” he says. “One of the things you miss in the physical environment is going into the break rooms or wherever you’re bumping into your boss and have an opportunity to interact.”

To create this office time, owners and managers should block out regular intervals on their calendars and invite remote employees to call in and talk about whatever might be on their minds. By doing this, managers can ensure off-site workers don’t feel as though they’ve been forgotten.

“Don’t ever ignore them,” Sheridan says. “If you’re doing something at corporate like throwing a pizza party or whatever, you don’t want to assume this person can’t participate. Video conference them in. Send them a coupon for the local pizza place so they can participate, as well.”

Embrace Gamification

Keeping off-site employees engaged with on-site co-workers is as important as keeping them connected with their managers, according to Gargiulo. What’s the best way to do that? By building camaraderie rather than compelling competition.

“If the salespeople with the best quota at the end of the week get a gift certificate to a restaurant, that turns it into something competitive, but it doesn’t achieve the team element, and as we know from research, it may not even increase their performance,” he says.

     Instead, Gargiulo recommends embracing the concept of gamification to foster a sense of teamwork between remote and on-site employees. “It’s a way in which people are involved with one another that makes it fun,” he says. “You create a scenario where they are involved with each other, communicating with each other and they’re moving toward some goal.”

Gargiulo suggests turning an everyday object into a symbol that can be shared. “It could be a doll or something that represents the company, and every week it’s going to be mailed to the person who shared a customer story that led to a change in operations or an improvement,” he says.

The key for success in this area, according to Gargiulo, is some creative thinking. “Think in ways that are slightly competitive but in some ways are also collaborative, and create a physical element to that game so there’s a token or something that’s moving between people, and it becomes a talking point,” he says.

Praise Staffers Face-to-Face

When a remote employee does outstanding work, Sheridan says face-to-face recognition will have a much more profound, emotional impact than an email or a phone call will.

“Video conference is always best,” he says. “You want to look someone in the eye and say, ‘I just want to let you know you did a really good job on that project,’ and you say, ‘Now I want to explain to you why what you did is so important to our mission and our organization,’” he says.

When an owner or manager is so direct in giving praise, the result will be a lasting impression. “You’re literally going to see it all over their face. They’re going to react and be like, ‘Wow, I really did do something special,’ because the boss is now explaining the meaningfulness and purpose of what they did and why it was so critical,” Sheridan says.