What happens when you resist a rising tide? Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer found out the hard way last year when she banned her company’s employees from working offsite. It was a widely unpopular decision – from inside Yahoo and also outside from analysts – but it also went against reams of data showing that companies are increasingly turning to remote and mobile employees.
In fact, research firm Global Workplace Analytics estimates that the number of employees in the United States that are telecommuting grew by about 80% between 2006 and 2013.
So, Mayer’s decision – which she quickly began backtracking from by saying that people who were currently working offsite could continue to do so – disregarded clear trends and was soon neutered by other companies such as Microsoft and Apple that announced they were embracing enhanced telecommuting programs.
Kevin Sheridan, author of The Virtual Manager, says the Yahoo decision was certainly not a forward-thinking one. “That is not the wave of the future,” he says. “By next year, 40% of the global workforce will be remote. This is a trend that’s not going away.”
Part of the reasons for this is the ease with which mobile employees can both conduct business and interact with their home offices today. Improvements in technology, broadband Internet access and WiFi have made remote workers as productive as those in the office. And, industry tools like ESP Mobile, which brings the product search and sales presentation tool to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, are continuing to enhance the move to mobile for many organizations.
Sheridan says there are far more pros than cons to having mobile employees, but he understands why certain employers are uncomfortable with the idea – because he’s been there himself.
“For old-school managers who have never had a remote or virtual worker, the leap of faith that they are challenged by is trust, and part of that leap is clouded by the fact that they have historically spent money on real estate,” Sheridan says. “I ran a small business. I had a bill every month for $65,000 for our office in downtown Chicago. Because of that bill, I think I had blinders on and it biased me against virtual work because, of course we’re spending money on the office, so everybody has to come to the office.”
However, Sheridan admits, that message does not sit well with many workers today, especially the youngest ones. “Millennials do not want to be told that they need to be here at x hour and they can’t leave until x hour,” he says. “It is the definition of workplace prison. I have to thank my younger workers for educating me on why it frankly doesn’t matter where they work. The most important decision for the business owner is to hire the right people.”
So, how can you hire mobile employees whom you can trust to work hard without any in-person supervision? Here are some pointers on getting the right people for the job, making sure they’re getting the job done and keeping them on the right track in the long term.
Conduct a Thorough Interview Process
While Sheridan is a proponent of hiring off-site employees, he strongly suggests that interviews be performed in person.
“They need to be able to see the company culture, they need to know you personally, and they also need to know that you care about them as a person as opposed to a quote-unquote valued asset of the company,” he says.
After that, the key assessment to hiring people who will be working remotely is to gauge how well they communicate. “So, in the interview process, set up hypothetical workplace situations where they need to communicate with you over the phone and in an e-mail, and determine how well they do,” Sheridan says. “If they’re not good at that, you don’t want to hire them. It’s just going to frustrate you that they’re not a proactive and succinct communicator.”
And Sheridan says managers need to ask challenging questions during that initial interview. “One of my favorites is, after the softball interview questions, throw them a zinger and ask them to share with you the single greatest mistake they’ve made at work in the last three years,” he says. “Sadly, most candidates will answer that question one of two ways: they’ll either make up a mistake and promptly blame someone else for it, accepting no accountability, or they just can’t for the life of them think of anything they’ve done wrong in the last three years. I don’t know about you, but I make a mistake in my job at least once a week, and I intend to learn from it.”
Ultimately, he says, people that are successful virtual workers are going to answer that question honestly. “They’ll very quickly say, ‘Well, we messed this one up, here’s what went on, this is what we put in place to ensure it would never happen again, and this is what I learned from it.’ That’s the kind of person you want to hire,” Sheridan says. “It tells you they’re candid, they’re honest and they’re trustworthy.”
And, according to Sheridan, it shows that they’re open to constructive criticism. “Forty-three percent of new hires do not work out because they cannot accept feedback,” he says. “They fight it off, and that’s the last thing you want to see from a virtual worker.”
Finally, Sheridan says references and background checks – especially for those who have never worked offsite – are crucial.
“Does this person have evidence in their background that they have been a successful virtual worker in the past, or do they have a predisposition to being a successful virtual worker?” he says. “The characteristics to look for are: being a self-starter, being a self-motivator, and showing evidence that they can take things to the finish line. Those are the attributes that should be looked for, as well as whether they are a good communicator in a non-face-to-face environment.”
Autonomy with Accountability
Once that decision to hire an employee is made, Sheridan says the manager should give him or her plenty of autonomy.
“Hire the people that you can trust, and then simply care about outcomes,” he says. “Let people come and go as they please. Let people drop their kids off at school or pick them up at the bus stop. Younger workers value that greatly; so do single parents. It just makes a lot of sense, and the key is hiring people that you trust.”
If you have to check up on your remote workers to see if they’re on a golf course or in a shopping mall, you’ve made the wrong decision, he says. “You should blame yourself for picking the wrong person,” Sheridan says. “Once you hire a remote worker, you should do what Ronald Reagan said to Mikhail Gorbachev during the nuclear disarmament: trust, but verify. That’s the key: As long as you’re getting business outcomes you want from that virtual worker – if they’re off flying a kite in a park during the day, who cares?”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that accountability standards shouldn’t be put in place for mobile employees just as they are for on-site workers. To that end, Mike Emoff, CEO of distributor firm Shumsky (asi/326300), says there are simple ways to do that.
“The way to make them accountable is to have a system where you can measure them – for example, a CRM system,” he says. “Those programs can make our people more accountable, generally, even if they aren’t in the office.”
Emoff says the idea of implementing these kinds of practices, which can also be utilized for non-sales employees, is to ensure that your off-site employees don’t veer off course from the company culture.
“It’s not really a matter of keeping track just to keep track,” he says. “It’s a matter of keeping track so we can coach, and that goes hand-in-hand with working.”
In addition, Sheridan says managers should conduct a weekly check-in with mobile workers. One way to do this is via a live phone call “where the manager and the remote worker catch up. The manager can find out how he can help the remote worker, find out what’s been accomplished, and recognize the employee for her hard work – which, by the way, is the number-one driver of engagement,” Sheridan says. “It’s so much more important for virtual workers since they often feel like they’re forgotten about, so that weekly check-in to accomplish all of that is critical.”
Sheridan says mangers should also obtain a regular report from all offsite employees. “I expect to get a weekly report of what outcomes were achieved during that week, and that helps me,” he says. “Those are sent to me in advance of the call in case I have any questions about the outcomes, or the lack thereof.”
The key for leaders who are managing mobile employees: focus on outcomes, not tasks. “I wouldn’t want to hear, ‘I made 44 sales calls this week.’ I want to hear about how many proposals went out, how many deals were closed,” Sheridan says. “Obviously, it’s dependent upon whatever job function they have, but it would just have to be tailored by outcomes as opposed to just tasks.”
Set a Positive Tone
Terrence Gargiulo, organizational development consultant and president of makingstories.net, says managers should take the time to build remote employees’ confidence in their first few days and weeks with the company – and one way to do so is to take an interest in their personal lives, including items with which they may be struggling.
“I think it’s important to get people to be honest about what may be some real challenges. Is it your kid’s school schedule or that you don’t have a quiet space in your house to work? Is it ergonomical and environmental? Is it health-related issues? Is it family-related issues?” Gargiulo says. “You have to, of course, be careful here because now you’re prying in areas that, from an HR perspective, are inappropriate. I’m not saying you ask them these point-blank questions, but I think you want to get a feel for what those barriers might be for success, and make sure you have clear expectations about performance.”
Gargiulo also recommends creating some simple, achievable goals for new mobile employees in order to boost their confidence and provide an early gauge of their capabilities. “I want to make sure that there are some small wins that I put in their pathway – some breadcrumbs,” he says. “Maybe they’re deliverables. Maybe they’re consistent tasks. Maybe clump that into some kind of measurement.”
Meet in Person When Possible
The common challenge with off-site employees is a lack of familiarity and connection. Emoff, for one, believes companies should bring remote employees into the office for training or important meetings to mitigate these concerns. “I’d say a face-to-face meeting in person as opposed to face-to-face on Skype or FaceTime is always better because you can use it as a coaching moment and get the body language down, and have them meet other people and let them know they’re not on an island,” Emoff says.
But Emoff says a video meeting, rather than an audio-only phone call, is your second-best option. “I’m a proponent of doing the visual, and we’re putting that in place now,” he says. “We bought an account with GoToMeeting, and we are having our team members hop on.
“From a person working remotely, just generally from experience with talking to my people, they get a sense of not being a part of the team, they get discouraged easier, and therefore, they float away. You know that’s going to happen, so you’ve got to manage them by saying, ‘You are part of the team,’ and bring them in for reviews, bring them in for coaching and training. The next best thing to that would be the virtual ways, and having the ability to see them is better than having the ability just to talk to them, even if it’s on Skype, for example.”
Part of the disconnect between remote employees and their companies is that these staffers tend to miss celebrations and recognition events that occur in the office. Gargiulo says managers should remember mobile employees for reasons other than reviews and coaching; if possible, they should be brought on site to be taken out to lunch and reminded that they’re as valuable as the non-mobile workers.
“What happens with most companies is we assume that when the employee comes for training, that’s what helps make that employee feel integrated, and allows you to build inroads instead of doing those things largely offsite,” Gargiulo says. “I think that’s not enough. The focus of the employee coming in is really relationship-building.”
And again, the number-one alternative is to have off-site workers join in via video conference in order to make them feel included and remain motivated.
Companies should avoid situations that make people who are working remotely feel isolated. These include the “office potluck dinner or pizza party because you just landed a new client, and here I am as the remote worker knowing everybody else is having free pizza, and I wasn’t included,” Sheridan says. “Smart companies will send a gift card to the local pizza place and say, ‘Even though you can’t join us, we want you to grab a pizza and we can Skype you in, and you can be part of the celebration.’ Skype is a wonderful tool where you’re actually looking into a person’s eyes via video.”