Common Impact Blog

Engaging Remote Employees

Engaging Remote Employees By Danielle Holly | May 17, 2016

We all recognize that today’s workforce is increasingly virtual and global.  Indeed, up to 90% of the US workforce reports working out of the office at least part of the time.[1]  Millennials, who will make up 75% of the workforce by the end of the next decade, place primary importance on work / life balance, alongside an ability to have a social impact, over other career related dimensions such as skill development and compensation.[2]  This “next generation” is here, and they – together with responsive employers – are crafting new, more flexible, and more deeply conscious ways of engaging with their companies and their colleagues.  

At a high level, this shift towards a more virtual workforce appears to have overarching benefits for everyone involved.  Employees are happier and more productive, with the ability to redirect commuting time towards more productive work and life endeavors. Employers are able to attract and retain the best talent for the job, without location or logistics as a limitation – as well as enjoying the cost savings associated with reduced facilities and infrastructure.  And there are broader societal benefits, of course, such as the environmental upside of fewer cars, buses, and trains carting people to and from the office.

Take Aetna as an example. Aetna has provided telework options for its employees for over twenty years and, aside from the employee retention benefits, has estimated a saving of between 15-25% in real estate costs.  In addition, by pulling Aetna workers off the road, the firm has helped reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 23,000 metric tons annually.  AT&T, Cisco, Dell, and IBM all have similar programs and success stories.

But what impact does this new more virtual workforce have on employee engagement and development?  That question is increasingly on the minds of leading employers, as telework moves from the fringes to the mainstream for talent-minded companies. 

The workforce is currently in a period of significant adjustment – moving from one way of doing business to another.  While workplace technology has caught up to this new remote working style, the leadership and management practices of most institutions still need refining to support this new workforce. 

Aetna has created “a strong process for determining which employees can telework successfully…the actual job function, the individual’s capabilities and competencies, and strict security standards for home offices.”[3]  Still, most companies are only now beginning to figure out the characteristics that feed into a successful virtual workforce – characteristics that align with their companies’ individual cultures and mandates.  

Corporate leadership practices are just starting to focus on the skills and styles required to manage and engage what Deloitte has appropriately christened an “elastic workplace”.[4]  Over the past decade, Common Impact has seen many organizations – from Fortune 100 global giants to small nonprofits – navigate this transition, using team-driven, skills-based volunteering as a mechanism to build up the management and leadership capabilities of their executives and emerging leaders in a new global and virtual workforce.  Core lessons from our experience include:

Development:  Conscious and Culturally Competent Management
Leading a team of virtual employees presents a unique management challenge, particularly when you’re bringing together employees who don’t know each other, come from different backgrounds and experiences, and don’t have much in common aside from the work or project that has brought them together.  Team-based pro bono initiatives provide a meaningful, collaborative experience for such employees while deepening employee perspectives through the added dimension of working with nonprofit clients for whom fundamental operating principles, measures of success, cultures, and work styles are starkly different at the onset.  Add to the mix employees who are in different offices, perhaps from different cities or even countries, and you have a melting pot of individuals with a shared mandate – but also a serious management challenge.  Companies that use this approach to pro bono engagement – placing their emerging talent in the hot seat of managing that challenge to test and develop their flexible leadership capabilities, while simultaneously delivering real value to nonprofit organizations, are earning a return on talent that far outweighs their investment in such programs. 

Engagement:  Loyalty and Purpose
Employee engagement is a widespread challenge, with Gallup consistently reporting over the past several years that approximately 70% of the workforce is either disengaged or actively disengaged.  Millennials, these same studies show, are less loyal to their companies, with an average tenure of two years, since these young workers tend to identify with their own personal brands versus an association with a particular company.  While a remote work structure enables employees to achieve more of a work / life fit and, as a result, can increase employee satisfaction – it can be hard to fully integrate those employees into a workplace culture, and connect them to the community-based programs that make employees feel proud to be a part of a company.  In response, Common Impact has championed ”virtual skilled service” as a solution and an equalizer in this environment.  Most team-based nonprofit consulting projects can take place almost entirely remotely – particularly with the advances in video conferencing that make far-off colleagues feel closer.  When everyone on the team is engaging virtually, it removes the feeling of being the “other” that remote or flex-time employees can sometimes have.  We’ve seen, to our surprise, that our nonprofit clients gravitate towards these virtual engagements as well, allowing them to engage their increasingly remote workforces and make the most of everyone’s limited time and capacity.   

Moving towards a more flexible or virtual workforce seems like a no-brainer.  But, as with anything involving people, the concept is easier than the execution.  Over the next month, Common Impact will be sharing stories, structures, and results from companies and nonprofits who have navigated these new waters through skills-based volunteering.  We look forward to you sharing your experiences with us!

[1] Global Workforce Analytics

[2] 4 Best Practices for Managing a Distributed Workforce. Envision Consulting. 2015

[3] Fortune, Lessons Learned From 3 Companies That Have Long Embraced Remote Work, 2015

[4] Deloitte, Workplace of the Future: Creating an Elastic Workplace, 2013

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