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FROM A DISTANCE: HOW TO ENGAGE REMOTE WORKERS

Work is a thing you do, not a place you go – but location still has a bearing on how connected you feel to your employer. In the first in a three-part series on engaging remote workers – from field, factory and sales staff to home workers and teams in smaller offices or retail sites – we look at why content and culture are key to keeping everyone connected.

31st October 2018

Your head office is typically the hub of activity, where departments are well networked, not just technologically, but in person. 

Digital channels, noticeboards and displays, and the presence of directors and line managers, mean head office staff are typically surrounded by official company news as it happens, as well as grapevine tittle tattle and in-your-face branding. It can be hard to miss an update or forget who you work for.

Remote workers aren’t always home workers or sales or field individuals. Teams at smaller sites, shops or branches away from head office can feel detached from HQ’s wealth of information. They might be filtering their own messages and creating a discrete working culture.

Richard Smith, a corporate and video communications specialist, says: “Those sites can identify more with their own location than the centre and see themselves as different – if not immune – from central policies.”

At the same time, Richard acknowledges that “remote workforces are sometimes more keen and hungrier than those at the centre to know what’s happening at the core and in the business as a whole”. 


Making content relevant to your audience

Katy Bell, UK internal communications and engagement manager for BSI (British Standards Institution), agrees: “Field teams often seek out information, they’re proud of the work they do with our customers and proud of the brand – although they may not see it every day.”

That doesn’t mean employees need to know everything that goes on in HQ. If the content you are sending to colleagues is largely irrelevant, they will likely check out altogether. 

Today, BSI ensures that content distributed on a group-wide scale is audited or tailored. 

“It’s important that employees don’t have to read that facilities at another site are out of order or there is a cake sale for one head office department,” says Katy. “Cull the messages to remote workers that don’t affect them.”

Katy maximised available channels. Messages of interest to head office staff particularly are posted on noticeboards and TV screens in the head office only and kept out of the weekly update that goes to all staff, including remote workers. And townhalls with broader information, held in the head office atrium, are recorded and sent out to field teams.


Make sure you can be seen

Out of sight should not mean out of mind. The principle of CEOs and directors being “visible” still applies when it comes to employees who work away from head office – the term just has to be re-interpreted.

Leadership is the biggest challenge in engaging remote workers, says colleague engagement and organisational development specialist Angie Main. 

“If your leader doesn’t have the capacity to engage with people, it doesn’t matter if employees are under your nose or 2,000 miles away,” she says. “Leadership is your greatest enabler or biggest impediment.”


Senior figures must create a dialogue

Leading a dispersed workforce is a specific skill, Angie adds. 

“Leaders need to understand how to communicate with that audience. They need to be present mentally, and make time to create dialogue. Are they the type of personality to pick up the phone and check people feel connected? Do they have the capability to influence a remote worker?”

Granted, it takes a bit more effort and imagination. Conference calls may lack the warmth and spontaneity of a face-to-face over coffee or a casual drop-in, but technology such as Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts is the next best thing. It enables remote workers to at least see a manager or leader. 

And a bit of prep and consideration gives remote workers as close an experience to an in-person meeting as possible.

“It’s important to train leaders to facilitate conference calls well, and listen without distraction,” says Angie. 

“I’m currently working on a campaign around making meetings matter by listening generously and being prepared. Have good agendas, send paperwork in advance and make sure people are technically able to dial in. It’s about engineering water-cooler moments.”

Something that’s worked well at BSI is regional field dinners with the UK managing director. 

“They are out of hours and voluntary,” says Katy. “Our MD, Anne Scorey, invites remote colleagues from each region – a mix of tutors, sales and client teams. It’s an opportunity for an informal chat, and to discuss both challenges within the business and recent achievements. These dinners have helped to make our remote workers feel more involved and appreciated.” 


TOP TIP
Leaders should set common time once or twice a week when they are discouraged from being in meetings, and when remote team workers are contactable, to host “drop-in” conference calls. Consider times convenient for colleagues in different timezones.


Cast away lengthy copy

With 500 field workers, more than half of business improvement company BSI’s workforce is remote, including auditors, sales representatives, tutors and mobile members of the product certification teams. The number one challenge is that these workers are limited on time. 

An auditor, for example, may be on the road from 6am and spend all day with a client, explains Katy. 

“They don’t get huge amounts of time to read through extensive corporate news. They have several admin days, so they may file business updates and read them at the end of the week. However, I don’t think that matters when they’re connecting with the content, as long as it’s easily absorbed.”

 

Katy did a test of understanding and discovered only some of what she was sending out was landing with remote workers.

“We were sharing important news. However, many of the people that I spoke to said that they weren’t aware of it. I realised we had to be more focused.”

Katy asked remote workers what they really wanted to know. In addition to important business news, they wanted to know when new standards were coming out, and learn about new customers and changes to standards. 

“We also learned that when we run stories about our people, they shouldn’t just come from head office. It’s important to make sure you feature remote workers, too.” 

 

TOP TIP
Make sure online content aimed at remote workers is suitable for, or will be repurposed, for mobile. It may be less convenient for them to read desktop-only formats or anything they have to log in to. Keep it succinct, so remote workers can glance and go.

 

Treasure every word you use

When your audience is at a distance and frequent verbal communication is tricky, you are relying on the written word. That’s all well and good, but the tone of voice will inevitably be more formal – and multiple reviews and refinements can end up muddling messages with jargon.

If you must type instead of talk, type as you’d talk – for leaders especially, it’s important to inject some of their personality that office staff see. Don’t merely create information. People buy into natural conversation that feels believable – so replicate that in your editorial.

Language is important, says Angie. “I have learned from communicating with bank branches that people don’t always use my beautifully crafted materials as I expect them to. You have to check if there’s connectivity. People often see through the BS of ghostwritten comms.

“Relax around rhetoric. Can you turn a corporate statement into functional language for the person on the road?” 

This consideration of language extends to the word “remote”, says Angie.

“Call people ‘remote’, and it sticks,” she proposes. “If you use a certain type of language in your communication, your field staff will use it with customers. I know companies that have done a lot of work around what to call remote employees – pop-in workers, or location independent. Test the terms with your people.”

Read parts two and three in our series, where we look at the value of technology to engage employees on a practical and emotional level, and report on a case study of how one field marketer reworked its approach to training remote fundraisers.

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