4 Tips for Creating Real Engagement in a Virtual Workplace

As more companies embrace flexible work schedules, it's more imperative than ever to adopt collaboration solutions and strategies to stay engaged with employees and customers.

Thanks to cloud computing and mobile technologies, the term “work,” which used to denote a place of employment, is being redefined as an activity a person performs. One case in point is Amazon, which announced last year it was hiring 5,000 virtual customer service representatives who would work out of their homes. Lots of other companies are allowing employees to work remotely for at least a portion of the workweek. Research from Citrix, for instance, predicts that 50% of the workforce will work remotely by 2020.

One company that’s setting the pace in the virtual workplace arena is Dell, which expects to have 50% of its global workforce on flexible schedules by 2020. According to Steve Price, Dell’s senior vice president of human resources, the company saved $21 million in real estate costs since 2013, and 93% of Dell’s employees said in a companywide survey that flexibility helps them to be successful.

Not every company is a proponent of virtual workplaces, however. One notable example is Yahoo, which ended its telecommuting program in 2013. It gave 14,500 employees the ultimatum to come back to the office or be terminated, citing low engagement and low productivity as the culprits. Bank of America, Aetna and IBM followed Yahoo’s lead for similar purposes. The big question for many business owners is how they can make workers happy by allowing for more flexibility without harming productivity and engagement. Here are four tips to consider before implementing a virtual workforce program.

  1. Set Expectations Up Front. One of the biggest mistakes to avoid is making a policy that allows everyone to work from home X hours a week. The reality is that not every job nor every employee is a fit for remote work. The policy needs to be implemented on a one-to-one basis. First, you need to identify which roles could be performed just as well remotely as they could at your office (e.g., IT and knowledge worker positions). Next, you’ll need to evaluate your employees. If you have an employee who requires a lot of guidance and follow-up to get tasks completed up to standard and on time, for instance, expecting this person to work independently at home isn’t realistic. Only employees who’ve already shown they have the initiative and discipline to work autonomously should be considered for a remote work program. Establishing guidelines and setting expectations upfront is essential to avoid confusion and hard feelings down the road.
  1. Screen New Hires Carefully. Hiring new employees who’ve never worked in your office, like Amazon’s 5,000 new hires mentioned earlier, requires even more careful planning to ensure you’re hiring the right candidate. Ideally, you’ll want a candidate with prior experience working from home who can provide references to confirm their success. The ideal candidate should also be a brand ambassador — a person who’s already familiar with your products and services (ideally, a long-time customer) and can speak intelligently and enthusiastically about them to others. Online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos is an excellent example of this. The company is known for hiring customer service reps who’ve been loyal customers and who are really into talking to others about various types of shoes, styles, and brands. You can imagine how much better of an experience it would be talking to this kind of person on the phone compared to someone who only likes the perks of working from home.
  1. Make Remote Workers Feel Like Part of the Team. As employees have less face time in the office, it’s easy to only think about them when a project is due, or you need something from them. You can avoid this tendency by building in regular touchpoints with your virtual workforce and including them in weekly company meetings where new products, services and other orders of business are being discussed. In addition to weekly touchpoints via video conference, quarterly face-to-face meetings are important. Your virtual workforce has to feel that they’re connected to the mothership despite not being physically present in the office.The way you set up your training program is another opportunity to make remote workers feel they are part of the team. Rather than requiring workers to complete training outside their eight-hour workday on their own, make it part of their regular work hours. It will show them that you value the training – and you value them as employees.
  1. Collaborate Without Compromise. Technology plays a vital role in every successful virtual workplace program. However, I purposely placed this tip last because if you don’t lay out the foundations from the previous tips, technology will likely not enable collaboration and productivity. There are two technology areas you should keep in mind for your remote workforce:
    1. Protect the Network. Without the proper bandwidth and network availability, voice and video communication become insufferable. In many cases, it’s not the cable or DSL provider that’s at fault; it’s the number of resources taxing the network. While an employee is trying to make a video call, for instance, someone else may be trying to stream a movie via Netflix or download a large file. A business-grade router from Cisco Meraki, Ruckus or Ubiquity can solve this issue by ensuring business activities receive the highest priority on the network. You may want to give employees a list of acceptable routers to choose from or better yet, have your IT department assign one, so you can configure and manage it remotely. A business router also offers better security protection against malware and other cyberthreats.
    2. Leverage the cloud. As already mentioned earlier, the cloud is a primary driver of the virtual workplace trend. The fewer apps, data, and hardware that resides on your employees’ computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets, the better it is for you both. By using cloud services like Office 365, you don’t have to worry about managing servers in your employees’ homes or hoping they back up their data regularly. Web-based applications also make it easier for employees to work from any device as well as any place with a secure internet connection. Additionally, you may consider paying for the employee to have a dedicated internet line at home to ensure connectivity and reduce conflict.

As the work world becomes more flexible, we can expect there will be a few casualties along the way. Others may find that a virtual workplace doesn’t suit their business. However, the potential benefits — ranging from lower employee stress levels and higher efficiency to reduced employee turnover and decreased operating costs — are real possibilities for many businesses. While it will require effort to establish policies, set expectations, and procure the right technologies, the potential gains are well worth it for employers and their employees.  

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Luis Artiz
Luis Artiz is Group Product Manager for Epson’s North America Point-of-Sale (POS) solutions division. For the last 3 years, he’s led product marketing, business strategy, and product launches for the group. Prior to Epson, Luis spent 7 years at Belkin International as Director of Product Management leading the Worldwide Business Products Division. He started his career as an Engineering Group Manager at Xponent Photonics, a fiber optics technology start-up. He earned both his MBA and Masters in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California.