SumTotal Blog

Engaging a Dispersed Workforce: 3 Tips for Managers

November 8, 2016



Managing people comes with a special—but for me, worthwhile—set of challenges. And managing remote employees adds another layer of complexity. But through my experience leading staff spread across different locations, I’ve learned a few tips for keeping people engaged and connected that I wanted to share with you.

SumTotal Managing a Dispersed Workforce

1. Make it about more than the job.

We know employees (especially top performers) are engaged and driven by work that gives them a sense of accomplishment and lets them feel like they’re contributing to the goals of the organization in a meaningful way.  As an effective manager, you should be able to check the box for every member of your team on this one.

 

But what about the other stuff – the work that is not a ‘perfect fit’ for their current skills or job descriptions? It takes a conscious effort to create continuous development opportunities for any employee, but with remote workers, this becomes a crucial way to keep them engaged. Make an effort to offer your staff stretch projects that grow some of their less-advanced skills and help them connect across the organization through collaboration with colleagues they don’t typically work with. But, you won’t know which projects interest them unless you…

 

2. Pick up the phone (or turn on the webcam).

This one seems like a no-brainer, but in today’s digital world people aren’t doing it! I once had a job where a welcome email announcing me went out to the team, I emailed with my new boss about projects and introductions, but she never set aside time for a real conversation until the end of my second week on the job – I went 10 days on the job without ever speaking to my new manager. In today’s hyper-connected world of emails, texts and instant messaging we’re actually interpersonally disconnected.

 

As a manager, you can’t keep a current pulse on your employee’s development interests unless you’re having regular real-life conversations – don’t rely on last year’s performance process to be your only guidepost for keeping them engaged. Quick check-ins might work in an office environment where you’ll connect with a team member in person when you’re filling up coffee or in an afternoon meeting.  As remote workers, we might think we’re staying connected with daily messaging chats but it just isn’t the same as personal conversation. With a dispersed team, you need to make an effort to create virtual ‘water cooler moments’ to keep your team engaged – whether this means picking up the phone, or turning on video during your next team meeting.

 

3. As the manager, step aside (sometimes).

With a dispersed team, I find opportunities to remove myself from a project and explicitly ask my team members to collaborate and serve as a sounding board for each other on projects where they wouldn’t naturally connect in that way. In the right instances, removing the hierarchical component can really boost a contributor’s ownership and engagement with the project.

 

With a lack of physical workspace boundaries, high-performing remote employees can be easily susceptible to ‘brownout’: putting their heads down and plowing through work at all hours of the day because work is accessible. Silently, their level of dissatisfaction climbs and engagement plummets despite their work product staying on track. Creating informal project networks within your dispersed team is a terrific way to keep them engaged, and the teamwork often spills over into other projects or discussions.

 

Get tips for managing and motivating remote employees from other HR leaders in this Peer Insight.

 

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