We are completely thrilled to have Charee Klimek providing a guest post for our blog. As we continue to grow our international network we are pleased to connect with such amazing professionals. Make sure you check out her bio at the end of the post!

It’s absolutely impossible to visualize the world of work in the 21st century without virtual employees.

To imagine such a landscape we need to think back to life before the internet – before laptops, mobile devices, and the year The Matrix introduced us to what virtual “looked like”. When managers had complete control over employee time cards and maintained the power of knowing exactly where employees were and what they were working on at any given time on any given day. A bit scary to think about isn’t it?

Many organizations have long forgotten the restrictions of the Industrial Age and have since embraced the notion that work is something you do, not somewhere you go. Technology permeates every aspect of our lives, connecting us – permitting us – to work anywhere, anytime, without limitation. After realizing billions of dollars in lost productivity leaders embraced this concept as the new normal to cut costs and improve employee satisfaction. Today, the Telework Research Network estimates between 20-30 million people work from home at least once a week and between 15-20 million are among the mobile workforce.

Virtual is mainstay and organizations today are effectively managing globally dispersed teams around the world though many still struggle to let go of the safety and control co-located work environments provide. There are countless articles, resources and studies leaders can tap into to develop better processes, project management solutions, and collaborative technologies but for those already testing the waters and perhaps feeling in over their heads, consider the following to be a life raft that can help you overcome short-term communication barriers to keep your virtual team afloat:

Communication

  • Socialize your HQ: This is a change in mindset as much as it is a tactic. Consider this: If more than 20% of your workforce is dispersed in other locations, help local employees foster a “global attitude” by encouraging them to use social tools. There are plenty to choose from but Yammer is a great start. Employees can communicate and “follow” conversations in real-time sharing knowledge and staying close to what others are working on offering tremendous opportunity to build a stronger sense of community. Most importantly, give employees permission to be social. If your Yammer is strictly professional, you’re missing the point. Allow them to share personal updates and stories about what’s going on in their lives.
  • Encourage Video Conversations Daily: Skype and other online meeting platforms like WebEx and GoTo Meeting bring everyone into the same meeting room. While it doesn’t replace face-to-face interaction, the ability to pick up on non-verbal communications is key. For some, video can take some getting used to so stay consistent and encourage everyone to be on camera as often as possible.
  • Communicate with Emotion: While it might seem a little silly to incorporate emoticons into IM’s, Skype messages or Yammer updates, it can make or break how individuals perceive another’s’ emotional state. Over the phone, tone of voice is everything – the person on the other end can sense your attitude and even tell the difference between when you’re smiling or rolling your eyes. Be aware of your own non-verbals they may not be seen, but they can often be heard.
  • Gain feedback twice as often: As a leader, checking in with your team members is important regardless of your geographic challenges but if you’re doing all the talking you’re pushing them away. Resist the urge to purge what’s on your mind and let them share their world with you. Stop texting, stop reading and responding to emails and listen. Ensure you’re genuinely asking for feedback on ways to improve the work arrangement. Then prove you listened by acting on that feedback.
  • Genuinely recognize their efforts: Remote employees are at a higher risk of feeling disconnected from the tribe. Ensuring they have a clear line of site between their role and the organizations goals is critical to their engagement. When you (or others) have the opportunity to recognize and reinforce their work specific exactly what they did that created an impact on results. Sincere appreciation goes a long way to inspire workers to perform at peak levels and remain passionate about the work they do.
  • Give them their space: One of the classic pitfalls of managing virtual employees is MICRO-managing them. Individuals that thrive in virtual environments are self-motivated, results-oriented work horses that often outperform their collocated counterparts. Trust and empower them to do their work and keep you informed of their progress.
  • Go the extra mile to show you care: Go old school and send printed materials, even care packages, to your remote team members. Receiving materials from home base they can see, feel and hold heightens their sense of emotional connection. Take it a step further: if you regularly schedule lunch meetings with local teams, surprise those plugging in virtually with lunch delivery to their door. Remember, one of the fastest ways to the heart is through the stomach!
  • Hold regular on-site meetings: Obviously. Get your teams together as often as budgets allow so they have the opportunity build stronger interpersonal relationships. This goes for onsite visits to satellite offices as well. Once relationships are more firmly established, people are better able to recall facial expressions and non-verbal cues once everyone goes back to their virtual realities.

Put these simple suggestions in to practice and make them habits. Once you’ve mastered some of the details, you’ll be more confident to invest in more sophisticated processes and tools to create even greater collaboration, increased productivity, and the ability to attract top talent to your organization regardless of where they live.

Got ideas to expand on this list? Please share them!

Charee Klimek is a passionate advocate for improving people’s lives at work while helping companies be more profitable. An expert in employee experience, branding, engagement, and retention, she has spent more than 19 years working with U.S. organizations ranging in size from the Fortune 50 to SMB’s. As Vice President and Client Partner at Brand Integrity, she partners with senior executives and their teams to help them manage and measure employee and customer experiences that drive culture transformation, brand loyalty, and profitability.