Remote Workers Forum – an experiment in engagement

Approximately 12% of our staff is located outside Virginia. While our corporate headquarters may be in New York, the bulk of our Technical Operations staff is based in Northern Virginia. However, many of these employees really consider themselves Virginia based employees as either the bulk of their team and/or manager is in Virginia. Last December I started kicking around this idea to bring all of our remote staff together for a day called the “Remote Workers Forum” that we held a couple weeks ago in April.

The goals in holding the forum were many, including:

  1. To reinforce our commitment to employees that work remotely, who’s brains and talents are paramount to our success as a collective technical staff.
  2. To make new connections with other remote workers, to learn and share what works and what doesn’t while apart from the bulk of the organization.
  3. To discuss the challenges remote workers have with communication, expectations of “always on”, “out of sight out of mind”, and missing water cooler and social interactions with peers and co-workers.
  4. To hear how other parts of our company (and some outside guests) interact with remote employees.
  5. To spend some social time with the remote workers and engage them in the day to day activities around our Dulles, VA offices.

I invited both remote workers and their management chain to attend. We sent out a pre-forum survey to help shape our agenda for the day and discovered that overall the group was pretty happy with the telecommuting arrangements. They did affirm the reasons for holding the forum, like those in the above goals. The results also showed some common themes around challenges:

Remote worker challenges (self identified)

  • Missing out on the “water cooler” informal conversations
  • Not knowing/feeling the morale in Dulles, VA
  • Missing key information only shared locally
  • Conferencing etiquette & technical difficulties
  • Time zones
  • The balance between work and “life”
  • Knowing when to turn work off for the day and “come home”
  • Keeping normal business hours
  • The perception of always being available
  • Managing  work volume and prioritization

Managers of remote worker challenges (self identified)

  • Communications overall – the greater effort it takes to communicate frequently/effectively
  • Limited informal communications & not physically around
  • Out of sight, out of mind
  • Giving exposure to other team members/projects
  • Two-way trust: both in the remote employee & manager

We partnered with The Mind Gym to tailor a 2 hour session called Remote Control focused on the feedback we received from the survey, and added this to our agenda for the forum. The topics were focused on the concepts of coordination & control, trust, spirit, and team customs. What I liked about this approach was that it was an engaging and fast paced “workout” that kept us involved and active in the conversations, much better than a lecture style class IMHO. At the end of the session we asked each person to make an individual pledge as a way to commit to improving one area from the challenges we covered. The Mind Gym also shared with us that only about 15% of training attendees put into use the material they learn. To improve this rate, we’re having a 45-day check video call with our forum attendees to follow up on their pledges.

Our afternoon’s agenda was filled with guest speakers I pulled from other parts of the company, an external media company’s General Manager who was a willing participant, and a panel of some of the forum attendees. These talk were informal and open to audience questions, with the goal of sharing their unique experiences on working remotely, managing remote and global teams, and sharing some funny anecdotes and stories about their professional journey.

We closed the forum with some organization specific data, refreshing and reminding the group about the goals we’ve committed to deliver on in 2012 and discussed some other important initiatives within the company that parts of the organization has been involved with.

Finally, we also sent out a post-forum survey to learn how this day together was perceived. I’ll let those metrics, shown below, speak for themselves.

This experiment about engaging our remote work force was time well spent. In some cases, attendees had been working together for years, but had never physically been in the same room together. It was fun to watch these interactions and connections materialize. I’m committed to bringing our remote employees together again for another forum in the future, in the meantime, we’re going to ensure we’re engaging our remote work force and bringing them to Virginia on occasion so we can interact face to face.

I saw the forum as an affirmation that the leadership supports and embraces remote workers.  This was very reassuring as previous regimes have not always been as supportive.  It was also a great opportunity to put names with faces and to have face time with colleagues. – Remote Worker Forum attendee

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