On Their Own
With the number of teleworkers on the rise, companies are finding new and improved ways to provide mobile workers with the tools they need to stay engaged in their work and connected to the organization's culture.
By Mark McGraw
When he's not running in a marathon, on the treadmill or around his suburban Minneapolis neighborhood, Jeff Eckerle is at work as a senior product director with Deltek Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based enterprise-software provider. Working mostly from home for the past four years, Eckerle loves his work arrangement, but acknowledges that it differs from that of the "traditional" employee.
"For example, you don't have those offhand interactions with co-workers that you'd have in an office," says Eckerle. "And you have to take some conscious measures to make sure you don't lose that connection with the outside world."
One way Eckerle stays connected is by taking his laptop to a local coffee shop, where he can share space with fellow teleworkers. He also relies heavily on tools such as instant messaging, Skype and kona.com -- Deltek's project-centric collaboration and social-media tool -- to coordinate with co-workers on assignments and tasks, as well as share more personal "virtual water cooler" chatter throughout the day.
In fact, Eckerle helped form a runners' group with Deltek employees, through kona.com, as a way to bond with co-workers over their shared interest. Eckerle runs regularly with other Deltek employees based in the Minneapolis area, and arranges meet-ups with his fellow teleworkers and Herndon-based employees for his monthly trips to Deltek headquarters.
Eckerle's experience is increasingly common, as more companies embrace offering telework options to their workforces. Consider International Data Corp.'s Worldwide Mobile Worker Population, 2011-2015 report, which predicts the number of primarily non-office-based workers will climb to 1.3 billion in the next three years, accounting for more than one-third of the global workforce.
Challenges remain, of course. Chief among them is how to provide remote workers with the type of personal connection to co-workers and the organization that on-site employees enjoy on a daily basis. To achieve and ensure that connection, more employers are relying on a combination of technology, on-site and virtual training, and providing opportunities for in-person contact in order to give mobile workers the ongoing support they need to stay engaged and productive, and to feel a part of the company and its culture.
A Hybrid Training Approach
Eckerle is one of Deltek's 645 mobile workers, who represent about 37 percent of the company's global workforce of 1,740.
As such, the company has had to adapt processes for onboarding and training these employees, adopting a hybrid approach that familiarizes remote workers with their roles and work processes, acclimates them to Deltek's culture, and helps them establish a network of peers and colleagues from day one.
Unless budgets and/or schedules don't permit, a new remote employee is brought to Herndon or a Deltek office closer to his or her home, to meet colleagues and managers, and receive training in-person or via Skype or videoconference. "Our onboarding and training process is [in-person] and virtual at the same time," says Holly Kortright, the company's senior vice president of human resources. She adds that the remote employee's manager is closely involved in the process, albeit in an occasionally different way.
"Obviously, you can't take a remote employee out to lunch," Kortright says. "So the manager and employee often have virtual meetings starting on the first day. They talk about expectations and how they're going to communicate, for instance."
Discussions around communication methods are crucial, she says. Beyond the initial training phase, remote workers can't simply walk down the hall to a manager's office with a question or concern. As such, it's important to make resources available to teleworkers on an ongoing basis for more self-paced learning, says Kortright.
For instance, the company's learning-management system, iLearn, houses information on specific work processes and Deltek product overviews as well as softer job skills, and is accessible to remote workers on a 24/7 basis. In addition, Deltek has built different learning portals tailored to remote worker groups in various regions, also available around the clock.
"We have these portals with all the information that new employees are going to need, but we need to make it easy for them to find when they need it," Kortright says. "If we're going to have employees working remotely, we have to give them the technology and tools to do it."
Tools of the Teleworker
Angie Kenworthy, director of HR programs with Malvern, Pa.-based imaging and electronics provider Ricoh Americas Corp., has worked from her home office in Cincinnati for the last 10 years. From there, she leads a team of five direct reports, including two on-site employees in Malvern, and three home-based employees in Mountain Lakes, N.J.; Lancaster, Pa.; and Cold Spring, Ky., respectively.
As both a mobile worker and a manager of other remote employees, Kenworthy has a unique perspective on the trials of telework. One unexpected but significant challenge she's encountered along the way is staying active and healthy, she says.
"It wasn't something I noticed until participating in Ricoh's Wellness Challenge, and by wearing a pedometer, that I realized how little I was walking during the day, since I don't walk to a conference room for meetings or my colleagues' offices, etc.," says Kenworthy. "However, once becoming aware of it, I make a point to get up and walk around. During conference calls, I often walk throughout my house. It's satisfying to see the number of steps logged on my pedometer, and I feel better too."
Ensuring that she and her team can communicate and get work done from disparate locations, however, isn't typically an issue, she says.
In September 2012, for example, Ricoh -- which has more than 9,000 field-based sales and services employees who are mobile -- introduced its Mobile Worker Services portfolio, a range of offerings designed to allow mobile workers to easily access, store, scan and print information from anywhere, via smartphone or tablet.
"It's not difficult to stay connected. Beyond our company-wide intranet, we have an intranet that's just for the HR team, where everything is stored and shared," she says. "We have all kinds of different tools and technologies. As someone who works remotely, I actually feel more connected. I have everything at my fingertips."
Margo Martin, a San Clemente, Calif.-based senior director in Deltek's customer-care organization, says tools such as instant messaging, videoconferencing technology and kona.com -- through which she and her customer-care team have created its own chat room- -- actually foster more frequent contact and greater collaboration among her co-workers, compared to those sharing an office.
"We probably do more meetings [as telecommuters]. Because we're not in a situation where you can just stand up and say, 'Hey, somebody help me.' And because you don't see your team in the office, you're touching base with them on a daily or every-other-day basis, even if it's just with a short instant message," says Martin, noting that remote workers at Deltek are trained on how to set up video bridges and conference calls whenever new conferencing tools are introduced in the organization.
"Otherwise," she says, "we'd be floundering."
Connecting to the Culture
With technology's aid, keeping remote employees productive and connected to their colleagues and managers may not be the biggest concern for many organizations with large mobile-worker populations.
The greater challenge may lie in keeping remote employees connected to the organization and its culture on a regular basis, says Susan Williams, senior HR compliance officer with Hartford, Conn.-based managed healthcare company Aetna Inc.
"That was one of our biggest fears when we started our telework program -- isolation among remote workers," she says. Williams speaks from experience. A 17-year Aetna veteran, she has worked from her home in Allentown, Pa., since 2005, and has seen engagement levels among teleworkers grow steadily in that time.
Aetna's periodic employee-engagement surveys consistently show that, not only do remote workers not feel isolated, but they are equally as engaged as their office colleagues, if not more so.
"In fact, many teleworkers aren't interested in coming back to the office," Williams says. "And I think that's because telework is such a large segment of our workforce now, managers and employees have adapted to the way mobile workers do their jobs. It's just how we work now."
Still, special care must be taken to ensure teleworkers are truly involved and invested in the company culture, says Williams. "When the budget allows, we do encourage bringing people in [to the corporate offices] for meetings or employee-appreciation events, for instance," she says. "Actually, we sometimes hear groaning from teleworkers about leaving home, but once they're here, they're happy to see their colleagues in person and feel like they're soaking in the culture firsthand."
At Deltek, a cornerstore of the culture is philanthropy, says Kortright. The organization has taken special steps to provide its non-office-based workers with more opportunities to participate in these efforts.
"When we do philanthropic events, we give remote workers two options: They can have a half-day or a full day -- which doesn't count against their paid time off -- to go perform work with a local charity of their choice, or we'll donate $100 in their name to the charity."
Deltek has also added a "best remote office" category to its Halloween decorating contest, encouraging teleworkers to "deck out" their home workspaces and send in pictures for judging, she says. The company is also in the midst of expanding its "Breakfast with the CEO" program, in which cross-sections of employees are selected to dine in-person with chief executive Kevin Parker, at which time they can voice their work-related questions and concerns, adds Kortright.
The next step, she says, is to set up a breakfast meeting exclusively for remote workers, who can dine in their respective locations while chatting with Parker via Skype.
"Such initiatives typically originate "with feedback we've gotten in HR, through kona.com or surveys," she says. "Whenever my HR team is building something like this, we ask ourselves, 'How can this include our remote population?' From a work perspective, remote employees are going to get connected with peers through their projects. But what employees want to feel is a connection to the corporate culture. That's what it really comes down to."