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Today, small businesses often rely on employees who spend some or all of their time working away from the office. However, managing a remote workforce presents numerous challenges, among them time and project management, team building, and developing a solid company culture. For many business owners, the greatest challenge is keeping virtual workers connected and helping them feel they are an integral and valuable part of the organization.

Remote Workers Struggle to Stay Engaged

According to a recent Gallup survey, the number of employees working remotely increased from 39% to 43% from 2012 to 2016. The number of virtual employees is on the rise and so is the amount of time these workers spend off-site.

Employers are finding that the option to work from anywhere is a major consideration when prospective workers are making job decisions. Employees can work flexible hours, eliminate commuting time and expense, and establish a positive work/life balance. Employers benefit from lower labor and overhead costs, hiring talent that might otherwise not be available, and expanding or contracting their workforce as needed.

While remote work capabilities have allowed for much more flexibility and efficiency within organizations, employees who work remotely 100% of the time can struggle to feel engaged. According to one study, 86% of workers say face-to-face interaction will always be important. You may be able to video chat with a remote worker every day, but he or she still misses out on connecting deeply with your company culture. This can have a significant impact on your employees’ engagement levels.

Six Steps to Strengthen Connection

How can you engage employees when you don’t see them every day? Here are six ways to establish and preserve a strong connection between your small business and your remote staff.

1 – Make it Easy to Communicate

If your small business employs remote staff, chances are communication is at the top of your list of challenges. You need to find ways to connect with them that go beyond email. Start by encouraging team members to pick up the phone instead of reaching for the keyboard. It’s also important that managers reach out often to help virtual staff stay involved. Holding virtual office hours once a week offers remote employees a set time to check in and share challenges or successes.

Take advantage of digital communication tools to define and manage tasks and help your team develop rapport. Voice or video conferencing via platforms like Skype, Go to Meetings, or Zoom will bring weekly department meetings to life. Cloud-based team collaboration platforms like Slack and Asana make it easy for in-house and remote employees to manage projects and connect in real time. This is especially important if team members work non-traditional hours or are located in different time zones, as is the case here at Summit Financial Resources.

Remote employees can also interact with team members through professional social media websites and hangout apps, sharing information, insights, and keeping the company’s cultural conversation going. While it’s impossible for everyone to be available 24/7, knowing they can reach out to their colleagues anytime can help virtual workers feel more connected.

2 – Use Collaborative Calendars

One of the benefits remote employees most enjoy is the flexibility to adapt work hours to fit their schedules. Managing these schedules, however, can be tough for employers and employees alike. One simple solution is to use a cloud-based calendar that allows managers and team members to share their schedules as well as set up meetings and activities, post tasks and project deadlines, and manage appointments with customers. Calendars can be designated and color-coded for different types of activities.

3 – Schedule Face-to-Face Meetings

When it comes to building engagement, nothing can replace face-to-face contact. In-person interactions can be productive as well as improve camaraderie, trust, and teamwork.

Budget for company leadership to visit remote offices regularly to discuss business objectives and work on establishing relationships with staff. Host team meetings quarterly or bi-annually at your home office, and commit to covering any travel expenses for your remote team members. Make the most of the time by scheduling company meetings, goal-planning sessions, or performance reviews. Allow onsite downtime for employees to relax and talk about their lives outside of work, or organize off-site team-building activities such as a lunch or happy hour, bowling outing, or softball game.

4 – Create Group Learning Opportunities

Shared learning opportunities are a way for your remote employees to connect over professional issues rather than projects. Develop opportunities for them to participate in online classes, discussions, webinars, or virtual conferences and share their takeaways after each event. You might start a business book club focused on professional development and facilitate a virtual discussion where in-house and remote employees can share what they learned. To build camaraderie, consider a group activity like a fitness program where remote employees can track progress and exchange notes on their experiences.

5 – Consider Shared Workspaces

While many remote employees prefer not being in an office every day, others are often happier and more productive working in a professional setting. Connection with others is a big reason why people pay to work in a communal space as opposed to working from home or renting a solo office. According to a study by the Harvard Business Review, remote workers typically thrive in co-working spaces.

If there is room in your company budget, consider offering remote employees the option of spending time in a co-working space. If you employ several workers in a single location, this will allow them the benefit of working together in one place.

6 – Show Genuine Interest

Every employee needs to know his or her work is valued and appreciated. For remote employees, it is vital that you let them know you care about them as people and their contributions are essential to the company’s success.

Most of us learn about our employees and colleagues through daily interactions or working together on projects. It takes more effort to engage in the same way with remote employees. Reach out to discuss their progress or specific issues they are dealing with. Monitor their level of engagement and buy-in, and provide frequent feedback. Use the time before or after meetings to find out what’s going on in their lives. Investing the time in getting to know your workers and showing genuine interest in their lives will help you build trust and earn their loyalty.

Small business owners intent on getting the most from their remote workforce must adapt their management practices and adopt technologies that empower employees to succeed, regardless of where they are located.

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Summit Financial Resources specializes in working capital financing for small to medium-sized businesses that need increased cash flow. We provide working capital financing through invoice factoring, asset-based lending, inventory lending, and equipment financing.