With the rapid outbreak of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, and more states issuing shelter-in-place orders, employers, whether by choice or not, are allowing millions of employees to engage in remote work to keep business going and help staff adhere to social distancing guidelines. But even before the latest public health crisis, the telecommuting trend has been on the rise and will likely accelerate in the years to come.

Up to 43 percent of Americans work remotely with some frequency, according to Gallup’s most recent State of the Workplace Survey. Globally, more than 70 percent of professionals work from home at least one day a week, while 53 percent telecommute for half of the week, reports Swiss shared office space provider IWG.

Remote work has also become an enticing perk for attracting and retaining talent, especially among Millennial workers who crave the freedom to work wherever they want and set their own flexible schedules.

Whether remote work is part of your business model already or unforeseen circumstances like the current pandemic have forced your company to suddenly switch to telecommuting, having the right tools and technologies in place to keep employees productive and connected is vital to operating successfully. So is establishing a sense of camaraderie among remote workers and extending your company culture to your virtual operations.

“There must be more transparency with remote work,” says Mitchell Maddox, founder of Woodland Russell. “You’re always communicating. You can’t just hide in your cubicle and say you’re working.”

Because he manages a small team that spans the globe, Maddox is vigilant about checking in with employees daily to make sure they have what they need to do their work and to field any questions or concerns they may have.

“The biggest challenge with remote work is lack of communication and interaction between people,” notes XMI CEO Chad Parodi. “You have to be able to stimulate that through technology, tools and the structure of your organization so you can continue to have efficient conversations and share knowledge.”

Extending Company Culture to Remote Workers

Is working from home the new norm for your employees? Here are some ways to create and cultivate culture if your office has gone virtual.

Plan virtual huddles.

Video conferencing technologies such as Skype, Zoom and GoToMeeting make it easy to meet face-to-face with remote workers and chat about everything from upcoming projects to the best way to deal with a challenging client. The talk doesn’t have to be all serious either. It doesn’t hurt to gab for a few minutes before or after the meeting about your latest movie recommendations or weekend plans. This builds relationships and trust and gives employees a chance to bond and get to know each other better.

Parodi suggests starting tele-meetings with a shout-out to employees who have gone the extra mile to uphold the core values of the company.

“You need to have a process in place for reinforcing the behaviors you want employees to follow and rewarding them for it,” he says.

Touch base frequently.

Project management platforms such as Slack, Basecamp, Asana and Trello help remote teams organize, track and manage their work and communicate via instant messaging. Use these technologies to keep everyone on the same page, share knowledge and articles of interest, build rapport, celebrate wins or even engage in some fun watercooler talk.

Maddox uses Slack to catch up with employees and ask about what’s going on in their lives.

“They need to know you’re there to support them and interested enough in their lives that they know you care,” he says.

Parodi recommends scheduling several quick check-ins a day for teams.

“That way they don’t feel like they’re out there by themselves struggling or unable to reach out if they need to,” he says.

Send company swag (t-shirts, coffee cups, etc.) to their home office so they can feel more connected to your brand.

Be transparent.

It’s easy for remote workers to feel lonely and isolated at times, so you have to be intentional about keeping them engaged and in the loop. Host quarterly meetings (virtually or in the city where you are headquartered) to update them on the status of the company, future plans, recent changes and new developments in your business and industry. Host monthly Q&A sessions where employees can ask anything and get straightforward answers.

“If you’re not open and honest, it’s hard to motivate your workers,” Maddox says.

Encourage remote teams to initiate their own ways of connecting that work best for them. Recognize each individual for their accomplishments, trust them to get their work done and avoid emailing them after hours.

Not all employees are cut out for remote work. That’s why it’s important to hire self-starters whose values align with the principles and purpose of your business. Whether your operations have gone completely virtual or not, success hinges on creating a culture that puts employees first. Remote workers thrive when they feel supported, acknowledged and valued—and that begins at the top.

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