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Turn Remote Worker Pains Into Possibilities With a Pairing of Tech and Talk

June 15, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC
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Even though Bob, the copy writer, works from home Fridays, you know the face he makes when he isn’t given enough time to come up with taglines for a project. Meanwhile, art director Helen job-shares, which means she only gets face time every other week. Still, it’s clear that nobody needs to manage her time; she’s never missed a deadline.

But they aren’t true remote workers—that’s Troy, the graphics guy who lives four states away. During his phone interview, he sounded excited about the job—like one of the 68% of millennials who said working remotely would sweeten the deal on a job offer. Now, the challenge is getting to know Troy—and his work—as well as Bob and Helen.

At global job site, this hypothetical is becoming more of a reality. About 5% of the company’s workforce is is “truly remote,” says Paul Wolfe, senior vp of global human resources. “People want flexibility. Technology affords us that flexibility,” he adds, noting that the desire for flexibility is not a generational thing.

Working from home is “a future-looking technology,” Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Nicholas Bloom told the TEDxStanford audience in 2017. “I think it has enormous potential.”

In research Bloom did with a Shanghai-based corporation fo 20,000 employees, he found a 13% improvement in performance by those who worked at home. The factors that led to the productivity boost included spending less time commuting and more time working, along with an enhanced ability to concentrate.

There’s also this bonus perk: “Resignations at the company dropped by 50% when employees were allowed to work from home,” noted Bloom.

Communication is key

The key to making the relationship with remote staffers work? Communication.

“There are so many ways to communicate today,” says Wolfe. But, he adds, the best way to build a solid foundation for future communication is to get to know your employees.

There’s no better way to do that than with face-to-face interaction. Yet of the eight member of Wolfe’s team, seven work remotely. So Wolfe gets his team together twice a year for in-person meetings, relying on team-building exercises like volunteering to help the team members get to know each other better.

Ultimately that helps team members understand tone in messages, instead of imagining what’s being left unsaid. For example, team members will come to better understand that Emma goes quiet when she is stressed or that Sven is at his best when he is brainstorming with other team members.

“Face-to-face and voice-to-voice is the most important,” Wolfe says. “You can pick up body language and intonation.”

Wolfe admits that he’s prone to sending a quick message via Google’s chat program, leaving a lot to interpretation, but the in-person meetings help keep misinterpretation at bay.

“We’re all human beings at the end of the day,” he says.

Staffing for success

When looking for new remote team members, there are specific skills hiring managers should seek out, says Wolfe. For example, look for motivated self-starters with good time management skills, as well as the ability to think through projects, set clear milestones, and meet deadlines.

They also need good communication skills but “that goes both ways,” he says.

The best way to find those workers is paying attention during the interview process, Wolfe adds. Ask questions, like how they think through feedback before passing it along and, definitely, what forms of communication they prefer. The boss can’t always be the driver. Relationships are always about compromise, and that includes bringing everybody’s communication style to the team.

The right tool for the job

With so many different communications tools, which is the best one to use? The answer largely depends on the situation. For instance, Wolfe recommends starting every project with a video meeting, where milestones can be set. Then have a weekly email or other set communication so everybody knows where things stand, and what needs to be done. It’s also vital to establish owners for tasks and establish clear objectives, he says.

As for that video meeting (or any other form of technology put into play), Wolfe suggests that every member of the team—even those who work together in the same office—dial in individually. That helps avoid the desire to go on mute and have side conversations. “Everybody is on the same level playing field,” says Wolfe. If individual dial-ins aren’t possible, he recommends that the facilitator must make sure to engage remote workers in the video call by asking them by name if they have questions.

No employee left out

It’s almost a given that water cooler conversations and desk drive-bys when employees are in an office together make it easy to share quick hits of inspiration or changes to projects. But don’t leave remote workers out in the cold on the information that pops up in these impromptu talks. An Igloo Software survey shows that 56% of remote workers miss out on important information, and 54% say they don’t get invited to meetings or brainstorm sessions.

“You’ve got to be more mindful when you’re not in the same office,” says Wolfe.

But just like for their in-office counterparts, remote workers need feedback—but don’t necessarily give it via email or text, says Wolfe. Just like with on-site workers, constructive feedback is best done in person—so, if that’s not possible, by video.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—How this NYU grad landed an entry-level job at Google

—How an entry-level UX designer at Amazon got her foot in the door

—What it’s like to work an entry-level job at Madewell Corporate

Why companies are hiring more part-time professionals

—Listen to our new audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily

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