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Summary:

As long as an Internet connection is available, people can work from virtually anywhere: coffee shops, their homes, remote offices. But while having your staff working everywhere is great, how can you make sure that everyone feels like part of one organization and one team?

working

It’s no surprise that advances in connectivity, hardware and software have resulted in workforces becoming increasingly mobile. Gartner recently revealed that smartphone sales in the first quarter of 2010 increased by almost 50 percent over the same period last year.

People no longer have to be tied to their desks all day, every day. As long as an Internet connection is available, people can work from virtually anywhere: coffee shops, their homes, remote offices or on public transport. But while having your staff working from any location is all well and good, how can you make sure that everyone not only remains productive, but feels like part of one organization and one team?

One of the dangers with having a remote workforce and geographically dispersed teams is: “Out of sight, out of mind.” With a customer engagement team that is always on the road and offices in London and San Francisco, here are some of my tips for keeping your team together:

  • Deploy a standard, business-wide instant messaging tool. Waiting for emails to hit yourinbox or playing telephone tag with your colleagues is neither productive nor fun. Rolling out one instant messaging tool across your business will ensure that information can be shared quickly and easily. Presence indicators also give you visibility of who is at their desk, who is in meetings and who is not online. At Huddle, Skype is our default instant messaging tool and when a new member of the team joins they’re instantly added to everyone’s contact list. For any quick queries, it’s a great way for people working from their homes, our London office or our San Francisco office to talk to each other.
  • Head towards the same goal. When your workforce is based in different time zones or regularly out of the office, it’s all too easy for people to start working in silos.  Communications barriers can start to form and everyone focuses on their own personal objectives without thinking about how this fits into the wider business goals. To make sure that everyone understands the company’s goals and how they fit into the bigger picture, hold regular organization-wide meetings. Obviously, regularly flying an entire team across the globe to meet face-to-face isn’t practical, cost effective or environmentally friendly. To overcome this issue, Huddle holds a Friday Stand-Up meeting. Thanks to the wonders of a projector and live video link, everyone in the San Francisco and London offices can get together and discuss what they’ve been working on that week. This ensures that the product, development, marketing, partner, sales and management team all have full visibility of what is going on across the business (and what the people they’re working with actually look like!) Any team members that have joined that week can also be introduced to everyone.
  • Look to the cloud. If you have a team on the move, everyone needs to be able to access files from wherever they are. Storing large files on a local computer or server and relying on email to send them to numerous people just isn’t practical. A lot of people working on numerous documents across multiple locations and time zones results in overburdened inboxes, mislaid documents and confusion over which version is current. Cloud-based file sharing tools, such as Dropbox, give teams the ability to upload content that can be instantly accessed by everyone working on a project. At Huddle, we all use our own product as it gives us the ability to control versioning and access rights. In fact, most of the tools we use are cloud-based — from our email through to our CRM software — so everything is accessible via the web.
  • Get the team up to speed. While cloud-based tools and services are great for ensuring that everyone can access whatever they need, from any location, on whatever device they have, having a decent Internet connection is essential. People working from home can’t be productive if they’re using an Internet connection with speeds reminiscent of dial-up. If your team has the option to work from home, consider offering them a home office broadband supplement. If your sales and customer engagement teams also spend a lot of time on the road, think about providing them with mobile broadband.
  • Company-wide fun. Team days out are important from a bonding perspective. But your team won’t feel like it’s bonding if everyone based at HQ is having fun while remote workers and staff in other offices are still working. Even when there were only a few people at Huddle’s San Francisco office, we made sure that when the London office had days out, we did too.
  • Getting the time right. There is nothing pleasant about being based in different time zones and having to get up at the crack of dawn or work late so that you can join your colleagues, partners or customers for a web or phone conference. If there’s no way round it and some members of the team have to get up early or go to bed late so that they can join a meeting, why not consider rolling out flexible working hours?

Andy McLoughlin, Co-founder and EVP Strategy at Huddle, can be reached on Twitter @Bandrew.

Photo by Flickr user wetwebwork, licensed under CC 2.0

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  1. Great post. In today’s virtual world, remote workers are a reality. Engaging them and making them feel a part of the organization, and keeping them “in the loop” is not easy. You have mentioned some great tools and I will offer another, MangoSpring. http://www.mangospring.com

    (Disclosure: I work for them)

    We know the challenge of the remote workforce very well, as this is how our business functions. With the MangoApps suite we can quickly and easily engage and share with everyone, anytime, anywhere. From the simple status update, to an important document that needs feedback, to getting input on new ways to improve product/services, to real time instant messaging with individuals or groups, with our solution you can do that all in one place.

    Highly recommend you check us out!

    Thanks
    Mike

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  2. Great tips! One practice that has worked well for me when working with a team dispersed across time zones is to have flexible hours but maintain a core hour when everyone syncs up.

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  3. As a manager I had to implement some work from home basic requirements that were essential to managing perception from the rest of the business and to foster communication:

    1. Set a schedule: Every team member has a set day of the week that they work from home. This allows me to spread out the workforce so there is a physical presence in the office each day of the week.

    2. IM: I couldn’t agree more with the article – remote workers need to be accessible, otherwise it is human nature to assume they are taking advantage of the work from home policy… even for the most dependable, senior employee. We use Microsoft Communicator for our corporate IM solution and it’s expected that remote workers be signed in and available.

    3. Communication: when working from home, each person sends an email to the group when they begin their day and when they go offline. The first email states what they expect to be working on and any scheduled interruptions.

    With these few, easy to follow policies in place – working remotely has been a real benefit to the workforce and to the business.

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  4. Great Post! It’s really important to have the right kind of tools when it comes to managing your remote workforce. I would like to mention an awesome tool every virtual team would love to have – Taroby http://www.taroby.com

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  5. It’s tools like Huddle and GoToMeeting that have transformed the nature of work. The big problem however, remains that the majority of employers don’t trust their employees to work untethered. My organization, the Telework Research Network, just did a white paper on the topic, Results-Based Management–the Key to Making Remote Work Work (http://tinyurl.com/29ug8qu).

    I also think if businesses really understood the cost advantage of remote work, they’d be more apt to deploy remote work strategies.

    A Telework Research Network study shows that a company could save $1,100,000 if they allowed 100 workers to work at home just half the time. That’s a savings of $10,000 per employee.

    The study quantifies the business, individual, and societal impact that regular telecommuting could have on the nation, and for small to mid-size companies. Nationwide, the impact would exceed $645 billion.

    Businesses with 100 teleworkers would annually:

    - Increase productivity by $575,000 by getting more work done with the same number of people
    - Save $304,000 in real estate, electricity, and related costs
    - Save $113,000 in absenteeism related costs
    - Save $76,000 in employee turnover
    - Improve continuity of operations
    - Avoid environmental sanctions, city access fees, etc.
    - Improve work life balance and better address the needs of families, parents, and senior caregivers.
    - Avoid the ‘brain drain’ effect of retiring boomers by allowing them to work flexibly
    - Be able to recruit and retain the best people
    - Better address the needs of disabled workers, rural residents, and military families

    More than 30% of U.S. workers say they’d take a pay cut for the opportunity to work at home. Eighty percent of U.S. workers say they want to telecommute. 40% hold jobs that are compatible. Yet still, less than 2% of U.S. employees (not including the self-employed) consider home their primary place of work.

    The Telework Research Network’s findings have been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and dozens of other publications. A free calculator that allows communities and companies calculate their own potential telework savings is available on their website at http://TeleworkResearchNetwork.com. Similar models for the U.K. and Canadian markets are currently being developed.

    Kate Lister, Principal Researcher
    TeleworkResearchNetwork.com
    Co-Author of Undress For Success—The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home (Wiley 2009)

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