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Training at a distance? Don’t even try, warn CEOs

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As a manager of remote employees, you no doubt know day-to-day communication can sometimes be difficult. That’s true even for team members you’ve worked with for months or years. So how much more difficult is it to keep information flowing when the distant person you’re attempting to work with is brand new to the organization?

Onboarding any employee into a company can be tricky, and as we’ve covered here on WebWorkerDaily before, getting new virtual employees up to speed is even trickier. In fact, the process has so many potential pitfalls that some experts on remote work recommend you skip it entirely, opting instead to train your remote workers face-to-face.

Speaking to MoneyWatch’s Laura Vanderkam recently, Mom Corps CEO Allison O’Kelly suggested managers bring new hires that will be working at a distance into the office for the first week or two:

Train in person. If you’re hiring someone into a virtual position, awesome. You can find a great person without having to pay moving expenses! But “training is the most difficult part,” says O’Kelly. You have to explain exactly what it is the person needs to do, as well as your culture. “We have had some people who we have tried to train virtually and it really is difficult,” O’Kelly says. The solution? Spend time together. O’Kelly is in Pennsylvania, and recently hired a CFO in Atlanta who spent two different weeks with her. Spread out over several weeks, those two weeks have been “invaluable,” she says.

Donna Wells, CEO of online company Mindflash, concurred with this position last year on Mashable, suggesting managers should:

Plan to have new remote teammates spend their first days or weeks at HQ. As good as collaboration tools are, they are not effective in building the personal relationships and communication shortcuts that come very quickly face-to-face. For the employee, it’s a chance to feel a strong sense of belonging and to establish a positive bond with the boss and whole team. For managers, it’s an opportunity to convey the company culture, to set expectations and start building the trust you’ll need later on to hit mutual goals.

Even here on WebWorkerDaily where we’re usually focused on figuring out how to do nearly everything better at a distance, my colleague Darrell Etherington has conceded that when done virtually, “training is tricky. Orientation for new remote workers, especially if they’re new to the job or company and not just making the shift from being an in-office employee, can be very difficult.” Though there are plenty of tech tools to ease the stresses of training remote workers and keep them closely connected to the office during those crucial first weeks if a trip in to get to know the team is impossible.

In your experience is trying to train at a distance a hopeless undertaking or can it be done well?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Evil Erin.

3 Responses to “Training at a distance? Don’t even try, warn CEOs”

  1. Note the success factors: O’Kelly mentions time spent face-to-face, in what appears to be two week-long periods separated by several weeks. Wells talks about “first days or weeks” spent at headquarters.

    Equally important, I believe, is something they didn’t say: what you do when you say you’re “training” the new employee.

    If you’re handing out org charts and subjecting them to talking heads, you hardly need bother with the face to face. The biggest difference is that in person, they can’t escape.

    The key is: bring them onsite for what? If as Wells says you want to build relationships, build trust, then you need to plan activities (and not just pep talks) that are likely to further those ends. In a sense, if you could resolve an issue or cover some point at a distance, it probably belongs in some form other than face-to-face, so you can capitalize on the benefits of in-person interaction.

    My experience says that few organizations are willing to extend themselves in this way for a new, remotely-located employee. So there’s potential value in putting your travel money where your corporate-culture mouth is. Just don’t fritter the potential away; seize the opportunity to start on real work, and leave the two hours with HR for a Skype call.

  2. Janet Clarey

    I talk to organizations (Fortune 100s, 500s, SMBs) every day that “train at a distance” and many are seeing excellent, real results both in terms of effectiveness and cost. Those that don’t do it (orientation or other) well tend to not do it well face-to-face either. Just sayin’. -Janet Clarey, Sr. Analyst, Bersin & Associates

    • I am with one of those companies, and I have had the experience of training the same teams both on site and at a distance. NOTHING beats face to face as my preference, but it will always come down to the quality of the material and employees AND the trainer, no matter what route one takes.