Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce, bringing with them an affinity for technology and very specific expectations for work/life balance. While some innovative companies have offered flexibility when, where, and how employees do their work for several years now, millennial-friendly workplaces weren’t mainstream until recently.
The challenge of attracting and retaining applicants has motivated business leaders to reconsider telecommuting policies, and as of January 2016, between 20 and 25 percent of the workforce works remotely for some portion of the week. This figure is likely to grow, as 80 to 90 percent of workers surveyed indicated that they would like to work from home.
Obstacles to Engagement
Of course, managing a remote workforce comes with its own set of problems. The most common is keeping virtual workers engaged. Without the relationship-building that comes with an in-person office setting, teams can lose their culture of collaboration. As virtual workplaces have expanded, workers reported that “their work lives often lacked a sense of community and the richness of collaboration. Many experienced far too little unstructured social contact.” To ensure ongoing success with this model, keeping remote employees connected is the No. 1 priority for managers.
Using Technology to Build a Cohesive Virtual Team
Telephone calls are essentially obsolete in the age of texting, instant messaging, and video chats. Outside of the office, employees are accustomed to connecting with friends and family through these tools, setting an expectation that conversations will be real-time. They have developed the skills necessary to build strong relationships, despite the lack of in-person or over-the-phone interaction, opening up new possibilities for engaging virtual workers.
Though bring-your-own-device programs or company-issued mobile phones, managers can offer their remote team members the same communication tools they use in their personal life. This encourages employees to build relationships with colleagues through casual texts, instant messages, and video chats, filling in the void left by the lack of in-person interactions.
Creative Solutions to Keep Employees Connected
While remote workers don’t indicate an interest in returning to the office full-time, they do want opportunities to spend face-to-face time with other people – even if those individuals aren’t direct co-workers. Often, virtual workers elect to set up shop at a local coffee house or bookstore to enjoy human interaction. Some organizations have adopted a model based on the coffee shop concept, creating hubs where remote workers can plug in for a few hours or a few days. Unlike a traditional office setting, there are no desk assignments or designated equipment. Instead, employees can choose to work from the hub based on individual needs.
Other organizations are focusing their efforts on bringing an environment of connectedness and collaboration back through advanced digital tools. For example, they may adopt a company-wide social intranet that loosely resembles social networking sites, offering employees an opportunity to communicate with each other both formally and informally. Such tools serve a dual purpose, because in addition to encouraging social interaction, they offer a one-stop solution for staying on top of company news, personal and team goal achievement, and important business-related communications.
Finally, bringing the team together for an in-person meeting or event occasionally is always a good idea. Even a brief opportunity to match faces with names and learn each other’s in-person communication styles can strengthen relationships over the long-term.
As more organizations get on board with the trend toward virtual work, it will be harder for the remaining companies to retain workers in 100 percent on-site positions. A strong majority of employees want flexibility in where they complete their work, and they will move to businesses that fit their needs. Adopting best-in-class virtual workforce technology now means a higher likelihood of attracting and retaining top talent.