chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
Vol. 41, No. 6

An action plan for staying close to remote workers

by Mark Athitakis

Like a lot of reports about the workplace, Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace” study is a good-news-bad-news proposition. On one hand, leaders and workers are both becoming more comfortable with flexible work environments, recognizing that an 8-to-5 mindset isn’t always the best fit for productivity—and that many talented workers actively resist it. On the other hand, that flexibility means people will need better and perhaps unconventional ways to communicate to help them establish goals and feel engaged at work.

That’s not just an issue for you as somebody who manages employees—it spills over to your thinking about your association’s stakeholders too. What’s your value proposition to a member or customer, particularly a younger one, who may be engaged in your association’s industry during only half the workday, or a fifth of it? Are you understanding what proportion of them are in that situation, and can you tailor products, services, and experiences that meet those particular needs?

The right answers to those questions, as ever, will vary from association to association. But a look into some of Gallup’s findings reveals the scope of the issue.

For one thing, remote working is now much more prevalent. Between 2012 and 2016, Gallup reports, the number of remote employees increased four percentage points, from 39 percent to 43 percent of the American workforce. Those remote workers were spending more time remotely: In 2016, 31 percent of remote workers were doing so 80 percent of the time.

This is largely a good thing, in Gallup’s estimation. “Engagement climbs when employees spend some time working remotely and some time working in a location with their coworkers,” according to the report. Fully remote workers have the lowest level of on-the-job engagement, as you might guess—only 30 percent of such employees say they feel engaged. But the percentage is exactly the same for those who never work remotely. Feeling stuck in one place often feels like being stuck in one place, it seems, regardless of where that place is.

That’s a challenge for any CEO. Last year I spoke with Dr. Robert Rich, CAE, the CEO of the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, which has a largely remote staff, and he explained how it presented challenges for both staffing and management. Employees in that environment need a self-starter mentality and can thrive with a minimal of interaction with coworkers, Rich told me; but the pressure was also on him to communicate regularly with his workers to make sure they weren’t overburdened, and that they understood the organization’s larger strategic goals.

That balance is important, because for all of its good news about flexibility in the workplace, the Gallup report also suggests that there’s a serious crisis of confidence when it comes to how workers feel about leadership. For instance, only 22 percent of employees “strongly agree the leadership of their organization has a clear direction”; only 15 percent “strongly agree the leadership of their organization makes them enthusiastic about the future.”

The mood is even more skeptical among those fully remote workers. Compared to those who split their time, fully remote employees are 16 percent less likely to “strongly agree their manager involves them in setting goals at work,” and 30 percent less likely to “strongly agree they have talked with their manager about steps to take to reach their goals in the last six months.”

Gallup doesn’t mince words on this issue: “For fully remote employees, managers are falling down on the fundamental aspects of performance development—those that are based on the manager-employee relationship—and perhaps increasing the risk that the employee will leave for a better opportunity to progress with another company.” But the fix isn’t particularly complex—it’s just a matter of building in more of those conversations with remote workers of all stripes. “Managers have to become more deliberate about when and how they communicate with remote employees,” the report’s authors write. “They should make an effort to connect with them consistently, whether through phone calls, email, instant or text messaging, or video conferencing. Ongoing communication can help establish an environment of trust and accountability while still giving remote employees a feeling of independence.”

More organizations are moving to an always-on system of employee feedback instead of the annual-evaluation check-in method, and that’s been a boon for employee engagement. But even if you’re not managing remote workers, leaders ought to be mindful of the broader trend. More people are breaking up their professional lives in more complicated ways. That at once makes the need for communication greater, while also throwing a wrench in the conventional methods of communication, in terms of employees, members, and customers. Engagement is what keeps associations humming. The tricky part now is finding new ways to generate it.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, (February 2017), Washington, DC.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.