Ask the Guru: Engaging Remote Workers     

Last Wednesday 12 Internal Communicators gathered in Manchester to discuss how to engage remote workers. Our event partners and friends from ‘theblueballroom’ were on hand to help us host the event. 


Committee member Martin Flegg was our reporter for the evening and has blogged about some of the highlights. 

Over to Martin:

Do you have remote workers in your organisation who are difficult to communicate and engage with? If you don’t now, you may very well be faced with this challenge very soon.

In her introduction to last week’s CIPR Inside ‘Ask the Guru’ in Manchester, Kate Shanks MD of theblueballlroom , revealed that some business leaders think that there will be 1 in 3 employees working remotely by 2020. Much of this shift in how and where we work will be driven by people choosing to do this as well as those who work in this way because of the nature of their role. There were also a couple of other interesting statistics in Kate’s presentation:

  • When asked, over 40% of people said they would choose to work flexibly rather than take a pay rise, if offered both
  • 64% of millennials (and 66% of non-millennials) would like to work occasionally from home

There is obviously a significant and pent up demand for more flexible working arrangements, which could see many more workers performing their roles ‘any time, any place, anywhere’ and a payback for organisations having a more engaged and productive workforce as a result. This has some big implications for internal communicators and the methods we use to engage with a growing number of remote workers.

So what are the challenges facing a remote worker? They can be many and varied ranging from limited or no access to technology such as email, documents on the go and intranets, to limited communications with peers and a disconnect with HQ and office based workers. The potential for dissatisfaction having a negative effect on employee engagement within this group is obvious. When you consider another fact from Kate’s presentation –  that around 51% of employees generally are searching for a new job and their engagement effects the productivity of businesses, the need to effectively connect with remote workers becomes even more sharply focused.

So what are the solutions to all of this? Kate outlined a few for the group, and luckily, they are not dissimilar to good general internal communications practice:

  • Having skilled managers in place who can communicate with and engage people
  • Using the right language and tone, which supports and promotes the organisations culture
  • Giving employees a voice, listening to and acting on feedback
  • Connecting people with the organisational brand, business strategy and objectives

The trick is to adapt this good practice so that it works for your remote workers and addresses their specific needs as a unique audience.

With this in mind, Kate and theblueballroom colleagues Emily Bateman and Cara Jenkins facilitated some fast paced and insightful discussions, with the ‘Ask the Guru’ participants all pitching in to contribute their own challenges and some very innovative solutions.

What are your challenges?

There were quite a few big obstacles and challenges outlined by the participants. These included not directly owning the relationship with thousands of employees in a franchised or business to business (B2B) environment, how to incentivise managers to make the effort to connect with remote employees and getting important business and customer information to remote employees in a timely way.

The use of social media and online apps was a big feature of the discussion with many participants highlighting the rise of remote working employees starting up their own groups on platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Yammer, which were not owned or moderated by the organisation. This reminded me of a recent blog about the rise of ‘shadow communications’ by Rachel Miller of allthingsIC and the potential implications of this with the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) being introduced next year.

GDPR is something all people working in public relations and internal communications need to be aware of, and it seems it’s particularly relevant for those with remote workers amongst their employees. The Guru participants considered what needed to be done to address this, and the consensus view was that there needed to be clear guidelines on the use of social media, whether the platform was owned by the organisation or not.

What are some creative ways to overcome the challenges?

So, now on to the good stuff and the bit everyone was really there for.  How do the ‘Ask the Guru’ participants engage with their remote workers? Here are a few ideas and techniques which ranged from the high tech to low tech:

  • Use of Smartphone Apps which allow ‘customer experience’ information to be shared and feedback gathered from employees.
  • Using virtual reality goggles to demo future developments. Enabling people to see what future working and retail environments will look like rather than trying to use the written word to describe them.
  • Monitoring discussions on social media platforms and then responding to issues raised on other corporate communications channels or by taking action to, for example, rectify IT problems. Imagine your surprise if your phone gets fixed without you ever having to contact your IT department!
  • Video – particularly when this is used to enable employees to speak in an authentic voice to other employees, and using live video streaming for face to face briefings from leadership teams rather than using a recording. This is a much more inclusive way of delivering important messages to both office based and remote workers simultaneously.
  • Scratch cards (with prizes) to promote compliance with health and safety rules.
  • Good old text messaging.

It also seems there is still a place for print products and giveaways, such as badges which are given to remote employees as a small gift for attending a briefing and other material sent through the post. I particularly liked the chocolate coins distributed with some straightforward information to promote an employee share purchase scheme and a simple employee survey entitled ‘tell us how the cookie crumbles’ which was sent out with, yes you guessed it, a cookie.

I doubt the attendees will forget in a hurry the example from our very own CIPR Inside committee member Advita Patel. 8,500 donuts purchased and distributed to raise the profile of and celebrate a company acquisition. Trouble is, when you work at an airport everything, including donuts, has to go through the security scanners!

How can we inspire leaders and managers to help us communicate with remote employees?

The final part of the group discussion focused on how, as internal communicators, we can successfully co-opt leaders and managers to help. As we all know, having skilled leaders and managers in place who can really engage people is crucial to successful internal communications.

There were some interesting examples of using storytelling techniques to bring business strategy and other dry information to life. These included providing managers with their own storyboard which they could use to tell the story to teams in their own words, after having some training and coaching from a skilled storyteller to demonstrate how this could be done.

Providing tailored briefing materials to managers can help to keep them ‘on message’. In this context I think it’s important to remember what I call the ‘past, present, future’ rule when shaping briefing messages. Leaders spend most of their time thinking about the future for the organisation, managers in the present delivering the business and the main reference point for colleagues is often the past. So, try and think about how you can join all that up to make briefings really relevant to the audience using them and on the receiving end of them.

Finally, a really simple way to incentivise a chat between managers and remote workers is to provide free vouchers for coffee and cake. What’s not to like about that!

Thanks to theblueballroom for helping us to host such an interesting and informative evening and for allowing us to publish some of their statistics. Watch out for more ‘Ask the Guru’ events coming soon. We also still have some tickets available for the CIPR Inside Annual Conference on 1 November.






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