Ken Condren remembers the moment when he experienced the frustration his remote employees face. He was working from home, participating in a conference call and heard a side conversation going on, but had no idea what was being said.
"I felt so out of the loop," Condren recalls.
Today, businesses want the talent they want — and are more willing to hire or retain someone to fill a job even if they live or move thousands of miles away. Yet even with a great number of employees working remotely, nobody wants to be that guy who doesn't get the inside joke during a conference call.
When the success of a team depends on the people — and all the people are scattered — it's the manager who must make sure relationships stay vital and productivity high. Getting the most out of remote workers takes a manager who knows how to motivate and communicate from a distance.
"Virtual workers still need a personal connection," said strategic business futurist Joyce Goia, president of The Herman Group. "They want camaraderie and to feel like they are part of a team."
More managers are using videoconferencing, instant messages and other collaborative software to help make remote workers feel like they are "there" in the office. Not being able to speak face-to-face can quickly be solved with Microsoft-owned Skype, Apple's FaceTime or simple Voice over Internet Protocol systems.
Condren, vice president of technology at C3/CustomerContactChannels in Plantation, Fla., uses Microsoft Lync to connect virtually with a team spread across geographies and time zones. Employees see a green light on their screen when a colleague is available, signaling it's a good time to video chat or instant message. Instead of meeting in physical conference rooms, team members get together in a virtual work room where they can hold side conversations during conference calls or meet in advance to prepare for the call.
"You lose the visibility of waving hands during an in person meeting, but we can build that with virtual workspaces," he said.
Beyond that, Condren said, he holds weekly video conference calls with his staff to help his remote workers become better team players. He also sets aside 45 minutes to an hour each week to check in with his remote workers.
"It's a little extra effort to make sure they are giving me the updates that happen casually in the office," Condren said.
Condren said adapting to a virtual workforce has allowed him to hire talent in any geographic market with the skill set he wants. And he has been able to hire them at competitive salaries.
In the current economy, such flexibility can be critical for a company looking to attract top talent. CareerBuilder's Jennifer Grasz said the recession has created a less transient workforce, making it difficult for workers to sell their homes and relocate.
"Employers are turning to remote work opportunities to navigate the skills deficit," she said.
Even from a distance, managers say there are ways to hone in on remote workers who are having problems. Billie Williamson managed virtual teams as a partner for Ernst & Young and would focus on the tone of someone's voice during a group conference call.
She would even listen for silences.
"Silence can mean consent, or it can mean the person you're not hearing disagrees or is disengaged," Williamson said. "If she sensed a team member was lacking engagement, she would follow up immediately."
It may not always be possible, but managers find bringing virtual employees to the home office a few times per year to network with co-workers and business leaders has value.
"As manager, your job is to pull your team members together every once in a while, regardless of where they work," Williamson said.
She also feels that remote workers need to be coached honestly on their career opportunities; some may never advance unless they work from the headquarters.
Among employers, the common objection to working remotely has been the fear that it would encourage slacking off. Some remote workers do, in fact, turn into slackers, take advantage of their situations and wind up getting fired.
Business owner Patrice Rice has learned that the right management style often can prevent that from happening.
Rice launched her business, a restaurant and hospitality recruiting company with employees in 40 cities across the country, and eventually moved to a franchise model.
"It was hard for me to understand why someone would want to pay me money to buy a franchise and then sit home and not work," he said. "Why would they want to do this if they are not motivated and self-disciplined? It was a real eye-opener."
Rice learned that franchisees — just like remote workers — need to feel connected to a home base. Now, for the first 90 days, she virtually "touches" her new franchisee at least once a day and uses technology to work together online on spreadsheets.
"I let them know they are part of something and I'm committed to their success," Rice said.
Javier Burdman, Rice's new Miami franchisee, has set up an office with three employees, calling it Talex USA. He said he wants the ongoing communication with Rice that remote workers seek out, whether it's a phone call, text or a video conference.
"When you're miles away, it helps to know you have someone working with you to solve problems," Burdman said.
Meanwhile, more companies are considering allowing their professionals to work remotely, even on a part-time basis. Michael Goodman, a partner at public relations firm Bitner Goodman in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he and his partner, Gary Bitner, bought an office building earlier this month and adjusted their space needs to allow more staffers to work remotely.
"We believe that with the right equipment and right planning in place, people don't have to be at our side," Goodman said.
Goodman already manages a remote worker and works from home himself a few days a week. He said working virtual works when a manager creates a plan for each client account with deliverables and deadlines, and talks regularly with his staff — wherever they are — to update it.
"I also take it to another extreme," he said. "I'm copied on everything to make sure everyone is on the same page."
— By Cindy Krischer Goodman for the Miami Herald (MCT). Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at email@example.com.