• Transform magazine
  • August 18, 2019

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Opinion: "Keep in touch"

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Remote needn't mean disengaged. Technology is helping employers connect with hard to reach employees, says Sheila Parry

Out of the office, on the road, working at home, having a duvet day; wherever they are and in whatever state of mind, most people I know are constantly communicating and juggling commitments to clients, colleagues, friends and family. Some of them are officially on call and in touch with work 24/7, including holidays. In 2015, psychologists cited constant connectivity to mobile devices as an increasing cause of stress inside and outside the workplace.

Some would relish a break from the noise, but there are still thousands of employed people for whom silence is by no means golden. Remote workers – including home-workers, programmers, drivers, engineers and small unit retail staff – may see customers, or the the insides of washing machines, or the tops of telephone poles, but they all work pretty much alone. They have vital roles to play in their organisations, yet regularly describe themselves as overlooked by their employers and out of the communications loop. All too often, without physical, face-to-face contact with line managers or peers, remote becomes isolated and isolated becomes disengaged.

This is not a new problem, and companies that care about their people have never let location get in the way of good communications. Masters at the art, including DHL, neopost, Pret a Manger, Siemens, Sky, SSP, Virgin and Vodafone keep lines of communication open and regular, and use the most accessible channels available. These range from traditional print newspapers and magazines to car radio programmes and podcasts, and to phone-in forums and online chat facilities accessible from home. Day-to-day operations tend to take priority over the corporate comms agenda, so content and language is relevant and appropriate.

Anyone responsible for communicating takes into account the constraints of remote staff, getting the timing right and providing practical opportunities for feedback. John Timpson, for example, makes sure that leaders go out and listen to remote staff directly in store, reflecting their culture of upside down management, and giving those that are facing the customer a voice. Others create opportunities to share their experiences with each other through local, peer-to-peer networking, compensating for the lack of daily face time with colleagues and building a sense of belonging.

Technology is also making significant impact in this area; on one hand, enabling more home working by choice and thus increasing the numbers of remote workers, but on the other, offering more accessible and affordable apps that can be built into existing corporate communications platforms. Consultants like Deloitte, EY and others were quick to jump onto this technology for globally dispersed, albeit office-based, employees. But most recently, transport services, retail and charity organisations such as Transport for London, Virgin Trains, Sovereign Housing, Clarks and Oxfam have also engaged with mobile communications, such as Yammer, with great impact on remote staff. Companies have been trying for years to keep in touch with their remote and ‘difficult to reach’ employees, to involve them, connect with them, get them to share their stories. If ever there was a group who will benefit from social communications channels in the workplace, it is remote employees.

Of course technology is not the whole solution, and it is not the right answer for everyone, but it has helped. In my opinion, the human factor is the single most important piece of our communications responsibility and that means developing a whole host of communications skills at all levels of the organisation to build a decent culture, both inside and outside the company’s walls.

In a recent conversation on LinkedIn, Lyndall Edwards, senior internal comms officer at TasWater in Australia, said, “It's exciting work to unpick the business opportunities for face-to-face comms in remote areas and then make the absolute most of them. I say, get out there, understand intimately the work patterns of your remote staff, ask them questions and ask their managers the same questions. Be there, assist your managers to be there and use your comms expertise and engagement skills to find the right tools. Just being there will communicate more than an app any day of the week.” I’m with Lyndall. Be there as often as you can and don’t forget to listen.

Sheila Parry is the founder and chair of theblueballroom. She will be speaking at the Employer Brand Management conference on 9 December.