Ever since Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting, remote working has had a bad rap. Even so, either by necessity or by choice, a sizable number of companies employ remote workers. A Census Bureau report found that 13.4 million people worked from home at least one day per week in 2010. The remote work force grew 80% between 2005 and 2012.
Remote working gone wrong can result in detached employees who don’t get much done. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Education startup Citelighter has workers scattered around the world, from developers in Romania to account executives in Northern California, and another group in Baltimore. The company recently shared with Fast Company how it successfully manages it dispersed workforce.
“The first thing you need to do is create a system of communication that is as close to working right next to the person as possible,” says Citelighter COO Lee Jokl. That way people will feel accountable to supervisors, just like having a boss in the cube next door. The company uses Skype to keep in constant contact with its remote workers. Something like Slack, Campfire, Basecamp, or even Gchat will work, too.
Online communication tools alone will not make workers feel like they’re in the office. To create additional boss presence, Citelighter designates certain people as communication leaders, who are expected to answer no matter what. If, for some reason, those people aren’t available, there is a backup person. “That makes it so that it’s not like if something goes wrong, I’m not just left in the dark because our developers are in Romania,” said Jokl. “That expectation eliminates a lot of the risk.”
On top of that, the company has a morning “scrum” every day to ensure employees experience the company culture on a regular basis. “It’s good for establishing the rapport, but also airing any issues that would come up related to work,” added Jokl.
People who work out of the office don’t get the same feelings of camaraderie when something good happens for a company, like reaching a sales goal or landing a particularly lucrative account. Citelighter makes a point to involve all of its remote workers in those moments so they don’t get too detached from the mission. “They’re building small pieces; they don’t get to see the whole,” says Jokl.
For example, if a good piece of press comes out, Citelighter will post it on Facebook and tag every single person. The developers, who fix bugs all day, often hear about problems. If a new feature gets mentioned by a user or in the press, Citelighter makes sure to point out who did the work. That keeps workers engaged in the bigger picture. “That may seem like common sense, to do that with all employees,” said Jokl. “It really matters a lot more when you don’t get the energy of the office.”
With people scattered across the globe, creating a company culture is a challenge, especially when there’s no one home base. Citelighter first drills the greater mission all of its employees. After that, it attempts to involve its farthest-flung employees in all aspects of company life; even small gestures like sending everyone company T-shirts can go a long way. “As an example of how much they appreciate it, we had one of our developers take a cross country trip across Europe,” Citelighter CEO Saad Alam said. “He wore his Citelighter shirt every day in a new location.”
“It’s very simple and obvious things like: think about how much pride people have in wearing their company T-shirts,” he added.
But he does more than the simple things. Alam gets involved in his employees’ lives in a deeper level, like attending the weddings of one of his developers in Romania. “The main principle of making everyone make sure they feel like they are part of the larger team has always held up,” he said.