Workplace Culture

Tips for Managing Mobile Workers

By Michelle Rafter

Jun. 5, 2011

How do you make the most of a mobile workforce? Here are some recommended best practices from consultants and managers of mobile employees:

• Keep the conversation going. Set up regular conference calls between managers and team members. Malcolm Gilvar, executive vice president of sales for the Trade Group, a Carrollton, Texas-based trade show marketing and display company, who oversees 22 sales reps in five locations, checks in with his team weekly, and three top salespeople lead conference calls with smaller groups in between. Even with all of that talking, it’s harder to keep tabs on mobile workers than in-house sales reps, and Gilvar estimates turnover among his remote employees is up to 25 percent higher than for other staff members. “You can’t have that daily interaction that builds a team,” he says.

• Get to know each other. The Trade Group brings new sales reps who will be working remotely to the company’s Dallas headquarters for two to four weeks of training to indoctrinate them in the company’s culture. Other companies host annual employee get-togethers.

• Collaborate online. Facebook-like tools that allow for online work group collaboration inside a company’s firewall are proliferating, including Inc.’s Chatter, Rypple and Yammer. Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of jobs referral website FlexJobs, uses Yammer and other collaboration tools in lieu of email or instant messages to communicate with remote employees.

• Put it in writing. When Razorfish, the $317 million online ad agency that Microsoft Corp. owned through October 2009, sent some employees to work, it licensed online-based mobile workforce management training courses that the software giant developed for its own supervisors. The agency also created a page on its intranet where employees can find mobile workforce policies and get tips on setting up an ergonomic office, FedEx account and more. Managers use a list of questions called a “virtual workplace commitment document” to make sure remote workers understand what’s expected of them, says Mardi Douglass, the company’s employee services director.

• Ask lots of questions. Because managers can’t see remote employees, they need other techniques to determine when something’s wrong. Fraser Marlow, marketing vice president and head of research for BlessingWhite Inc., a Skillman, New Jersey, human resources training company, says asking probing questions during a phone call is the equivalent of asking an employee out to lunch.

• Make workplaces safe. Companies can run into workers’ compensation issues if home-based employees develop injuries from improperly positioned chairs, desks or other ergonomically unfriendly setups. Consultants recommend creating ergonomic policies for home offices, or requiring employees to take pictures of their home-based workspaces so that HR can sign off on the setup.

• Prep the information technology help desk. While many mobile workers can maintain their own home-office Internet connections, others need more hand-holding.

• Take security and privacy precautions. With more people working outside the office and carrying sensitive company data on laptops, smartphones or flash drives, security “has become a greater concern for employers,” says Greg Harper, president of Runzheimer International, the Waterford, Wisconsin-based mobile workforce research and consulting firm. In virtual workplace contracts or documentation, employers should include precautions employees are expected to take to keep company equipment and information safe. Pinstripe Inc., a 250-person recruitment process outsourcer in Brookfield, Wisconsin, gives remote employees access to sensitive corporate materials through a secure Web-based document sharing service “instead of people keeping them on their local drives,” says Angela Hills, the company’s executive vice president.

Workforce Management Online, June 2011Register Now!

Michelle Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor.

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