Back in the dark ages, when everyone had to come into the office all the time, you could walk around and glare at employees if they weren’t working hard enough. And what could they do, go work at the neighboring coal mine?
That was before we cared all that much about employee happiness and the employee experience. Then we walked around, making sure people were happy and focused on their work. We could see when Jane was never at her desk and when Steve was always in the office kitchen. We could detect unhappiness before it exploded (Or, at least, we like to imagine we could).
But today? Forty-three percent of American workers work at least some of the time remotely. Eighty-two percent of workers want to work at least some of the time remotely. People love it. But, how on earth do you operate as an employee relations specialist when you have no direct relationship with the employees?
Sure, it’s easy enough to have Slack and Zoom and whatever internal software you’ve developed to communicate with remote workers, but it’s a bit harder for employee relations people. It’s awkward if you just send an instant message saying, “Hey, this is Jane from HR. Just checking up on you!”
Yeah, that doesn’t work. So, the temptation may be to move into reactionary mode. When someone complains about a bad boss, sexual harassment, or an unfair raise, you investigate, mitigate and (we hope) fix the problems. But good employee relations professionals are proactive. It’s better to prevent sexual harassment than investigating it. It’s better to give fair raises in the first place, then to slap a Band Aid on the problem.
Here are some ideas on how you can do that with a remote workforce:
It seems basic, but make sure everyone knows who you are and what you can do for them. And make sure they know how to reach you. In an email, instant messages, or whatever system your company uses, your name should be “Employee Relations Jane Doe.” That means they can find you even when they’ve forgotten who you are.
Join in for the positive
When groups get together for face-to-face meetings, be present. If they are never all together, join in for virtual meetings. Always use your video camera for group meetings, even if others don’t. If the employees feel like they know you, they’ll speak to you more, and that will help you do more. Don’t just show up when someone needs a reprimand or to ask painful questions about the incident at the trade show. Be present! Even though you’re only virtual — be seen.
Ask what people need
All your usual tricks go away when everyone is remote. You can’t have lunch in the break room. You can’t have a group yoga classes. You’re limited. But, employees love working from home and so, that’s a bonus. Ask what would make their jobs easier and work to get that implemented.
Of course, remote work isn’t the only way to have a flexible workplace. Not all jobs can be done from home, some people hate it, and those numbers above — they include people who work from home from time to time. Don’t use remote workers as an excuse to avoid the people in the office.
And should you be remote? You should be wherever the people are. If everyone is remote, sit on your couch with your cat and your laptop.
But, if people are in the office more often than not, you better be there as well. Remember, your job is to make everyone else’s job better. Keep in mind, though, you need to keep yourself balanced as well. Take the chance to have a flexible schedule and telecommute from time to time. Set a good example. That’s one of the best things you can do.
Suzanne Lucas is a freelance writer who spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. She's sure not evil. She's super nice! Learn more about her at www.evilhrlady.org and email her directly for decidedly unevil advice.