The number of employees that regularly work away from traditional company offices is on the rise, and while the trend may offer conveniences for both employees and employers it also presents challenges.
Among the non-self-employed worker population, telecommuting and teleworking grew in the United States by 106 percent from 2005 through 2014, according to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com. And the year-over-year percentage increase in remote workers was 6.5 percent from 2013 to 2014, while the employee population as a whole grew only 1.8 percent during that time.
With advances in technology the trend toward more remote workers likely will continue, especially as data from GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com shows that 80 to 90 percent of U.S. workers say they would like to telework at least part time.
“Managing remote employees takes a lot more leadership skills,” says Amy Hart, founder of Texas-based Hart Training Connection. “That’s an important thing to remember because if there’s not more effort to build relationships with remotes they often will get lost. Or just won’t be as effective as they could be.”
Speaking during a presentation at the Joe Vincent Management Seminar held by the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas in late January, Hart said some of the challenges faced by insurance agencies with remote workers include:
- Difficult for remote worker to adapt to agency culture
- Confidence/trust in employees that are not on site
- Remote employees feeling isolated
- Difficulty in developing/maintaining relationships between a remote account manager and a producer
- Not as much face time, in some cases none
- Missing out on the day to day changes within the business, where a lot of information is actually communicated
- Establishing work procedures for remote employees
For agencies, the relationships between account managers and producers are “very much affected by whether you have agreed procedures or not,” Hart said. So it’s imperative to “establish the rules of the road” and have “clear expectations and agreements,” when managing people who are not working together in the office.
That’s not necessarily easy to do.
“A lot of the times we assume that you have an idea of what’s reasonable that matches what I think is reasonable, and it’s not. Especially when you’re talking about account managers and producers — very different perspectives, different priorities,” Hart said.
She described as an example her work with an agency seeking to improve the working relationship between a producer and a remote account manager.
“We had a situation where the producer had a very good account manager. There wasn’t a problem with competency or trust,” she said.
But the producer was very demanding and consistently wanted the account manager to take care of his business immediately.
“What he was doing, for example, was he would email the account manager. And then a minute or two later he’d call. … Of course what do you think the account manager was feeling? Ready to strangle him, because she had not had a chance to do anything yet,” Hart said.
She said through a series of meetings it was discovered that although the agency had clear operations standards and goals, they were interpreted differently.
What needed to be communicated was not only that the account manager would work on the producer’s requests but the time frame for working on them as well.
Since they weren’t working in the same office, specific agreements had to be established, Hart said. “How long before phone calls are returned or how long before emails are returned? If that is specifically agreed on, that helps.”
Hart said virtual face-to-face communication (teleconferencing) is highly effective as a means of connecting with remote workers, though companies don’t take advantage of the technology often enough.
Video conferencing is “the fastest way you can improve communications. Pretty simple, pretty easy and not very expensive,” she said.
Most new computers have the technology built in. But, “even if you don’t have the newest computers, you can easily purchase a web cam, a USB plug in. For any remote employees you have you can spend 30 bucks a person. … The output, the expense is really not that great in order to have people much more interactive with the office,” she said.
Note: Hart recommended as a good resource for those working with remote employees: Yael Zofi’s “A Managers Guide to Virtual Teams.”
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