Ah, the life of the remote training consultant—wake up, roll out of bed, and you’re ready for work. What could be better, right? Although the Gartner Group estimates that more than 137 million people worldwide—including one-third of the U.S. work force—will be engaging in at least part-time telecommuting by 2003, many companies have not yet shifted their thinking to better accommodating remote employees. As a manager, what should you do to keep the lines of communication open?
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In reality, the “wonderful life” of telecommuters can involve strong feelings of isolation. I tried it and realized how easy it is to become consumed with your work by getting up at 5 A.M. and working until midnight, without ever seeing a soul. A lot of people can get used to the lack of face-to-face communication, but even more difficult is staying informed about the happenings at the corporate office. Rest assured, however—there are a number of things you can do to increase communication between you and your remote trainers.

Gain your employees’ trust
Make sure whenever your trainers come to the corporate office that you take the time to talk with them. Assembling for a meeting can be a little too rigid, so discussing items of concern over lunch might be a better alternative.

Facilitate team building
When people don’t see the other members of their group every day, it can be difficult to develop a team spirit. You can help facilitate this by conducting conference calls with the entire team when important information becomes available or sending group e-mails. Encourage them to share ideas on their own, and they should begin to network without hand-holding.

For teams that already have a good rapport, Internet instant chats can enhance remote team building. They provide a good place to share information, but more importantly, they can save your trainers’ skin if they need a quick answer when you’re at a client site and can’t reach anyone. Sign yourself up as well. By getting involved in some of these conversations that go on out in the field, you can get a better handle on the issues that are occurring.

Get their opinions
You must include your remote employees in employee satisfaction surveys. Our company’s last training needs assessment included questions on remote employee satisfaction. The results were then compiled into a summary report that was sent to managers as well as the people who took part in the survey. The feedback received was extremely positive; people said that they “felt that their opinions and comments mattered.”

When employees feel they can be open and honest with you, it makes it a lot easier to provide them with information. Be sure to follow up, however. If you or the company does not act on the results, employees will be less likely to provide input again.

“Remote” newsletter
An effective method for keeping people informed of company happenings is through a newsletter. Rather than including the regular pep talk you find in so many corporate publications, my company’s newsletter contains information that is usually hard for remote employees to receive. Such news includes:

  • Details on new products
  • Development updates
  • Various change agents in the organization
  • Photographs of company events

Creating a newsletter should represent a long-term commitment from your company. If your company is not prepared to produce a publication on a somewhat consistent basis, you may want to rethink even beginning such an undertaking.

Also consider how you will deliver the newsletter. E-mail may be most efficient for you, but for telecommuters who have to wait almost an hour for a document like this to detach, it may not be the most efficient manner. If you must send it via e-mail—because the information is time-sensitive, for example—you may want to format it as an Acrobat file to preserve the graphics and pictures. We also post a couple of different formats on a database, so if people have any problems they can select which method would work best with their machine. As long as you are careful with deadlines, good old snail mail may be your best choice.

If you don’t have time to write an entire newsletter, there are other things you can do to keep people informed. Whenever you see an article that would benefit a particular group of people, scan it and e-mail it to them. Find a new informative Web site? Let them know about it.

There are a lot of different things you can do to help make remote employees feel more like part of the team. Most important is to maintain the mind-set that they are part of the team. Although it may be a challenge to keep them up-to-date on the latest and greatest, telecommuters can definitely use your help to stay informed and work more effectively.

Susanne E. Krivanek is a training coordinator/analyst for Systems &Computer Technology Corp. , Education Solutions Division, which specializes in the development of software product training and certification programs. She has a training background in brokerage software, office applications, and business entrepreneurship, and she speaks on maximizing training effectiveness.