Dr David Cross: Communication is key to keeping dispersed employees engaged

David Cross

Managing dispersed workers is complex. There are issues of out of sight, out of mind, loneliness and isolation, productivity tracking, trust, and a lack of organisational culture; they miss out on those ‘water-cooler moments’. Actually, many of them work this way precisely to avoid office politics and supervision although it has been shown that these individuals send more emails in an effort to be more visible and prove that they are working.

The underpinning principle of managing the engagement of these workers is communication, although this requires subtle application. Communication can help people feel involved and part of something. There are various apps and platforms that enable instant communication and this is good; however, it needs to generally be positive, direct, personal and honest. Workers need to hear a voice or see a face to make them to feel part of a team. Regular face-to-face meet ups in place of a reliance on email can help, along with teams, clusters of workers or local champions to bring people together.

These lines of communication need to be open and accessible at non-traditional hours. Great work and ideas, or indeed time to work, can come at any moment. This requires a shift away from tracking ‘when’ and instead caring about ‘what’. Nevertheless, regular and planned times for talking help to avoid some slipping off the radar.

Finally, there is an argument for letting them go ‘free-range’ and following their lead to help with trust. Not feeling constantly watched is important. Letting them work at co-working spaces or in their local community can pay dividends in terms of meeting people outside of the organisation or even their field. This can serve as a tool to foster their sense of freedom, creativity, and expand the organisational network.

When it comes to engagement of these individuals there are no right, and few wrong, ideas. Initiatives need to be tailored and asking them what they would prefer helps to keep it a trustworthy and honest relationship. Some will want more, others will want less.

Dr David Cross is research associate at the University of Bath School of Management