Remote Employees, Your Canary in the Coal Mine?

canary in the coal mine

I know it’s a bit of a sensationalist title but I hope by the end of this post you’ll at least understand why I chose it. This post is primarily aimed at small to medium sized enterprise companies although I think that any company that uses remote employees (and if you don’t, you really should look into it).

Companies succeed or fail based on their internal processes, procedures, knowledge management, and workflows. Basically what I call their business infrastructure. (Okay, technically they succeed or fail based on sales and profit but give me this little bit of conceit.) So the question then becomes, how do you know if your business has the right infrastructure components? Are all critical workflows formalized into a process, are those processes known, is the knowledge necessary to follow those processes being managed and kept up to date? Well, one way to figure that out is to wait until you lose that big opportunity because the quote wasn’t filled out right. Or that strategic client escalates to the c-level because they didn’t get what they paid for or thought they paid for.

Another option is to check in with your canaries.

For remote/virtual/telecommuters/etc, that business infrastructure is full on critical to our ability to do our jobs successfully. I should know, I’ve been working remote for over five years. Unlike our HQ based friends, we don’t have the option of standing up or opening our office door and walking down a hallway asking until we find the person they need, get the answer to their question, or find the right template to submit a request. We are almost completely dependent on having clear procedures and not just that but knowing a.) where those procedures are and b.) having confidence they’re up to date and being followed.

3-best-practices-engaging-remote-employeesThere is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour filling out a request (including tracking down all the information about the client, the tool needed, etc), submitting that request, waiting several days, following up, and then being told that process was no longer being followed and here’s the new one.

So, if you want to know if you have the right workflows formalized, that the background knowledge management is there to support these, and they’re being followed, ask those canaries. Get them together (either virtually or if you want to treat them and really get their attention, bring them together physically) and have them start talking through their usual daily activities. The more cross departmental your group the better. Use them to identify which processes they’re currently using, if they feel they’re working, what could be done to improve them. Be on the lookout for statements like “Well, then I message coworker Y for the information/to do X/etc”. This could be an actual process or it would be a work around. And that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for those activities that remote folks have started to adopt because either the current process isn’t working (DEFINITELY find out why that is, or why they feel it is) or there isn’t an internal process.

Keep in mind, that this is not meant to be a knowledge check on your remote folks to see if they know the latest processes. If they don’t then that should definitely be a red flag for your organization not on their ability to remember. There are several reasons why remote employees may not know about a process that have nothing to do with them failing to remember: a.) management might believe the process is there but it’s not being used b.) the change in process was never communicated in a way that employees remembered them c.) you have too many processes and it’s hard for your team to keep them all straight.

All of these are things that can be addressed but you need to know they’re a problem before you can start addressing them. And that starts by checking with the remote employees. Because like those canaries in the coal mine, the remote employees are going to feel the strain and the frustration before the HQ based employees will. Let them warn you of them before you find out in a way that has a lasting and possibly catastrophic impact on your business.

Final comment: Yes, remote employees struggling with different challenges than those faced by those in the HQ. But instead of viewing these as a reason to not explore telecommuting, they should be embraced as ways that your business can improve and become even more successful.

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