By now the benefits of telecommuting and remote work should be obvious. Increased employee engagement and loyalty, reduced infrastructure costs and more efficient operational expenses, to name just a few. But there's one piece of a successful remote work strategy that's tough to get right -- inclusion. How can you help remote workers feel connected, empowered and fully part of your team when they're not physically present?
Take Advantage of Technology
Technology can be one of the best ways to bring geographically dispersed teams together and foster inclusion, says Sean O'Brien, executive vice president of strategy and communications for PGi (Premiere Global Services, Inc.), which developed the popular iMeet and GlobalMeet collaboration suites.
"One of the first things to remember is the definition of telecommuting is dated," says O'Brien. "The word implies you're only using the telephone to get work done; now, you've got technology far beyond that -- video, real-time virtual meeting tools that leverage Web cams, screen sharing, the cloud, file sharing and social media," O'Brien says, all of which help workers make more personal, meaningful connections and feel more involved and collaborative.
According to PGi's recent survey and information gleaned from the State of Telework research, 75 percent of telecommuters leverage these types of tools as part of their suite of solutions, O'Brien says, but it's just as important for managers and supervisors to use these solutions.
"Managers have to have the same level of familiarity with remote work and collaboration tools," he says. "The technology empowers them to have the same kind of relationship and interaction with their workers as they would if the worker was on-site."
Video Is Not the Enemy
One of the major technology advancements contributing to effective collaboration with remote workers is video, says Rob Bellmar, executive vice president, conferencing and collaboration at collaboration solutions company InterCall, even though the shift has been hard to swallow for many workers.
"The move toward streaming video and live video interaction has been hard, culturally," Bellmar says. "Think about your last conference call - most likely you were halfheartedly listening; you also were checking email, or working on a spreadsheet, or something else at the same time, and that means you weren't fully engaged," he says.
The modern workforce has gotten so used to these "bad habits" that they often don't want to embrace video because it'll change the way they have to work, he says, but it's a necessary tool to boost engagement and collaboration.
[Related: Telecommuting From Paradise]
"Video changes the dynamic because of the two-way view," Bellmar says. "You're necessarily much more immersed in the conversation and the engagement level rises for teams who use video. Sometimes, the use of video can start as a 'stick,' with employees using it grudgingly, but once they get used to it and understand the productivity gains as well as the increased feeling of inclusion, it starts to become a 'carrot' and adoption skyrockets," he says.
Plan for Plenty of Personal Interaction
But while technology can get teams closer to a fully collaborative, personal experience, it's still not quite the same, says PGi's O'Brien. The lack of personal interaction remains one of the major barriers to a successful remote work scenario.
That's when the human element has to take center stage, with an emphasis on constant, open communication and an understanding of the need to build trust and personal connections between workers, O'Brien says.
"The first few minutes of any meeting, the off-topic parts that may seem irrelevant or just 'small talk' are the biggest contributor to building trust and better personal relationships, as well as 'contextual intelligence'," O'Brien says.
"Talking about your kids, or the game last night, or TV shows -- that creates a context for you as a person. The other people in the meeting are then able to connect to you as a parent, a human being, rather than an acquaintance or a stranger," O'Brien says.
Taso Du Val, CEO of TopTal, which provides outsourcing, staffing and contract work for software developers, says there's another important element of communication that can sometimes get lost, even when using video and other face-to-face technology.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate - and Then Communicate
"Communication is obviously key, but it's not just about delegating tasks and getting status updates," Du Val says.
"Even if you have meetings every day, you have to be able to convey enthusiasm, energy and your expectations, and that is much more difficult for remote teams," Du Val says. "While it's easier to get this across on video, certainly, on the phone or on a collaboration platform, you have to use your voice, your phrasing, the tone of your email or message these emotions that are difficult to express sometimes," he says.
[Slideshow: 10 Most Telecommuting-Friendly Tech Companies]
With a 100 percent distributed core team, DuVal says his firm has a unique perspective on remote work issues. He emphasizes TopTal's commitment to consistent communication and on frequent meetings to bring otherwise dispersed teams together.
"Every department has either a daily meeting or a thrice-weekly meeting. That's where we focus on fostering connections and collaboration with every single team," DuVal says.
"When you have constant communication; when you hear every single day that your peers are working hard and making progress, that inspires you and prompts you to do better yourself. It starts to positively impact how you operate and how you perceive your job and your purpose within the organization as a whole," DuVal says.
Focus on the Big Picture and Business Outcomes
Understanding each individual's purpose and role within the larger organization is an important part of making remote workers feel included, says InterCall's Bellmar.
"One key element is to help all the players understand the eventual outcomes," he says. "What are we trying to accomplish? Where are we going as a company? How do I fit into that goal and that direction? If you're working from home, you don't have the watercooler talk, the chatty, stop-by-and-talk opportunities. So managers, especially, have to be much more focused on this type of communication and holistic updates," he says.
"A lot of this concept of 'inclusion' means workers being involved in decision making and driving outcomes for the business," Bellmar says. "You need to be able to engage your employees in all these discussions so that, regardless of where they're working from, they still feel part of the team and part of the organization," he says.
Sharon Florentine covers IT careers and data center topics for CIO.com. Follow Sharon on Twitter @MyShar0na. Email her at email@example.com Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook.