Working with Remote Employees
I have been blessed to be part of a quickly growing TPA and actuarial firm. I love the energy and opportunities. However, growth does come with its own set of challenges. One of our biggest challenges has been hiring experienced administrators. So, 5 years ago, we embraced hiring remote employees. Now 40% of our employees are full-time remote employees and another 20% of our employees are part-time remote.
The technology issues with remote employees were challenging, but they eventually worked themselves out. The harder issues with remote employees are related to culture — building a cohesive group and maintaining firm culture. How do we keep remote employees connected to the “mother ship”? How do we maintain our firm’s culture with so many remote employees? How do teach remote employees our values? How do we make remote employees feel valued?
Here are some of the lessons we learned.
When there is a mix of office employees and remote employees, it is important that the remote employees feel as valued as office employees. Many years ago, remote employees may have viewed working at home as such a perk that they overlooked not being able to attend the annual Christmas party for office employees. But with remote work arrangements becoming more common, don’t count on that goodwill solving all perceived equity issues.
So, we get in the habit of trying to be “location sensitive.” As we roll out initiatives and technology, we consider how the in-office and remote employee experiences will vary and what we can do to make them comparable. As a few examples, we have made the technology experience as similar as possible for office employees and remote employees. Additionally, we have changed our approach to Christmas parties. Instead of having an elaborate party for each office, we do something much more understated and send restaurant gift cards of comparable value to our remote employees.
Training and Culture
Every TPA and actuarial firm is different, and when you have a large number of remote employees, special care must be taken with respect to training and communication of culture. Additionally, extra effort must be made to help build bonds between employees. With respect to training, we have found that using a variety of media works best. For example, we use webinars, team phone calls, live employee meetings and our intranet to communicate important training issues and culture. Some employees read the intranet every day, but some only read it about once per month. Some employees listen to team calls carefully, but some are multi-tasking from the minute the calls starts until the end of the call. So, we have to use multiple approaches for each important message in the hope that we get through to each employee.
To build employee bonds, we now hold an annual firm conference where we fly in a large number of our administrators from across the nation to learn and network together. We make sure to schedule group meals and social events at the end of each conference day to let employees get to put faces with names. We love ASPPA conferences but holding our own conference gives us better control over the messaging and lets us focusing on networking within our firm. When we send employees to ASPPA conferences, we carefully select who will attend the conference to maximize team building. For example, we may send a group of employees from the same remote team so that they can spend time together.
Hiring employees is always difficult, but with remote employees, there is very little opportunity to counsel borderline hires. You will not be able to easily see what they are doing or run into them in the breakroom. So, in addition to looking for people who have the overall right work experience, education and personality, we emphasize the following three criteria when hiring remote.
First, we look for employees who are trustworthy and reliable because monitoring a remote employee’s hours, workload and motivation level can be difficult. Evaluating these characteristics during an interview can be challenging, but some of this will reveal itself in the interview process. If a person misses scheduled interviews or is unable to comply with reasonable requests in a timely manner, it is a bad sign. If a person had a lot of drama with their prior employer, sometimes it was the prior employer and sometimes it is the prospective employee. If high drama is intrinsic to the employee, the employee may be less reliable. We also use online personality testing and background checks to assess trustworthiness.
Second, we look for employees are coachable. For a remote employee to be successful, they need to be able to take feedback and adapt. You will not have as many face-to-face interactions to reinforce training and culture, so it is helpful to work with people who can make changes without needing the same thing repeated over and over again. We are not aware of any online test for coachability, but this can be assessed during the interview by asking questions that measure a candidate’s self-awareness and ability to change behavior based upon feedback.
Third, we look for people who exhibit a good balance of introversion and extraversion. Individuals who are too introverted may not reach out for help or build relationships with other employees when working remotely. Individuals who are too extroverted may not get enough social interaction working remotely and may compensate by calling co-workers endlessly or just being dissatisfied at work. Some employees who are very introverted or extroverted have developed ways to manage these issues and that may make up for being at either the introversion or extraversion extreme. For example, a really extroverted person who will be in a remote role that involves lots of client contact and who has a well-developed social life away from work still may be happy working remotely. And some people who are extremely introverted overall are actually reasonably extroverted at work. We use a personality test to measure introversion and extraversion, but some human judgment is also needed.
Our approach to remote employees has evolved over the 5 years that we have focused on hiring remotely, and we still do not have it perfect. But hiring remotely has greatly enhanced our firm, so we try to do it better each year!
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