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From a Distance

Keeping an increasing array of remote workers motivated, happy and pulling together can be as successful as any other employee motivation program. In fact, it has to be.

Blame it on escalating commercial real estate costs. Or lengthening commutes. Or outsourcing. Or globalization. Whatever the cause, it’s a fact: Increasing numbers of employees are working in locations remote from a home office. And by all accounts, it’s a huge demographic: Out of about 140 million employed Americans, at least 78 million can be categorized as telecommuters, multisite workers, non-office workers, mobile-office workers or frequent business travelers, according to research firm Cahners in-Stat/MDR. More impressive, International Data Corp. puts the total of all mobile and remote U.S. workers requiring computing resources away from a central office at 94 million.

It’s a trend that could also result in devastating consequences if companies fail to maintain high motivational and communication standards for this growing workforce of remote workers, experts warn.

“By all means, today’s workforce is more mobile and spread out than at any time in the past,” says Rick Blabolil, president of incentive company Marketing Innovators, and the incoming president of the Incentive Marketing Association. “And now, with more and more remote people, it’s really possible that some in the home office can feel disconnected, too.” Blabolil stresses the need for “internal marketing” as no less important that a company’s outreach to external markets. 

Consider Tommy Lee Hayes-Brown, most recently the employee engagement manager with Met Life Auto and Home, based in Warwick, RI. Met Life’s vast presence and multiple offices assures that thousands of its employees work remotely, and the company markets to them aggressively.

“It’s management’s job when dealing with rewards and recognition to not forget about satellite employees,” says Hayes-Brown, himself based remotely in Charlotte, NC, and who’s just assumed multicultural marketing chores at the company. He suggests that these outreaches can be epitomized by quite simple things: If you throw an ice cream-and-cake party for the office, for example, make sure to send offsite workers a coupon or gift card for similar goodies.

“But it has to be a formalized process,” Hayes-Brown warns. “You need a ritualized way of making sure everyone is recognized, a checklist if necessary, to assure that every employee has a touch point during any given week or month.”

Met Life has institutionalized what Hayes-Brown calls three tiers of recognition. The first is peer-to-peer recognition, whereby employees can recognize any other coworker for just about anything, with manager review and approval.

The second is “recognition champions,” designated managers at each remote locale make decisions on recognizing top-performing employees, and the prize levels the winners achieve.

The last tier is corporate recognition, whereby top executives take recommendations from remote offices to reward the best-of-the-best, in particular at a formal recognition program once a year.

Met Life supports its recognition program with logoed products like T-shirts and umbrellas, sporting such company symbols as the cartoon dog Snoopy or the Met Life blimp; the company even gives out expensive crystal Snoopys for outstanding performance. And local managers have the option of presenting employees with gift cards to local shops or eateries. 

Make It Official
A major organization that has institutionalized internal marketing and rewards is Avis Budget Group, “based” in Parsippany, NJ, with a handful of corporate employees, but with a far-flung and pervasive network of small offices — the company is comprised of virtually all remote workers, most of them paid on an hourly basis — constituting the world’s largest car rental organization. 

For example, at the simplest level of recognition, managers can present workers with a “Note of Thanks” and gift cards for jobs well done. A “Living the Values” level recognizes employees who have excelled at customer interaction or took ownership of a team project, with such middle tier levels allowing workers to go online to choose a variety of gifts. The company’s “Destination Excellence” recognizes the highest level of commitment, perhaps to a project entailing months of work and millions in savings. Here, recipients may receive high-value gifts of up to $1,000 in value.

“And then there’s something that, when we implemented it, we didn’t know how important it would turn to be,” says Mark Servodidio, executive vice president and chief human relations officer with Avis Budget. “To reward someone who’s been on the road a lot, we might get him something for his desk, but then pick out something for the spouse, perhaps with a note of thanks for all the nights the worker spent away from home.

“It definitely gives the sense that we’re all united,” he adds. “Because it’s values-based, it becomes bigger than any one
location, even bigger than the brands themselves.” Servodidio says the company uses logoed products like hats, spongy cars or balls as fun communication pieces, rather than as outright rewards.

Know Your Audience
“Great recognition programs have to be aligned, which means they reward the right behaviors,” says Chester Elton, senior vice president at recognition company O.C. Tanner, who is co-author of The Carrot Principle. “Secondly, they have to be impactful, inclusive and meaningful; in other words, what does the recipient value? Does he value time with his family, sporting events, career enhancement courses?”

Remote workers are particularly prone to lame reward ideas, Hayes-Brown says, no matter how well-intended the motivation program is. A manager may be quite aware that his Orthodox Jewish coworker down the hall wouldn’t be thrilled with the gift of a glazed ham, but it’s also his responsibility to make sure gifts to remote workers don’t fall equally flat.

“We encourage managers to actually survey their employees, and ask them how they want to be rewarded,” says Elton. “If you get the wrestling tickets mixed up with the ones for the opera, you’re in trouble.” He also recommends presenting awards that are personal and cannot generally be purchased. For example, a winner enjoying an online shopping experience or gift card may also be presented with a bronze eagle, gold medal or weighty corporate logo.

“And with remote workers, you can’t over-communicate,” Elton observes. “Everyone must be brought into the conversation. There is nothing worse than feeling all by yourself.”

There are few cases where companies rely more on remote workers than call centers. Not only are call center agents themselves generally remote employees — the biggest companies have offices everywhere, and augment these with at-home agents — but the workers themselves are remote from the very clients they represent to the public. Call center workers, who are generally lower paid employees with high turnover, need formal motivational techniques perhaps more than any other demographic of employee.

More Than Stroking
"Recognition is very important in this industry,” says Dave Halter, director of sales and marketing for The AnswerNet Network, based in Princeton, NJ, with 56 call centers in 24 states plus Canada. “People want to know their work is appreciated, and that they’ve accomplished something for another company.” AnswerNet has 1,700 call center agents, none of whom work in the home office.

Motivating call center folks entails much more than mere stroking for its own sake; their assignments can go far beyond typical customer service tasks, into commercially and socially critical arenas. AnswerNet’s call center agents augment client sales teams, provide disaster information services (airplane crashes, for example), and even staff suicide hotlines. The company recently assembled its teams to field consumer calls about the widely reported contaminated pet food crisis, acting on behalf of the affected manufacturer. Agents handled 265,000 calls in a day-and-a-half from frantic pet owners.

“Our people can get quite stressed,” says Halter, in a classic of understatement. “People need pretty good motivation to handle this kind of incredible load.” 

He says that client letters of commendation are acclaimed throughout the company, and every employee receives “turkey money” direct from the president at Thanksgiving. Last year, when 20 AnswerNet call centers received Gold Club recognition for excellence from the Association of TeleServices International, all honored agents were feted at awards luncheons, and the ATSI plaques were reproduced for every winning center.

AnswerNet even sees its clients getting in on the recognition act. One that had outsourced part of its cold-calling sales function to AnswerNet’s agents actually recognized those very call center agents at its own annual rewards program.

One significant, and increasingly popular, technique used by AnswerNet to enhance communications to its remote workers is computer instant messaging. In fact, the use of IM is required of all AnswerNet call center managers and agents. Not only does it provide a rapid response method for client queries, but it’s also a form of constant communications with headquarters, something that “is really key to a remote environment,” Halter says.

AnswerNet uses a variety of promotional products in support of its worker communication and motivation program, including logoed hats, pens and the like. “The most popular thing we’ve ever given out is this little soft brush that you can clean your computer keyboard with,” says Halter. “That’s logoed as well, and everyone who sees it wants one. We’ve reordered it three times.”

“It’s actually a two-way responsibility, in that both the home office and remote employees share the need to stay connected,” says Jennifer Rosenzweig, global employee practice leader with incentive house Carlson Marketing Worldwide. From headquarters’ perspective, she says, “that serves as the basis for recognizing performance.” 

An undeniable aid to formal recognition programs that include remote and work-at-home employees is technology. Congratulatory e-mails can be sent, Web portals filled with gift choices can be accessed, points can accumulate and workers can check their progress online toward goals and rewards. Carlson is like several other major incentive companies that build motivational programs around gifts provided through Internet portals. Typically, rewarded workers gain points for performance that they can redeem through online catalogs of products. Alternately, managers can award workers with ad hoc access for outstanding performance on the spot.

Support from the Top
But any talk of products must always come back to the underlying motivational program. Without a program supported by company leadership, the awarding of products doesn’t make sense.

“Sometimes it can be written, sometimes it’s part of the corporate culture, but no matter how big or small a company is, the program needs support from leadership,” says Carole Erken, director of human resources at Kaiser Permanente, based in Los Angeles. The company is the largest not-for-profit managed care organization in the United States, operating in nine states with some 110,000 employees.

Erken has devised a “Manager’s Toolkit for Rewarding, Recognizing & Engaging Our Employees” for all Kaiser Permanente managers. It includes such often-overlooked tools as a reward and recognition tracking worksheet, whereby managers can actually log in each case of recognition for each employee; and a self-assessment tool, which tracks celebrations. There’s also the critical worksheet on employees’ likes and dislikes, and even how they preferr to be recognized — in public or in private.

And no matter how formalized a program is, there’s just to substitute for that personal touch.

“A couple of my employees worked on a three-month project that took them away from their families supporting a remote location in Bakersfield,” Erken notes. “I wrote a letter to one family thanking them for all the soccer games their mother had to miss, talked about all the good she had done for the organization, how proud we were of her, and enclosed an American Express gift check asking them to do something as a family to recognize their mother.

“I received e-mails from the children thanking me, and the mother came in with tears in her eyes. She said she had never felt that kind of recognition from her family over a work event.”

Erken strongly encourages creativity in rewarding performance, in particular in the remote call centers. These distant offices have used such techniques as spinning wheels and prize shows awarding $20 gift cards, for example, before switching to another fun event.

Call center attendance has been a particular problem for Kaiser Permanente, as it can be for all varieties of remote locations with isolated workers. In response, the company has devised recognition programs for teams of employees competing with each other on attendance records; the losing team has to cook breakfast for the winners. Programs also have been devised to encourage workplace safety. Employee bonus programs are often tied to achieving these critical business issues, Erken says.

“You also need to pay particular attention when you’re dealing with different shifts,” she notes. “Those people on the night shift are sometimes forgotten.” 

And the payoff? Experts are agreed that leadership must know that the money it puts into motivational programs pays off, through surveys, sales measurements, customer satisfaction reports and the like. 

For example, the call center company AnswerNet measures in part its return on investment through a simple metric: turnover. The call center industry, where skilled, caring personnel is key, is plagued with an overall turnover rate of 40% to 60% a year, imposing huge recruitment and training costs on the industry, and the potential for disastrous client dissatisfaction. 

By contrast, AnswerNet experiences turnover of about 20%, “which I know is the lowest turnover ratio of call center center agents in the industry,” Halter says.

COPYRIGHT © 2007 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Chris Hosford is a freelance writer based in New York.

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