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Far, far away... are remote workers more engaged and productive?

For some, managing workers remotely is problematic, especially in terms of management and supervision and ability to promote a common workplace culture.

For tele-workers working from home, managing occupational health and safety concerns can be factored into the mix.

However, there is also an upside to remote working with some positive trends beginning to emerge.

A recent study by management expert Scott Edinger found that those who work remotely are, albeit by a small margin, more engaged and committed to their work. They also rate their leaders more highly.

There are several factors which could contribute to this; firstly, proximity can breed complacency. Leaders can sit in the same office and go for weeks without substantial face-time with subordinates. For example, using email as the primary source of communication can occur when the manager is ten feet away or on a different floor in the same building. This type of behaviour may result in workers feeling under-valued or lacking clear direction.

Secondly, the communication challenge posed by remote working can result in inadvertent up-skilling; leaders of far-flung teams can become proficient in a variety of forms of communication, with a need to use tools such as video-conferencing and Skype, as well as face-to-face contact, the telephone and email.

Thirdly, absence requires an effort to connect. Being conscious of the remoteness of employees, true leaders make an extra effort to stay connected to those they don't often see in person. This extra effort means leaders can be more concentrated in their attention to each person and more conscious of the way they express their authority, making communication more considered and therefore, more meaningful.

The globalisation and internationalisation of Australian business is increasing the incidence of remote office contact. This will be accelerated by our increasing business links with Asian economies.

Furthermore, with imminent legislation underpinning employee demands for workplace flexibility and the prospect of improved online communication via the National Broadband Network, tele-working from home will be more feasible than it is today, and managers will have to learn or improve skills sets relating to remote supervision.

For remote working to be successful, either in remote offices or from home workplaces, there needs to be a concerted effort to ensure a common culture among teams, with agreed aims and objectives, common processes and a culture of celebrating success. Time should be allocated for employees to share what they have been working on, including barriers, problems and successes.

iHR Australia's Managing Director, Stephen Bell, believes that selection and training of key geographic leaders is essential to ensure the success of a broadly spread workforce. According to Bell, leaders need to clearly understand the situational differences of their workforce and how to effectively apply strategies related to communication and workflow management. He says, "Organisations sometimes assume that a manager from a traditional work environment can easily adapt to managing a geographically and culturally diverse workforce. It's a fatal mistake not to prepare managers for such challenges."

iHR Australia believes workplace culture, especially leadership, are crucial to workplace productivity and offers assistance for those employers wishing to manage culture and change in their workplace.

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