Top Places to Work

Top Places to Work

Making telecommuters feel included

With employees increasingly scattered far and wide, companies are connecting them via virtual coffees, extra travel funds, and more.

dale edwin murray for the boston globe

On a recent morning, Christina Luconi sat down for a cup of coffee with a work colleague so they could learn a bit more about each other. The twist: Luconi was in the Boston headquarters of cybersecurity firm Rapid7, her colleague was in the company’s London office, and they were meeting via video chat.

Afterward, they took a virtual selfie — a screenshot — and shared it to the company’s #InsightCoffee Slack channel, along with some details of what they had learned about each other (the London employee loves to garden, it turns out).

Rapid7 uses the video chats companywide, since roughly 20 percent of its more than 1,300 employees work remotely, in places from Idaho to the Czech Republic. The company foots the bill for coffee, provided the meeting is documented on Slack. “Nothing feels worse than being isolated,” says Luconi, Rapid7’s chief people officer. “Anything we can do to break down those barriers, whether it’s a virtual coffee or a Slack channel or coming to the office once a quarter, we have to constantly stay on top of what’s going to help them feel like they’re part of this.”

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Off-site employees who have little engagement with their office colleagues report feeling isolated and excluded, a recent study by leadership training company VitalSmarts says. And remote workers are far more likely to quit than non-remote workers, according to a new study coauthored by human resources research firm Future Workplace. With remote workers on the rise in the United States, more employers are taking steps to include them in office culture.

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Connecting with virtual employees must go beyond work-specific phone calls and e-mails, says David Maxfield, vice president of research at VitalSmarts and a study coauthor. Employers should use face-to-face video conferencing for meetings, kicking things off by encouraging participants to talk about life updates just as employees do in a traditional office setting. “In an office, you’re updating each other — whether you have a cold today, a kid at home with the flu — yet you’re not doing that with your remote employees unless you’re doing it purposefully,” Maxfield says.

Pluralsight, a Utah-based technology education company with offices in Boston and Dublin, has adopted a “remote philosophy” to help ensure that off-site workers, about a quarter of the company’s more than 1,000 employees, feel included.

Video calls are key, says Pluralsight’s chief people officer, Anita Grantham, as are biweekly meetings with off-site team leaders centered on improving remote culture. The firm uses anonymous surveys that encourage remote employees to rate the company’s efforts to include them and suggest improvements to the remote working experience. That feedback led to the company giving remote workers better microphones for video calls and $300 apiece to customize their workspaces. Pluralsight also invites remote workers to big events, including holiday parties, and pays for their travel. When the company went public in May, off-site workers who couldn’t attend an IPO celebration were linked via a live feed and received T-shirts and custom artwork related to the occasion.

Even the smallest details can make a difference, Grantham says. The company’s brand manager curates a Spotify playlist of the music that plays in Pluralsight’s office break rooms and bathrooms — think Pixies, John Prine, and Courtney Barnett — and shares it over Slack specifically for remote workers. “It can make them feel like they are part of the office,” she says. “Remote team members say, ‘I just want to feel connected.’ ” 

Katheleen Conti is a freelance writer and former Globe staffer. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.