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How to keep remote agents engaged—and empowered

Back in the heady '60s, the gap year industry sprouted as Baby Boomers considered different ways of living. After all, why go straight to the university when you could spend a year backpacking through Europe or working for the Peace Corps? Now, five decades later, new companies, like Remote Year or The Remote Experience, have formed that cater to the mobile remote lifestyle, which doesn't so much delay moving on to the next stage of life as reinvent it entirely.

That sea change in the way we work—the desire to throw off the shackles of the daily commute and traditional office life in exchange for exotic locales or just the spare bedroom—suits customer service agents particularly well, since the global economy has led to many companies adopting a follow-the-sun model of support that largely eliminates the need for set physical locations for employees. Yet while agents can now resolve customer service issues while basking in the Croatian sun or seeking refuge from the rain in a Scottish pub, that freedom poses a significant challenge to managers who need to keep remote workers firing on all cylinders.

It’s not an easy task, to be sure, and with the numbers of remote workers rising a dramatic 140 percent since 2005, it’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. It’s also a reality some companies have leaned into, such as ModSquad, which provides remote customer service agents for a wide swath of industries.

“A remote workforce wants flexibility and autonomy,” says Kristyn DeRaffele, ModSquad vice president of people operations. “That’s why it’s important to ensure that from a leadership and management perspective, people understand how to recruit and retain a remote workforce. Because if you don’t, the most well-intentioned manager or leader can miss out on maximizing opportunities.”

Setting the stage: the hiring process

It’s one thing to consider ways to inspire your existing remote agents, but setting the stage for long-term engagement starts with making the right hiring decisions in the first place. As DeRaffele has discovered, digging into behavioral and situational questions during the interview process can reveal crucial information about a potential agent’s suitability for the specific work and inform whether the applicant is the right fit to work in a remote capacity.

It's one thing to consider ways to inspire your existing remote agents, but setting the stage for long-term engagement starts with making the right hiring decisions in the first place.

“Do applicants have the right skills, interests, and qualifications to deliver exceptional results for our clients, and will they be successful in a remote model?” DeRaffele asks. “Do they have the requisite workspace that’s private, secure and noiseless? At ModSquad, we ensure that all our remote agents check the box on all requirements. It’s really important to dig into those questions—What have you done in the past, what would you do in this scenario?—because some people thrive in a remote environment and some folks don’t.”

Delving into those questions illuminates one key skill that customer service agents need: the ability to communicate effectively. This is something Michael Maher, CEO of Matters of the Cart, pays close attention to when assembling his remote teams. “My first assessment is the responsiveness in our initial communication,” says Maher, whose teams help businesses manage their presence on Amazon. “If I reach out to them, how quickly do they respond? What is their communication style? Do I feel that they will fit with the team?”

[Read also: "Tell me your story" - communicating with remote employees]

Keep those cameras on

Since technology has made remote work possible, it makes sense to rely on tech to keep agents feeling connected. DeRaffele and Maher look to tools like Slack and Asana, as well as videoconferencing applications such as Zoom, to unify teams and keep remote workers committed and on task. But as DeRaffele stresses, companies need to think carefully before assuming a software application will work like a magic bullet. While technology is essential to manage a remote workforce, it is merely a tool to help you connect. You have to have a plan in place to actively engage and connect with a remote workforce.

“Is it business only? Is it getting to know your remote agent? Is it both?” asks DeRaffele. “Every company operates differently, so it’s about encouraging every leader to really think about how that tool can ensure the success of a remote workforce. The key is talking about it.”

Delving into those questions illuminates one key skill that customer service agents need: the ability to communicate effectively.

But it’s also about employing technology in ways that give remote agents autonomy. Lime, for example, fields a team of more than a dozen agents in a follow-the-sun model, and it keeps its agents engaged by using filters and views for ticket routing that allow agents to customize their queues. Meanwhile, managers can keep track of productivity via leaderboards. These elements give agents the power to work the way they want, but with accountability in mind. “[That] allows me to pull the figures I need to make sure I’m taking care of my team as much as they are taking care of Lime and our customers,” says Lakeysha Hayes, Lime’s domestic and international customer service manager.

[Read also: Leaders, use empathetic language when talking to remote workers]

Develop and cultivate relationships

While technology plays a significant role in keeping remote agents engaged, managers can’t forego the decidedly analog skill of relationship-building . As authors Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of 37signals (now Basecamp), wrote in their book Remote: Office Not Required: “If anything, the human connection is even more important when hiring remote workers because it has to be stronger to survive the distance.”

While technology plays a significant role in keeping remote agents engaged, managers can't forego the decidedly analog skill of relationship-building.

Fostering real human connections with remote agents requires extra effort, and empathy can help bridge the physical and psychological gaps.“You’re not going to pass each other in the hallway or hang out during lunch,” DeRaffele says. “It’s about being very purposeful, to include time that allows people to get to know each other, to celebrate success. You have to balance the business with the personal side, but business plus personal commitment is ultimately what leads to engagement and success. In a remote environment, all of the foundations are the same but the levers are different. If you’re missing a pillar, you’ll learn the hard way that you’re not going to get the performance that you want.”

Eliminate FOMO

This point can be especially challenging since there’s no technology that will magically teleport those delicious homemade cookies from the office to a remote agent’s desk halfway across the world…yet. In the meantime, you can create shared experiences that everyone can enjoy. For example, ModSquad has held company-wide events around the World Cup, and comes together to support Extra Life.

[Read also: How to keep remote employees from feeling out of sight, out of mind]

But while virtual meetups and volunteering challenges can encourage engagement and build camaraderie, they’re no substitute for sitting down for a shared meal or drinks. “Just because you don’t have a permanent office, or not everyone is working out of one, that’s no reason not to get together every now and then,” wrote Fried and Heinemeier Hansson. “In fact, it’s almost mandatory to do so occasionally.”

But while virtual meetups and volunteering challenges can encourage engagement and build camaraderie, they're no substitute for sitting down for a shared meal or drinks.

In other words, a company that doesn’t build in budget flexibility to bring remote employees to home base will likely struggle with keeping those agents in the fold. “If you treat remote workers like second-class citizens, you’re all going to have a bad time,” wrote Fried and Heinemeier Hansson. “As a company owner or manager, you need to create and maintain a level playing field—one on which those in and out of office stand as equals. Above all, think frequently about how you’d feel as a remote worker.”

Mark Smith is a writer, editor, and musician based in Bellingham, Washington.