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Remote staff need water cooler, too

| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 12:30 a.m.

Since technology can keep us connected to work 24/7, many companies are scrapping the idea of traditional office space and instead embracing the idea that work can happen remotely.

Still, such arrangements can come with challenges:

• How does a boss keep employees engaged when they're thousands of miles away?

• How can a leader communicate key concepts effectively so that workers are on the same page?

• How can a manager detect via video chat that a worker is feeling low and needs more face-to-face interaction?

These are issues that Clint Smith, chief executive of email-marketing company Emma, confronts daily. Though his company is based in Nashville, Smith has 100 employees working across the country.

"I think what I would tell anyone who is going to try this for their company is not to underestimate the complexity of the model," he said.

While some employees work in spaces they share with other remote workers or labor from a coffee shop, Smith says the key piece that's missing is the water cooler.

"So much happens through osmosis. You're walking by the office water cooler, and you stumble into these conversations," he says. "It's those casual interactions that are so important and something you can't re-create virtually."

So how does Smith handle the challenges of leading a worker who may be 2,000 miles away? Here are some strategies that he says Emma has used effectively:

Hiring the right personalities. "It's hard to imagine what it's like to work remotely if you haven't done it before," he said.

"I had one employee who was just going to work in her apartment's kitchen, and I told her that I would rather pay for her to work elsewhere." That's because Smith says the isolation of working remotely can start to weigh on some workers, and even sitting in a coffee shop with a laptop "can help those who aren't wired to be alone all the time."

Having regular get-togethers. Every two weeks, remote workers are patched in through video chats with other worker so a 45-minute staff meeting gives everyone a chance to connect and catch up.

Remote workers travel to Nashville for big events such as holiday parties, and the company maintains a condo so remote workers can visit whenever they need to.

"They often know when they need to come back. Sometimes they come to Nashville because they want to soak up time with the people," Smith said.

Relying on technology. Whether through email or instant messaging, Emma employees stay connected.

Yet even with 21st-century technology, Smith tells employees not to discount one piece of 19th century communication: the telephone.

"Don't underestimate the power of the voice, the power of the face and the power of face to face," he said. A conference room is ready to set up video chats whenever employees need them, and Web-based group-chat tool Campfire helps employees collaborate.

Other collaboration tools used at Emma include Salesforce customer-relationship management apps, Dropbox file-sharing service, Basecamp cloud-based project management and Jive social intranets for businesses.

"I think we're still on the search for the ultimate collaborative tool, but all these things help," Smith says.

Smith gave up his office and now has more of a space where mail can be dropped. He travels among his office locations, laptop and smartphone in tow.

Still, not all his leadership challenges deal with employees working too far apart.

"We've got 90 people tripping over each other in the Nashville office," he said. "Sometimes you're just looking for somewhere to just carve out a little space for yourself."

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