Executives discuss how to connect with and manage an evolving workforce
By Katy Spence
When it comes to remote workers, Conor Smith has seen both sides of the story, at the same time. His wife began working remotely after six years of working on-location. Her first year of transition was emotionally difficult, Smith said. This was the riskiest time in terms of whether she would keep the job. After that first year, she has adjusted to the new demands of remote working.
As CEO of First Call Computer Solutions, Smith has his own stock of remote workers. He told the other tech leaders gather at the table that if employers don’t build the same work experience for remote workers that they do for on-site workers, it can threaten the cohesiveness of the workforce.
“When people feel like, ‘I’m in Butte, and I have to work completely differently than people in Missoula,’ you’re setting yourself up for failure,” Smith said. “Don’t create silos.”
For the founders, CEOs, and leaders at Kalispell’s CEO Roundtable in August, tackling the issue of the modern workforce came down to a few key points: finding and holding onto talent, setting some strict expectations, and utilizing the skills of your employees — remote or on-site.
For Colleen Rudio, Interim General Manager of Access Montana, setting strict non-negotiable expectations is key for working with remote workers. She said that one of her non-negotiables is designating times that a remote worker must come into the office.
“There are certain projects and certain moments in the stage of a project where you have to have everybody in front of that whiteboard,” Rudio said. “[Setting non-negotiables] really is taking the time to think about– What are we trying to accomplish, and what are all the different ways that we can accomplish it?”
Several attendees echoed this point. Jerry Meerkatz, President of Montana West Economic Development, added that it’s important that remote workers feel just as connected to the company and their co-workers as others in the office. This connectivity can help make employees more loyal, he said.
But connecting people across the country is not without its own challenges.
For Board Chair Lance Tinseth, it was a difficult decision for his first company to go remote, but it was important to hang on to talented, loyal employees that could continue meeting client needs.
“It was out of necessity,” Tinseth said. “Almost three-quarters of the staff ended up being remote.”
Tinseth said his company tried to bring more than 100 employees and their families together for an annual Christmas party. It was expensive, but Tinseth said fostering those social connections prevent employees from seeing the company as just a paycheck.
David Thompson, SoFi’s VP of Engineering, hasn’t had great experiences with remote workers, pointing to the lack of experienced management as his company’s biggest issue. Managers of remote workers face an extra challenge because they do not get to work with their employees in close relationships each day.
“A normal manager that has come up through the ranks as an engineer to now start managing a set of other engineers cannot do it without some kind of training,” Thompson said. “We have 60 engineers in Salt Lake City that have no managers. They all want to build the next cool thing, but they have no leadership. They’re all being managed by Montana engineers.”
Thompson said constant communication, including phone and video calls, as well as weekly flights to Utah are crucial to guide his company’s remote workforce.
With the evolving workplace comes an evolving workforce, and the roundtable was eager to discuss millennials. In mainstream media, young adults have become common subject of study, as they work and live far differently than the generations that hire them.
Bob Nystuen, Glacier Bank Market President, said his company formed a millennial marketing committee this year to let millennials develop advertising strategies that will appeal to their own age group.
“A lot of it has to do with them feeling connected and them feeling empowered and having a mission,” Nystuen said. “A lot of it starts internally, as far as mission.”
Nystuen said the marketing committee lobbied to keep Glacier Bank’s bus advertisements because it showed a support of public transit and social responsibility that’s attractive to millennials. Radio advertisements, on the other hand, have been less successful at appealing to young adults in their late teens and 20s.
Many of the voices at the roundtable contended that millennial workers can be as valuable as any other generation of worker. What matters is the quality of an individual’s character, regardless of age. Employers like Nystuen look for ways to utilize talents and passions in a way that is productive for his company and satisfying for his employees.
Part of meeting remote and millennial workers where they’re at comes with understanding how the “office” has changed. Kate Lufkin, Marketing and Communications Specialist at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and token millennial, said that anybody can be a remote worker these days.
“This is my office,” Lufkin said, holding up her smartphone. “Unless I need hard software to build things to go to print, I can work from anywhere.”
This is common in the Chamber’s marketing office, Lufkin said. Even though she and her officemates are full-time employees, they are rarely all in the building at the same time. But with smartphones, they’re always connected and can always be working.
“Embracing that you don’t have to be in an office is a huge change,” Lufkin said, saying that’s it not necessarily a detriment to the work ethic. “You get more work done if you’re happy.”