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July 31, 2006

What’s the best way to get geographically dispersed workers to drink the company Kool-Aid?

By Amy Peeler

Daily I am confronted with the challenge of communicating with employees on each coast and everywhere in between. As the director of human resources and training for a publicly traded company, we have employees around the globe. I’m sure you know first hand the challenge of keeping employees headed in one direction, each one equipped with the tools and information they need to succeed.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about one obstacle in particular: how a disparity in not only company knowledge, but also company culture, can inhibit effective communication between employees who work at headquarters and those in the field. Staff who work from home or satellite offices simply can’t participate in the water cooler chat, the office lunch or doughnut day. In a way, it’s like having multiple workforces that need to work together, yet tension is only likely to increase as more individuals are disconnected from the daily interactions of the home office.

One small step we’ve taken is to create an intranet that is infused with our own particular brand of humor. It features the usual suspects: the org chart, benefits information, office holidays, and it also boasts quirky stock photos from the '80s.

We also webcast our annual meetings, which—like our intranet—are punctuated with inside jokes, eccentric clip art and corporate rallying cries. Over the Web, workers around the globe can watch the meeting in real time or later on demand.

Of course, there is always e-mail, which has become a lifeline for communicating with employees near and far.

These baby steps are far from a silver bullet, yet they have made an impact on helping propagate our culture among our distributed counterparts.

What inroads have you made to making distributed workers feel part of the home team?

Amy Peeler is the director of human resources and training for Sonic Foundry, a provider of high performance rich media technology with locations in Madison, Wis., and Pittsburgh.


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Jeff Trimble

I feel your pain. I am the development consultant for a large construction company with offices all over the country. We have different cultures in each office and it makes it difficult to get everyone to focus on the company strategies. One option we are looking at is Chat rooms tied to an LMS so that our people can communicate with anyone else in the organization through a chat room of discussions. Then we will capture the information and use it as training material for new ideas and improvements to our processes. You do need to monitor these rooms for professional use, so someone would be appointed as chatroom monitor each month. But this way you get your people talking if they choose to talk, to everyone.

Phil Clark

Communication is about connection. More information, more news releases, more formal statements will not develop the communication culture you are seeking. That only happens when each person can have a say and be heard. A company blog might actually help where anything on the blog will never be used against a person. Also you must instill the one-on-one communication process on all managers. The communication office is not the source of communications. They should be shaping the communication within the corporation. Communication is everyones business. I would also suggest you try to understand the various cultures within your organization, build communication models on those cultures. Too often companies force feed their culture onto their employees and wonder why there is no participation or feedback. Businesses really face a challenge of keeping their employees engaged with contractors and home-based workers. You have to be very carefull that these employees not only feel isolated but become disengaged. At your level of the organization you must think of yourself as a conductor. You can guide the orchestra but they have to play the instruments and respond appropriately to the directors needs. Otherwise no music or a lousy performance. It isn't about control. It's about bringing out the best in others and giving them a voice.
If they go silent, again no music.
You have a tough job.

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