Magazine article Workforce

Nurturing Global Workplace Connections

Magazine article Workforce

Nurturing Global Workplace Connections

Article excerpt

Managing a workforce spread out from Milan to Montreal, Milwaukee to Manila, is a tough job that requires special skills. That goes for companies of all sizes, whether the task is telling employees about internal developments or conveying a change in corporate strategy, training salespeople about product updates, or just helping employees feel connected to the organization.

Some companies are a lot better at it than others. There are those that look to outsourcers for expertise and to gain efficiencies when dealing with operational systems in distant locales and handling internal systems such as benefits administration and payroll. Others prefer to keep operations and administration in-house no matter how geographically dispersed the workforce. Many turn to technology.

A Web site can create a sense of connection and help distant employees exchange information. But organizations still have to be sure that employees have computers with Intemet connections, and should recognize that it takes more than an e-mail to connect with employees, says Gary Parker, senior vice president and practice chairman of international compensation for Chicago-based Aon Corporation, one of the world's largest insurance brokerage and consulting firms. "You and I can read the written word, but we might not understand it the same way," Parker says. "That written word has to be reinforced with the living word and it also has to be reinforced by action." Aon has about 51,000 employees in more than 550 offices in 120 countries. Yet managers are still expected to deliver messages to field operations. At some point, there has to be face-toface communication, Parker says. "You can't do everything by e-mail."

Here's a look at how three different-sized companies deal with their own uniquely spread-out workforces.

Despite his company's demographics, Jim Bodenbender decided not to rely on outsourcers to meet his company's primary employee-management needs. He is president of Chicago-based Madison Information Technologies, a private provider of customer data integration that helps hospitals and physicians eliminate duplication of patient medical records.

The virtual company has 82 employees located in 16 states. About half of them work at home. Even the CEO works out of a home office in Atlanta.

Keeping everyone connected and working together as a team is a tall order. Even though the company is small, Bodenbender didn't want to outsource, he says, because providers offered rigid restrictions and limited options that didn't fit Madison's corporate culture. As long as their work is completed on budget and on time, the company gives employees plenty of freedom. Bodenbender also wanted greater control over HR functions than is possible with outsourcing. "I wasn't willing to have somebody transplant onto me his or her way of managing HR."

For Bodenbender, keeping most everything in-house means long workdays, because employees cross several time zones. For the company, it means an expensive commitment to higher-than-average phone bills, the cost of laptops and Internet access for everyone, and the expense of company-wide meetings.

Whether a company is virtual or not, personal meeting time is essential, Bodenbender says. Any company with dispersed employees has to be willing and able to take on the overhead and the downtime that result from face-to-face meetings. "For us to have a company meeting, as small as we are, costs about $75,000 just in expenses."

Bodenbender says his biggest challenge is maintaining a sense of teamwork with employees coast to coast. He deals with it by talking with employees every chance he gets about the difficulties of establishing those connections. The company also has two physical facilities, and a third is expected to open this year. The offices provide an anchor for the company. The Chicago corporate of- fice handles the legal and finance departments and human resources, which includes recruiting, benefit administration, policy, and procedure manuals. …

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