You want me to do what?! Engaging with dispersed employees

In a world where teams are becoming increasingly scattered around different locations, what are the best things we can do to engage dispersed colleagues on sustainability?

Firstly we need to sort our contexts. Geographically dispersed may mean: 1) you have a number of offices/operations spread across a number of states and/or countries 2) you have your comms department set up in an igloo within the Arctic Circle (my personal ideal solution).

Either way, it poses a few problems as to how to get a whole-of-organizational response to sustainability with your collegiate cohort on board enacting authentic, and decisive, actions. More so if you are the lone global sustainability manager sitting around the pool in Fiji!

Based on my experience of working with such contexts, I offer the following:

Step One: Make sure the plan is clear

The biggest question I believe in geographically dispersed operations or otherwise, is that there is rarely a clear picture of what exactly needs to be done. Why things need to be done is usually pretty well covered by some sort of company global mission and directive. The ‘why’ may also be energised by a particular regional or local need, compliance or it might even be CSR driven. However, without a clear, and regionally (or, better still, site specific) dedicated action plan, many colleagues will simply be lost in what needs to be done and when. Broad brush generic style action plans need to be refocussed to site and action specific SMART plans.

Choose the right people

Step Two: Make sure the boss is present in the plan

No plan will work if the CEO has not endorsed it. This is the key role of a change sponsor, after all. So if you are sitting in an office in Prague, the boss who resides in London must make ‘sponsorship’ of the action plan explicit. This of course needs to be highly supported by your regional managers. Top down bottom up is the call. Strategic intent from the top down and actions ‘in practice’ from the bottom up. Remote players need to feel part of the big picture.

Step Three: Look for and find the ‘right’ people

There is always the temptation to take anyone who is interested into your green team. Whilst in many cases enthusiasm trumps skill, you cannot float your sustainability plan on raw energy alone. Well not for long, anyway. You must find the right people for the job. Both the doers (get it done) and the planners (get it right). Green teams are often full of doers – this is often the problem. So if you are trying to engage a remote team, make sure you have a good mix of 'get it right' and 'get it done' people.

These may not just be the interested people either. Sometimes you have to conscript the right people. By all means make them the ‘friendly to the cause’ types. Les Robinson and his work in 'Diffusion Theory' and 'Enabling Change' frames these people as the pioneers and early adopters. The key is to work out who these early adopters are (the 'get it right' types), to get enthusiasm and find those in the early majority for your [the] long team game plan. Tim Cotter has an interesting, albeit long, YouTube clip on '13 Enablers to engagement' if you have the time.

Have you considered using internal social networking tools such as Yammer?

Step Four: The Art of Heuristics

Always use problem solving as your best engagement technique. Humans love a good problem. This approach should also be taken when initially designing and populating your action plan. Asking your team members to design the context for their region is a great way to embed buy in. It also gives a local, more dedicated flavour to the big global picture.

Also, start with big impossible-type problems. From my doctoral research work I can vouch entirely that problem solving in the form of reflective response, thought and learning as a sure fired process for getting people into practice (note I use practice rather than action here). A key component of adult learning, and hence engagement, sits in our human preoccupation with problem solving. After all, that is the key reason we need to do this sustainability stuff: as it’s a problem we on the whole have made!

Step Five: It’s not always about the low hanging fruit

Pick big chunky things to do. Give them to busy people and write actions in the form of a performance management plan. Then write these KPIs into role and responsibility statements. I suggest you task up an R.A.C.I style statement to keep everyone in the reporting process. One of the biggest problems I see in any engagement plan is that it is often all about little, boring and mundane tasks, like “let’s all switch off the lights” and heaven help me: about office recycling... By all means have these as actions but why not add in something audacious like the design of a co-generation system for your office building?

Cake is essential.

Step Six: Don’t say everything to everyone

Effective comms plans are lean and mean plans. Another big mistake I see is communication via the dreaded group, or worse still masemail with one message to all. This is really significant if it is not even relevant to the office you are sitting in 3,000 miles away. Tailor your messages and curate your audience carefully. Be in touch with your minions regularly as well. Use the 'What I need to say, to whom and how' (medium) template and target accordingly. Always be conscious of time zones.

Step Seven: Curate and feed your minions

Become a font of knowledge and insight. Curate social media thought leadership and send off to your team good and refined literature where ever you can. Twitter is made for this purpose! I do all of my professional reading via well selected and curated commentators. My team also uses Yammer very effectively for communication between regional teams and executive personnel (nationally and internationally).

Step Eight: Coffee and cake are essential

My instructional design team meet every morning for coffee and a team chat. We used to do this physically in support of local cafe economies but now meet virtually instead as our broader team is spread around the country – including different time zones. At a nominated time each day we make ourselves a coffee and then jump on Skype to gnaw over the project components and outcomes of the day. This not only gives us a sense of collegiality but also keeps all of us on track.

This is a great way to keep in contact with champions across your organization. Keep it social, fun and supportive. Social and informal meeting sessions are vital to engagement in every application. You should also buddy up your team. Encourage them to contact each other regularly – even if just to have a whinge!