Monday, March 15, 2010

Remote HR. Possible?

From my discussion with a reader:

Scenario: An employee works for a firm that doesn’t have an in-house HR team. Most of the HR related work (staffing, employee relations, performance reviews, general HR activities etc.,) are managed from a remote location. Email and phone are the best available options for communication. The HR person does visit remote locations once in a while to spend time with the employees.

Now, the employee is planning to quit, citing better career opportunities. Manager has initiated the exit process and asks HR to complete their part in the exit process. HR calls in from headquarters to conduct the exit interview. Asks employee the reason for deciding to quit and even tries their best to retain the employee. The HR has had very limited discussions in the past and have only stepped in when there’s a crisis. The employee isn’t comfortable answering most of the questions, because the HR person conducting the interview hasn’t even met/seen the employee.

I was informed it’s the same with other HR related activities too.

Leads me to ask: Does managing HR remotely work?

Well, if we consider the above scenario, the answer is a ‘No’. Managing HR from a remote location would mean that you still don’t get to feel the pulse of the organization. You really can’t expect employees to open up in a discussion with a HR person they’ve never met before. When it happens in an exit interview, you can be rest assured that it’s not going to be taken well.

Might have worked differently if it was a couple of employees working remotely and HR steps in to cater to their needs. It’s then a given, that HR will communicate only via phone/mail. It wouldn’t be possible to fly out to go meet just the two employees working remotely. Cost is a major deterrent. This is exactly the reason why managers are hesitant to let employees work remotely. In-person communication always has an advantage over remote discussions. Period. Agreed that there’s enough high-end technology that might help HR manage employees working in remote locations, yet, it doesn’t substitute for an in-person discussion.

Among various HR activities, employee relations top the list of HR activities that requires face-to-face interaction. Though emails/phone calls can answer the queries, it doesn’t allow one get a feel for non-verbal communication. That’s about 70% of every discussion! An exit interview provides a great chance to understand the reason for an employee’s exit. It could maybe even help with getting enough data for rehiring the employee in future. That would only be possible if you showed up in-person at the remote location.

There are a couple of repercussions that I can see stemming from having a remote HR team. First, managing cultural differences across locations can prove to be a challenge for a remote HR team. Second, future hiring can take a hit if either current/exiting employees voice their opinion on not having a local HR team to cater to their needs.

I’m not discounting the fact that there could possibly be a ton of advantages (cost, infrastructure, time, headcount, etc.,) which prompts HR team to work remotely. These costs will become negligible, when compared to the cost of losing great talent. Especially when you’re dealing with people who are helping you grow revenue, talking on behalf of your Company or bringing in good talent through referrals.

Choose wisely.