Companies that have embraced the remote workforce tend to swear by it like a religion. And, increasingly, it’s easy to see why. Research shows that remote workers are happier, more engaged, and more productive than their in-house counterparts.
However, the same survey shows that 27 per cent of remote workers experience work challenges because they aren’t in the same place as their team – and the quality of relationships with their coworkers are lower than that of in-house workers. Managing remote workers presents its own unique set of challenges, whether it’s your whole team that works off-site or just individual workers.
To help, here are eight expert tips for successfully managing remote workers.
Hire the right people – and then trust them
According to Wade Foster, co-founder of tech company Zapier (whose entire 60-plus works remotely), choosing the right people for a remote team is crucial. “Doers will get stuff done even if they are in Timbuktu. You don’t have to give doers tasks to know that something will get done. You’ll still have to provide direction and guidance around the most important things to be executed, but in the absence of that, a doer will make something happen,” says Foster, adding that once you choose your team, trust is imperative to a successful remote workforce. “Remote work stops working when you can’t trust the person on the other end of the line. If you continually find yourself worrying what someone is doing, then you are spending brain cycles focusing on something other than the product. Trust is key.”
Create a “digital workplace”
There’s no shortage of digital products to help your team communicate and collaborate from anywhere. The best options include task management and scheduling, as well as the ability to share documents and celebrate milestones.
Each company has their own recipe of products that work best for them, but it’s usually a combination of a few. Zapier, for example, uses Slack (shown), Trello, Google Docs, Hackpad, GoToMeeting, to name a few.
However, it’s important to use various modes of communication wisely. “Since it’s so easy to miscommunicate when you’re not physically in the room with someone, make sure every interaction you have with your reports is delivered on the right platform,” says Dave Nevogt, co-founder of time tracker software company (and remote worker employer) Hubstaff.
For example, don’t use email or instant messaging for delivering critical feedback – lengthy or difficult conversations are best saved for video chat or, if that’s not possible, a phone call. Once you have your digital workplace set up, clearly outline to managers and employees alike what each type of communication tool should be used for.
Be clear with your expectations
Being clear and upfront with employees is always good form, but it becomes all the more crucial when your staff is scattered. “Remote work, by definition, is far less structured than on-site work. And while that has huge bonuses, it also means that you’re going to need to provide more structured expectations,” says Nevogt.
Whether it’s a new hire or a current staff member moving to a remote setup, go through everything to avoid confusion: key projects and deadlines, important daily or weekly tasks, and scheduled meetings. Be especially clear about hours and availability. Do you want your workers available between set office hours? Are you OK with them tracking their hours, as long as they’re available for meetings? In short, don’t make any assumptions about what working remotely is – define it with your staff.
Encourage random chats
Call it watercooler chats, call it impromptu chats, call it whatever you want – if you have remote workers, you need a way for spontaneous moments to happen between them. “When you’re separated physically you need a place to hang out and talk about random stuff or ideas. We use [group chat app] Campfire and it works great,” says Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse, an online technology education provider.
Allowing for casual chats helps to connect the team and prevent burnout (more on that later) while also encouraging unplanned bouts of creativity and collaboration.
It’s important for your team to know that working remote doesn’t mean going under the radar. One-on-ones between managers and their direct reports should take place regularly (once a month is good) to ensure that goals are set and met, and any issues that arise are addressed ASAP. This not only ensures that everyone is on track, it keeps employees engaged and excited about their work, even if they’re not surrounded by their team.
If your team is part in-house and part remote, it’s important to be inclusive. Be sure to include all team members in every town hall, every office party, and all meetings related to them – and be sensitive to time zones. Zapier, for example, does weekly hangouts every Thursday at 9 p.m. (“That’s roughly the best time for a geographically dispersed team so that no one’s weekend gets disturbed too much,” says Foster).
“One of the downsides of being a remote team is that physical interaction doesn’t happen unless you make a dedicated effort to get the team together,” says Foster.
Whether your entire team is remote, or just some of your workers are, plan annual get-togethers to bring everyone together for face-to-face contact. A full-staff retreat can be a multi-day event, or a simple one-day thing – the point is, everyone is in one place. Worried about the cost? Foster makes this argument: “A typical remote team saves tons of money each month by not having to pay for an office or paying for a much smaller one than you’d normally have to have. We decided to pour the money we save on office-related expenses into the trip.”
You might think the biggest worry about remote workers is slacking off. In reality, however, it’s the opposite. “That’s the great irony of allowing passionate people to work from home,” says Basecamp CEO and co-founder Jason Fried in his book, Remote: Office Not Required. “A manager’s natural instinct is to worry that her workers aren’t getting enough work done. But the real threat is that they will wind up working too hard. And because the manager isn’t sitting across from her worker anymore, she can’t look in the person’s eyes and see burnout.”
To combat this, Fried suggests setting daily and weekly maxes for working hours, and encouraging workers to focus on doing a good day’s work rather than piling on the hours. Preach breaks, lunch hours, and, in general, self control, to ensure your team stays productive and healthy.