By Jennifer Nelson
Managing remote workers is on every CEO’s radar. From employees who want to work one day at home to leading virtual teas scattered across the country, the workforce is becoming increasingly dispersed.
In fact, a 2014 survey found that 34 percent of attendees at the London Business School’s Global Leadership Summit expected more than half their company’s full-time workforce will work remotely by 2020.
The work from home movement has become so successful that work flexibility is now a key pillar of many large enterprises. For example, computer giant Dell has declared its commitment to enabling half of its employees to work remotely by 2020. The average Dell employee already works remotely 10 days per month.
Teleworking is here to stay, and that is not a bad thing. The growing body of research into productivity and innovation indicates that remote work, co-working spaces and outside-the-cubicle work cultures have a profoundly positive impact on morale and work quality.
“But this only succeeds if the management philosophy aligns with this brave new world of remote work culture,” says Gabe Fenigsohn, who manages a remote team in his role as research manager at Cardwell Beach, a Brooklyn-based digital creative agency.
A Harvard Business Review analysis found factors such as worker autonomy, community connections and a reduction in office politics spell worker satisfaction among remote teams. “That means there’s a significant responsibility on companies to actively seek out candidates that are well-suited to this work culture in order to achieve positive results,” Fenigsohn says.
“Many – maybe even most – people are not cut out to telecommute,” warns Brian Davis, co-founder and director of education at www.sparkrental.com, which provides news and resources for property managers.
Most people don’t have the self-discipline to work on the most productive task they have, all day every day, says Davis, who has managed remote teams for 10 years. Even among those that do, many people simply get too lonely, bored or stir-crazy working by themselves at home.
“There’s no water cooler, no face-to-face interaction, no jokes or stories about the weekend,” he says. “It’s more difficult than most people assume.”
Managing remote teams starts with the hiring process. Try to weed out the majority of applicants who simply aren’t a good fit for telecommuting by asking about applicant experience with telework, what employees like and don’t like about it, and what are their successes and challenges with it.
Managing remote teams requires more attention to employees, not less. Teams should meet a bare minimum of weekly, and possibly daily for a 10- to 15-minute “huddle.” Managers should also have one-on-one meetings with each employee at least monthly.
Teleworking teams work best when an employee’s performance is easily measured by metrics. It’s far easier to know that your remote employees are doing good work if you can measure their success and productivity.
“There’s no element of “looking busy” or “looking the part,” it all comes down to the quality of their work,” Davis says.
Have explicit conversations around how you’ll measure work, what the response time to requests should be, what technology the team will use and how they’ll work together.
“In the office, a lot of this happens organically,” says Wayne Turmel, co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute. “You can see when someone is working or at their desk. Online, you can’t tell and it can lead to misunderstandings. Are they not answering their phone because they’re working hard on something else or kicking back at Baskin Robbins?”
Ultimately, work needs to be measured by how well and when it’s completed, not by “tasks” such as answering the phone or replying to email. You can’t micromanage a teleworker. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt while also holding them accountable through scheduled check-ins, meetings and contact.
Here are Turmel’s tips for how best to manage remote workers to hold them accountable without micromanaging them.
1. Leverage the Best Communication Technology
There’s no doubt that everyone who speaks authoritatively about remote management recommends a variety of technological tools to make the process smoother. Top tech tools include Google products like Drive and Hangouts. Slack, a corporate-friendly chat app, works great for dialogue about specific projects. Dropbox gets high marks for remote storage capability and access to files. TimeDoctor, which tracks what people are working on, is also a popular remote tool, as is Asana for personal tasks and Trello for content workflow management. Of course, email and Skype are the norm.
2. Show Appreciation
Fund at least one face-to-face team meeting per year. After building good virtual rapport, face-to-face gatherings seem like reunions. Frequently thank good work.
It always pays to try to connect on a personal level with remote workers. What are they interested in? What do they like? What type of rewards do they prefer? Sending cards, postcards, thank you notes, holiday cards and prizes for extraordinary performance, like Amazon gift cards, bring some of the best slices of office culture to remote situations.
3. Meet at the Water Cooler
Finally, remote teams thrive when they can share around a virtual water cooler. Many executives report using a specific app, social media forum or channel where teams can bond, chat and take a breather while staying connected. The first 10 or 15 minutes of weekly meetings can even be devoted to chit chat and check-ins with one another.
With excellent individual support, structured team communication, and nurturing of virtual employee trust, you can inspire and deliver phenomenal results with a remote teleworking team.