Managing a Remote Workforce
There are more remote teams today than ever before and the shift to remote work is having a positive impact. In the last 10 years remote workforce has grown 149%, and 85% of businesses confirm that productivity has increased in their company due to greater flexibility. Additionally, 90% of employees say allowing for more flexible work arrangements and schedules would increase morale, while 77% say allowing employees to work remotely may lead to lower operating costs.
The definition of a remote worker and/or team continues to change and evolve, as do the conditions that necessitate it. Various factors have contributed to the increase in remote work, including globalization, shifts in technology, the ability to attract top talent, and cost and productivity effectiveness. Uncontrollable situations, such as a natural disaster or public health crisis, can also cause companies to adopt remote work.
Whether you are managing a global team with members in different countries and time zones, a team whose interactions are impacted by travel or preferred work schedule, or a team that works in different offices/locations, how you manage the work and lead your people needs to be different from an in-office approach.
Working remotely, when managed properly, can be a time and cost savings to an organization, providing flexibility to your people, which can boost their morale. But when managed improperly, it can harm an organization’s productivity, effectiveness, and culture. Technology has made it easier to manage a team or workforce virtually, but there are still challenges.
Communicating a shift to remote work. Whether this was a shift you were planning for, are utilizing occasionally, or are now rapidly adopting as a reaction to something, the first step should always be clear communication from leadership. Working from home could last a week, several months, or become a permanent strategy for some or all your workforce. Take advantage of this moment to better equip your team or organization to work remotely for the long term. Communicate to teams or organization-wide and provide employees a training session (virtually, if needed) on how to work remotely and best practices for working with others virtually.
Before you communicate and train, gather feedback and collect data from employees who are already working remotely, along with managers. What works, and what hasn’t been working? What are the lessons learned and best practices? You should reach out to other organizations who have had experiences with remote workforces to get their insights as well.
During any period of transition, your team will look to managers and key influencers for guidance and support. Make sure they are equipped to provide best practices and strategies. Get them on board and excited. Develop them to be able to manage a remote workforce, to help drive new behaviors within the organization, and to lead the change.
To be successful, every team member has to get comfortable with a new paradigm, set of tools, processes, and methods to be productive as individuals and as a team. Because this change ultimately impacts how your team works together, which has implications for how each individual works, it’s vital that they understand that this is about rethinking the way that they operate so that remote work can be just as productive and fulfilling as collaborating in person. When any one person fails to adopt these new ways of working, it becomes far more evident than in a traditional environment.
Understand your remote employees. As a remote leader, you likely don’t get a chance to spend much time interacting with your employees and discovering what makes them tick. While it’s possible to learn what drives your employees over time, an accelerator may be more useful. For remote leaders, I recommend a workplace behavioral assessment—such as the PI Behavioral Assessment™—to give you a wealth of information about your employees’ drivers, needs, and natural work styles. It will help you understand how they like to work, interact and be rewarded. For example, if you know someone has a low degree of extraversion, it might be okay to contact them infrequently, but ensure they are staying connected to others and not secluding themselves. On the other hand, if an employee has high extraversion, you might want to spend more time interacting with them and providing facetime, as they need to be connected.
Put more of an emphasis on managing. While co-located teams often benefit most from an in-person manager, remote teams need a manager who provides clearly defined direction and removes all ambiguity from the process. When a team works together in the same office, you can have loose job descriptions, possibly even with two people sharing elements of the same role. With remote teams, managers have to clear roles and responsibilities—starting with their own. They also need a strong process by which to clarify and track commitments, progress, and deliverables.
Don’t be a helicopter boss. Each person on your team has a different rhythm and workflow. Don’t micromanage it. A huge key to the success of remote teams is trust—trust that your employees are doing their job, even if their workflow isn’t the same as yours. Of course, if an employee has abused that trust, a different conversation must take place.
This means not using little check-in tricks to see if they’re working or not early in the morning or throughout the day. These types of “gotchas” destroy trust and create ambiguity.
Set clear expectations. Remote employees need a healthy dose of trust—even when they are doing things their way. However, this doesn’t mean they’re running the show. It’s important to set and communicate clear expectations about how you’ll judge their work performance and any practices, guidelines, or updates you, as a manager, need to see. For example, if starting working by 8:30 a.m is non-negotiable for you or if you really need people to tell you when they’ll be away from their desks longer than an hour, it needs to be communicated clearly from the outset. Ensure that you delegate work, empower team members to make decisions, and monitor progress.
Invite constructive feedback. Despite the lack of regular face-to-face interaction, create a two-way dialogue such that team members feel comfortable providing constructive feedback to each other and to you that will enhance your and the team’s effectiveness and transparency.
Build relationships differently. Relationships take on a whole new meaning in remote teams. When you meet your colleagues by the “water cooler” or coffee shop every day, you develop informal relationships with them; they tend to form more naturally. In a remote team, you need to create situations where interactions occur, “meeting” regularly. Informal meetings should be done both online—through videoconferencing—and face-to-face. Depending on the state of the team, business, and market, teams meeting remotely should be done every week or once every few weeks. In-person meetings, if plausible, should be done at least twice a year. Even if companies are cutting costs, this is a cost well spent on building relationships, gaining alignment, and strengthening your culture.
You can also encourage groups to meet up for a monthly coffee hour, dinner, or other activity on their own time. These are not company events and cost the company nothing, but continue to foster culture. Because teammates don’t see each other everyday in the traditional sense, we have noticed that these events generally get a high turnout and people really enjoy the non-work related interactions.
Communicate differently. Remote employees still need clarity, communication, and connectedness. To keep them engaged, it’s important to build in frequent weekly meetings, including one-on-ones, team check-ins, and more. Encourage your remote team members to also have one-on-ones with each other at least every couple of weeks. This will help keep them “in the know,” as well as build rapport. Share information in a timely manner by establishing informal and formal communication vehicles to keep team members informed and engaged.
Create guidelines that establish norms of behavior when participating in remote meetings, such as limiting background noise and side conversations, talking clearly and at a reasonable pace, listening attentively,not dominating the conversation, and so on. You should include preferences on which communication modes to use in which circumstances, for example when to reply via email versus picking up the phone versus taking the time to create, and share a document.
Make video communication an essential. The first crucial step in a strong remote work culture is having the team adopt and commit to using videoconferencing. Although this may seem like a “nice to have” feature, it’s a critical factor to remote work success. Human beings, ultimately, feel more connected when we can see each other. Most of how we communicate comes through our body language, eye contact, and other forms of nonverbal communication.
I have found that in today’s hyper-connected world that many employees and managers struggle to refrain from multitasking when not on a video. It’s easy to become distracted and let your attention drift when others can’t see you. This can be an issue with remote development and learning as well. Being on camera typically makes team members more present, which ultimately leads to more effective communication, retention, productivity, and actionable next steps.
A challenge to remote work being effective and widely adopted can be thrown off by team members struggling with technology issues. Make sure every team member has high-speed internet access, a functional webcam, and a good microphone and headset. Everyone should be using a headset with a noise-canceling microphone to avoid echoing, feedback loops, or muffled audio that can cause any meeting to break down. We’ve all had that experience and know how frustrating and distracting it can be, to the point where it can shut down a meeting and productivity entirely.
For group meetings, require that all attendees, if possible, join via video. This helps everyone feel connected, but most importantly, it shows that people are mentally present and focused. Make sure everyone understands how to screen-share and, when relevant, share collaborative documents with team members in the meeting. Being able to work on one document as a group is efficient and effective. If some team members couldn’t attend, share a recording of the meeting in a relevant channel for others to review later.
These are simple acts that require little or no effort once you learn to adopt the tools that make a significant difference for collaborative teams.
I have found that most meetings can be completed in 30 minutes and that dropping the length of the meetings gets all participants more focused on achieving an outcome in the allotted time. Since you may need to connect with more people virtually during the day, these shorter, more focused meetings leave more time to execute tasks or have quick check-ins with other team members, if needed.
I recommend focusing on “working sessions” versus meetings when possible. Some meetings are designed to share information and bring consensus. Still, when working with colleagues to complete tasks, I find it’s very productive to bring multiple team members together to sit in a virtual meeting where we all work on our respective tasks to complete a broader initiative. Just knowing that you can quickly discuss things in real-time while all working on the same collaborative document can force entire teams to rally towards completing a project faster on a tighter deadline. It’s also a fun way to interact with colleagues that fosters a deeper collaborative culture.
Practice over-communication. In a remote work environment, it is not unusual for employees or managers to question another person’s productivity if they don’t have visibility into their activities. That’s why I stress that remote employees need to be over-communicative in letting their peers and managers understand their output. For some employees, being vocal and drawing attention to themselves is uncomfortable, but in a remote working environment, it’s key that employees push through this feeling and make sure that their managers and their peers understand what they’re working on. Over-communication may ensure that everyone on the team is confident that each team member is productive and working in the same direction, and an additional byproduct is that collaboration and productivity increase.
Another effective practice that can help, especially in fast-moving organizations, is a daily “stand-up”. This concept is taken from scrum software development but can be useful in any organization. It requires that each team member “stand-up” and share what work they completed since the last meeting, what they’re actively focused on, and if they have any impediments to completing those tasks. By nature, over-communication and the concept of doing a “stand-up” are aligned to delivering outcomes and holding people accountable to their own word. Documenting actions, progress, and deliverables also keeps people on track and accountable.
The Downside of Remote Work. Pay attention to how your people may struggle with being alone, or managing their family dynamics at home, or deal with stress and anxiety. Others may have a difficult time stopping work and don’t give themselves adequate breaks during the day.
Onboarding a new hire remotely becomes a challenge in acclimating them to your culture. A new hire will face challenges in developing relationships with their new team, and in their ability to become acclimated with processes and systems everyone else takes for granted.
It becomes more challenging to be visible and to build relationships and connections with other key people in the company and leadership. The lack of visibility can impact potential promotions and advancement opportunities.
Build a remote and virtual work culture. When implementing a remote workforce, focus on over-communication, boundaries, and protocols of how to work together, and establishing relationships and trust. It’s critical to establish trust among employees, pride in their work, and a shared sense of accountability and accomplishment. We find that team members build strong personal relationships by collaborating. They have increased respect for and deeper understanding of their co-workers as a result of over-communication, high levels of interpersonal interactions, and shared values and standards.
Remote work gives team members more time for themselves, their loved ones, and their hobbies, which helps people deal with the stresses of work in a more productive manner. Healthy, happy, and engaged team members tend to be more productive and more focused during their work hours. Most don’t want to lose the privilege of working remotely and virtually and will make the extra effort to maintain that privilege.
It’s also essential to learn the differences in managing a global remote team. You need to understand and respect cultural differences and nuances in developing relationships, communicating, assigning tasks, and forming effective teams.
Remote work can transform your business. Remote work works! Adopting the best practices of remote work will make your team better communicators and collaborators. Making every member of the team effective at working remotely makes teams more conscious of how to work with other online team members and even third-party partners or vendors.
Whether your company’s future is 100% remote or some hybrid of onsite and remote, these practices will modernize your organization and make it more resilient to emergencies while minimizing risks to your company’s productivity.
 Beth Braccio Hering, Remote Work Statistics: Shifting Norms and Expectations, FlexJobs.com, February 2020