With over 3.3 million US workers (not including the self-employed) now working remotely (up 80 percent since 2005) the art of management as we know it is becoming increasingly more complicated.
“In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way,” actress Tina Fey said in her best-selling book, Bossypants.
Bosses are, literally, getting out of the way more and more, as quality employees are requesting to work remotely.
How do we navigate the unexpected new challenges that accompany managing remote workers effectively as the telecommuting trend continues to grow? We asked successful managers across industry lines to weigh in on how they’re building and maintaining thriving teams from afar.
Here’s a compilation of their advice — the top ten tips for managing remote employees.
1. Change your mindset
Never assume that managing remote workers will be comparable to managing folks within your office. Managers must either adapt or face extinction.
”Most remote workers are experts in their field,” says Shilonda Downing of Virtual Work Team, “you need to trust that you’ve done due diligence during the hiring process and then let them work. View the management process as collaborative and not with a rank and file mentality.”
There is a fine line to tread here, so don’t think that hiring seasoned remote workers or field experts means that you can ignore them. “Research has shown that trust in remote teams breaks down after 2-3 months without personal contact,” says Amy Gulati, HR Business Partner at Helios HR, and a veteran of established telework practices with two Fortune 500 companies. “Ideally, you’d have the ability to bring everyone together in a central location but even getting on Skype is better than nothing.”
2. Focus on the big picture
“Helping remote employees understand their role and impact within the organization is a key part in making them feel connected to the company,” according to Luis Ramirez, Director of Sales for Latin America and Caribbean at InterCall.
Ramirez, who manages a remote team that spans three countries, adds that “as the manager, it’s your responsibility to help virtual employees understand the company’s and/or project’s end goal and how each employee fits into the plan. An employee who’s working from home or at an office in another country doesn’t have the opportunity to stop by and talk about these things, so managers have to be much more focused on what they share, how they communicate, and when they do it.”
3. Teach, train, repeat
Ill equipped employees are a recipe for failure. “Make sure that your employees are empowered with the knowledge to provide an accurate and consistent service or sales pitch,” advises Mitch Causey, Director of Marketing at Lesson.ly. “Onboard them, and continue educating them as their experience matures on topics that help them achieve more. Using education to cultivate a connected community is a win-win!”
4. Maintain visibility
When you think of your remote team, are their web-bio photos the first image that comes to your mind? If so, that lack of visual communication is only setting your business up for future disasters.
“Keeping the team vibe going with people working remotely is difficult at best,” says Jon Mills, Director at Paige Technologies. ”One of the best ways to maintain that team atmosphere is to incorporate video calls into your routine. When using conference calls, the temptation to multitask and not really pay attention is just too great. Using tools like Google Hangouts to run team meetings and stand ups give each member of the team a visual reminder that they are part of the team and forces engagement from everyone.”
5. Eliminate unnecessary correspondence
David Schabel, Senior Project Manager at TMW Systems with both remote and on-site PM experience, suggests using the phrase: “Unless You Direct Otherwise By HH:MM” to eliminate unnecessary email chains.
“Stating upfront your working assumption or planned next steps you will take, barring any changes communicated to you by your boss or client, within a 2 – 3 hour window, enables you to continue to make progress and affords them an opportunity to provide any changes, if needed.”
The sooner we eradicate the obligatory response epidemic, the better. Less is more – pass it on.
6. Use project management software
Forget the aspirin, use project management (PM) software to get rid of your headaches. Too many businesses are stuck in the lingering research phase when it comes to business software but the sooner you implement a system, the sooner you’ll stop seeing tasks being forgotten about.
Charles Ogwyn, founder of My Internet Marketing Partner, “tried several (PM softwares) and found that Basecamp works best (for them). Good project management software is absolutely essential for keeping track of who is doing what and when things are due for multiple projects. Keeping up with things by email alone, or by conversation, is a recipe for allowing things to slip through the cracks.”
7. Collaborate and listen
“Frequent collaboration sessions are a must to not only learn and grow from each other in the workplace, but to make sure that virtual employees understand the tasks at hand,” suggests Jason O’Keefe, Senior Manager, Marketing at Genuitec, a 100 percent virtual tech company established in 1997. ”Further, asking folks to repeat back what they heard ‘in their words’ is a good method to ensure focus and that assignments are well understood.”
This classic ‘measure twice, cut once’ approach delivers quality results by ensuring everyone is on the same track from the beginning. Genuitec also uses software to manage “workload collaboration on multi-layered project(s).” O’Keefe suggests “software like Trello, (which will) allow to you to keep track and update each other on what everyone is doing, has done, or is about to do.”
8. Easy access with cloud storage
Cloud storage is essential for remote workers need to routinely access company information.
Mike Moyer, Managing Director of Lake Shark Ventures and Slicing Pie, says “create a central resource to keep “evergreen” information and tools. I set up a password protected WordPress blog that has links to training videos, software, plugins, password lists and important links to company software like to do lists and time-tracking accounts.”
9. Respect time zones
Anticipating roadblocks requires planning and patience.At MPayMe “we all agreed to be flexible about the time zones,” says Vice President of Marketing, Jill Wiseman. “Hong Kong is 12 or 13 hours ahead of U.S.; the U.K. office is 5 hours ahead of U.S. My days were bookended with video calls to accommodate, but I didn’t mind because my colleagues did the same for me.”
Language barriers can create a hindrance as well. “Most of the remote teams that I have managed were from offshore locations where the employees spoke English as a second language,” reports Bennett Lauber, Chief Experience Officer at The Usability People. “We were never quite sure that they fully understood what we were talking about in web conferences. Finally we decided to share a whiteboard of the meeting notes in real-time. That way everyone was literally on the same (virtual) page and we saw a reduction in the amount of miscommunication.”
10. Build an employee recognition program
“The linking of rewards to performance is one of the best tools that a manager has to align incentives properly,” says Matthew Reischer, Esq, CEO of LawyerReviews.com. “This is more the case with a remote worker because there are limited opportunities for managing all aspects of the operational process. Ultimately, an irresponsible virtual worker may need the linking of punishment with poor performance.”
Mike Mirshahzadeh, Founder & EVP of Endeavor Loans America uses YouEarnedIt, a software platform that allows every employee to reward or recognize a co-worker for performance. With over 200 remote employees, Mirshahzadeh’s team finds that “the software is simple and saves managers the time and expense of building an employee recognition system from the ground up. This pattern of recognition reinforces excellent customer service, teamwork and leadership as it happens, connecting a remote workforce through real-time digital feedback.”
Clearly, the groundwork has been laid, but the long term effects of managing a modern remote workforce remain to be seen. How will businesses, big and small, have to pivot to adapt to this growing trend?
Have you found success in remote working environments? Share your story in the comments.
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