Leading from a Distance: How to Manage Remote Employees

Credit: © Mila Supynska/Dollar Photo Club

If it seems like more and more people are working from home lately, it’s because they are: there’s been an 80% increase in telecommuting since 2005, according to the latest survey conducted by Global Workplace Analytics. Aside from the wave of new technology making it possible, researchers believe the uptick is due to the benefits of telecommuting, including greater productivity, efficiency and employee morale - three things any business owner would like to see more of.

Opening up your business to a remote workforce also allows you to recruit talent that might not be available in your local area. And eliminating the need for large office space can significantly reduce your operating expenses. Clearly there are some compelling business justifications for going virtual, but the critical question is: can you lead effectively from afar?

The answer is yes, as long as you have the right team, use the right tools and implement the right systems. Here are a few things you should know if you're managing remote employees:

Know the Status of Each Project, In Real Time

One of the biggest challenges of the transition to a remote workforce is figuring out how to make sure everyone’s doing their job. Without a good system in place to track tasks and projects, your workers will be floating out in the ether, and you might get blindsided by missed deadlines or confusion over who is responsible for certain projects.

Fortunately, there are cloud-based software options available that are ideal for managing and organizing projects with distributed team members. There are a wide variety of general purpose project management options, including Basecamp, Trello and Wrike, as well as options geared toward more technical projects, like JIRA or Pivotal Tracker. These systems allow you to create tasks, recurring projects, shared calendars, and more for your remote employees. Not only do they enable you to keep track of your workforce’s productivity, but they keep your employees and contractors on track with reminders of upcoming tasks, projects and deadlines.

Make Time for Facetime

It’s commonly said that 93% of communication is non-verbal. While that makes for an interesting factoid, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Of that non-verbal communication, 55% is body language and 45% is tone of voice - or, to put it another way, if you’re communicating with an employee over the phone, you’re missing almost 55% of their message. When you’re communicating with an employee via email or text message, you’re missing 93%.

While the prevalence of email has forced people to improve their writing skills, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Tools like Skype and Google Hangouts make it easy to get that interaction with individuals on a daily basis, and free or inexpensive to hold a virtual conference with your entire team.

Focus on Goals More than Trust

Lack of trust can poison any workplace, and an employee who feels mistrusted will likely withdraw and become disengaged. While time tracking tools are important, excessive focus on how telecommuting employees are spending their time each day can signal mistrust. When communicating with employees, it’s best to focus instead on goals.

By outlining your expectations early on and adopting a Management by Objectives (MBO) approach, you can shift the focus from how employees spend their time to a much more black and white result – “did we accomplish our goal?” Goals should act as motivation for employees, and, if targets are met, recognition or performance-related bonuses should be offered.

Don’t Skimp on Company Culture

Your company culture shouldn't cease to exist just because your employees are working from couches instead of cubicles, although reinforcing it becomes more of a challenge. The lack of face time and person-to-person communication can make it difficult for your remote workforce to feel like a team.

Even with weekly conference calls or video chats, it’s easy for members of your remote team to feel like they’re laboring alone on an island. Get creative and help them break out of the solitude with some fun team-building events that generate competition, without requiring everyone to be in the same room. Think multi-player video games, informal hangouts, or a “name that desk” photo game.

Consider Not Hiring Employees at All

Running a small business with a fully remote workforce may not be feasible if the employees are spread out over multiple states, regions, or countries. Legal compliance alone could make it a non-starter. And yet the world continues to become flatter and more connected. This has many small businesses looking for completely new models that don’t involve hiring employees at all. Cloud-based marketing agency, Up There Everywhere, leverages a model they call “E-ployment”:

“the future we believe is one where individuals will take responsibility for themselves, their lives and their own employment. These community organisations [eg. Up There Everywhere] will provide structure, tools and a brand presence. People will work within teams that are globally connected and provide many aspects of the support of traditional employment, with the freedom of being an independent worker.”

It’s an interesting approach that offers a middle ground for workers who seek the freedom of self-employment with some of the benefits of working for a larger company. For small businesses, such a model could significantly lower operating expenses while opening up opportunities in new global markets.

Today’s workers want to telecommute, and you don’t need to be afraid to let them. With trust, communication, good tracking, growing camaraderie, and innovative organizational models, your remote workforce will rival of any office-based team.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

This article appears in: Business , Small Business

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Jim Robinson

Jim Robinson

Small Business

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