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Managing a remote workforce

February 16, 2018

With almost one third of the New Zealand workforce and an estimated 43% of the US workers currently working remotely, there’s no question that the desire to work remotely is here to stay. And it isn’t limited to a few select industries. Gallup found that the finance, insurance and real estate industries experienced the greatest surge in time spent working remotely, followed by transportation, manufacturing or construction, and retail industries.

Managers at every level in organizations are suddenly faced with having to engage, motivate and performance manage a workforce they can’t see, who work in different time zones and whom they can’t have a regular catch up with.  It’s no wonder then that most managers feel that they are losing control, while employees report feeling less and less connected to the “mother ship”.

While remote working doesn’t make sense for all roles, there is no doubt that at least some people in your team will want to work remotely from time to time. Learning how to manage a “hybrid” or a fully remote team is an essential skill for managers who want to maintain a high performing and engaged team.

These tips will help you to navigate these ‘tricky waters’ and ensure that you build meaningful relationships with your team, even if you are rarely in the same location:

  • Clear and explicit communication. This is no time for ambiguity or the odd one-liner.  Ensure that you communicate clearly and often. Your messages need to be explicit, concise and regular. The risk of being misunderstood or misconstrued when you are communicating across different time zones and cultural contexts is high. Think about the cultural norms and values of the team you are communicating with. Cater to all needs. Where possible, take the opportunity to communicate in writing and face to face. Even quick confirmations can be done over Skype or video calling; Face time trumps e-mails as you have the added advantage of being able to read body language and facial expressions. It also helps build trust as your team will feel more connected to people they can see.

Never have a difficult conversation over email. If you need to talk about performance, attendance, attitude, or results, pick up the phone or start a video call.

  • Delegate effectively – creating clarity with regards to task, ownership and accountability is essential in remote teams as the benefit of having a “water cooler” conversation is not an option. Setting the scene from the get go, being crystal clear about expectations and about who is accountable for what is essential.  Remember, delegation isn’t a one-off exercise.  As the project or initiative kicks off, new tasks will arise that need to find a home.  Make sure the delegation as a topic is discussed regularly and remain open to changing lines of delegation where it makes sense.

  • Have the right toolbox in place -  Have a document management system in place for sharing documents and files. Tools like Google Drive and Dropbox are great for this. Don’t rely on emails for sharing files because they might get lost and people can have a hard time tracking the latest version and the changes made. Give them the tools they need to work efficiently and make sure everyone is on  board with these. There are also many other free tools available for virtual teams. Make sure everyone knows how to use these and that they all stick to the protocols. With team members often working on different time zones, there is nothing more frustrating than having to wait 6 hours for a team member to come back on line before a document can be accessed! 

  • Multiply the feedback. Remote workers often wonder if they're meeting expectations in the workplace because they miss out on feedback that happens during the course of a normal work day. Make a conscious effort to provide feedback on a regular basis. Aside from informal feedback, set aside time to have more formal one on one feedback sessions with each of your team members. Invite your employee to table issues that they would like to discuss during these sessions.  It’s quite possible that they may be experiencing issues that don’t exist in your world and that you haven’t even thought about.  Practice good listening skills and be empathetic, even if you don’t have direct control over the issue.  Building trust is about understanding, listening and exploring with your employee what some of the solutions might be.

  • Be available. While nobody can be available all the time, on-site employees have the benefit of knocking on doors if they need to interrupt a meeting for an emergency. Make sure your remote workers know how to reach you if they have to and what the process is for contacting a manager or team members after hours. Make sure everybody understands and has bought into the protocol, so that no-one is taken by surprise of left having to manage a situation which they don’t feel equipped to handle.

In today’s workplace, our key talent and skilled employees come from everywhere and work in different places. It is slowly becoming the new norm for companies to hire people from other cities and sometimes other countries. Although having remote employees and managing a remote team has its own challenges, when managed successfully, it may save your company a lot of money.