Last year, 43 percent of working Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely. From 2012 to 2016, the number of people working remotely four or five days per week increased from 24 to 31 percent. This growing trend of remote work can present a unique challenge for managers: navigating distance, time zones as well as cultural and linguistic differences to properly manage a dispersed team.
Without proactive management, geographically dispersed employees can create problems and inconsistencies. However, properly managed remote workers can provide your company with a wealth of experience, diversity, and growth opportunities. In this post, we’ll cover how to establish expectations, streamline workflows, and make each employee feel like part of the team.
1. Communicate efficiently despite the distance
Communication is everything. Even if you were standing in the same office providing directions face-to-face, miscommunications can still happen. You will need to take special care to create open lines of communication with remote employees, especially if you never see them in person.
Here are some factors to establish early:
- When employees should be online or working, and when employees across time zones will overlap
- When meetings will take place
- How quickly you expect direct reports to respond to emails or slack messages
Define and set protocols for work emergencies
In a traditional office, you can just walk to the UX lead’s desk and tell them a high-traffic mobile page is broken. For remote employees, you’ll need to decide on the best communication channel. Is it a phone call? Text? Email?
- Create a shared communication platform everyone can see: If you just need to share information, a group chat via Slack might do the trick. If employees need to exchange files and track project progress and completion, you might invest in an online platform that meets your requirements. "Online communities, social collaboration software and chat clients help bring remote employees inside the cultural conversation," said Tony Ventrice, senior product manager at BetterWorks. "It's important that not all of these communications are even completely serious — much of what brings a team together is the shared banter.”
- Avoid flooding inboxes: Set guidelines for communication activity across channels. If your team sends a mass email each time a project milestone is completed, most employees will create automated filters to avoid the deluge. Limit team-wide communications to important announcements and communicating broken features, and consider passive notification channels for smaller milestones.
2. Establish expectations as early as possible
A good manager needs to make sure each direct report understands who is responsible for what, who to approach with questions, and how each project fits into the company’s high-level strategy. This represents a challenge even in offices where everyone is physically present, but can require some creativity when it comes to remote teams.
- Establish clear lines of accountability: Set “monthly, quarterly, and yearly performance goals” and check in regularly on progress, just like you would with in-person employees, Rebecca Knight writes for the Harvard Business Review.
- Explain how individual projects help reach a greater goal: A remote employee won’t have as much opportunity to interact with others in the company and learn how their work fits within the bigger picture. That means it’s even more important for you to explain why a remote employee’s work matters. Helping the employee see how any given project fits in with larger objectives ensures the employee has a sense of purpose and importance.
- Schedule regular one-to-ones with your remote direct reports: Have you ever heard the expression “Out of sight; out of mind?” Don’t let that happen with your remote direct reports. Find out how they’re doing; ask them what they need; put them in a position to succeed.
3. Make everyone feel like part of the team
- Celebrate successes and publicly praise good work: You may not be able to invite your remote employees into the conference room for cake on their five-year work anniversary, but that doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge in some fashion. If a remote employee produces particularly exceptional work, give them a shout-out online or during a conference call in front of other employees.
- Create “water cooler moments”: In an office, employees will run into each other in the kitchen and talk about their weekend, family, pets, and more. These accidental interactions don’t happen the same way for remote employees, but they’re important for camaraderie. "Care should be taken to avoid simply delegating and executing tasks without 'humanizing' the work and team interactions," said Ken Lahti, VP of product development and innovation at CEB.
- Use video conferencing: Eighty-seven percent of employees say video conferencing makes them feel more engaged. Try Skype or Google Hangouts to interact with your direct reports.
Even if your direct reports work remotely and you’ve never met them, you can still build a relationship and enjoy excellent work results. Remember to establish regular communication, acknowledge successes, and remind all direct reports how their work contributes to company goals.