While COVD-19 threatens to make social distancing the new reality for years to come, business owners, leaders and executives are swamped by online advice about managing remote teams effectively. This is where I tell you that it’s usually missing a very important element–the remote worker’s perspective.
Why would neglecting this be a mistake? Because your goal isn’t simply to fit your teams into some broad remote work structure. You want to build a supportive framework that fits their reality. One which is as practicable as it is logical because it prepares them to be effective in the home base–and helps to ensure their continued growth with your company.
This article is not intended to cover the basics that you can read about in any good remote team management article. Rather, I’m going to be your voice from the field and share what managers might be missing based on my years as a freelancer and full-time remote employee.
How do you communicate effectively when working remotely?
Solid communication is the foundation of any successful group work, of course. It just so happens to be a weak spot for many a newly remote business.
Here are some fundamentals to making it work:
- Provide your remote teams with strong guidance
- Use good collaboration tools
- Make sure your teams know how to use them
- Be willing to try something different
Give strong guidance
In my experience, remote workers produce higher quality work that they can be proud of, faster, with the appropriate amount of guidance.
What do I mean by guidance? Thorough task briefings, being available to answer questions and provide feedback, and leveraging the tools most conducive to explaining what you need someone to do. Don’t forget to encourage questions and feedback, too.
Here’s how I would look at it. Is the task you want me to execute a routine request? A task management system will suffice. Is it somewhat complicated? Spend the time to share with me what you envision upon completion and how it contributes to the whole, possibly with visual information and resources I can reference for more details.
Make sure your collaboration software is truly collaborative
This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at the kinds of tools I’ve been given to work with in the past. In some cases, none at all, save for Zoom and some spreadsheets.
The tools that have allowed me to work quickly and easily as a freelancer (without the frustration of feeling like I’m working in a void) and as a VOGSY employee have been Google Workspace tools. Google Sheets and Docs have long been staples because collaboration is built into them. You’re working in one shared file instead of emailing attachments that one person can edit at a time before sending back like a slow-motion game of ping pong.
Collaboration tools are the sinews that hold the bones of your remote operation together.
Whatever tools you do use, beyond spending some time researching them, ask your remote staff questions about where the communication gaps are for them. This gives them an opportunity to consider any frustrations they’ve been having and you the opportunity to address them.
Help your team use those collaboration tools
So you’re using Google Workspace or some other collaboration tools to give your distributed teams the foundation for good communication. Step two is to train them well in these tools, or else their collaborative functions are purely nominal.
I’ll use myself as an example. Before joining the VOGSY team, I didn’t know anything about Google Sheets. Now it’s integral to my workflow any time I need to show rather than tell something to other collaborators with combined screenshots, illustrations and directions. Could have saved me a lot of time, phone calls and emails in the past.
If the communication is broken, fix it.
For many businesses, this new remote work era is an experimental time. As such, it requires adaptability in areas you may not have considered before. After all, communication is a natural byproduct of sharing a physical space with coworkers in an office, not so much in isolated work-from-home offices.
Be willing to change what you’re doing to foster better communication and understanding, whether that means switching software or adding a new form of communication. Maybe it’s a chat-style messaging system like Slack or WhatsApp. As a good manager, you’ll do what you need to do to keep everyone in contact easily and fluidly.
How do you keep remote workers accountable?
Because I take pride in my work, I want to be held accountable for it. But sometimes I see flaws in systems that make that impossible, flaws which make me want to contact the CEO or business owner and ask them why they’re doing it to themselves.
Avoiding common pitfalls in keeping a distributed workforce accountable is easier if you:
- Clarify expectations
- Avoid too-frequent check-ins
- Entrust your teams with information access
Explain the expectations
This is not new advice, but I think it bears repeating so that I can explain from the remote worker’s perspective. Explaining exactly what you expect from your staff from the outset in terms of the type of work, the quality and the quantity is not just to avoid miscommunication.
Providing a clearer understanding of employees’ roles and responsibilities also accomplishes the following:
- Giving remote staff daily, weekly or monthly goals to work toward and a sense of completion when they’re met
- Allowing remote workers to create their own workflow at home that can accommodate the company’s needs
- Creating a sense of ownership of the work, something that needs to happen if employees are going to be invested in the outcomes
A bonus is that if you set the expectations in no unclear terms, you create the opportunity to figure out what’s reasonable and achievable. If your expectations aren’t aligned with what your staff can actually keep up with, you’ve identified a problem that can be easily solved with some scheduling adjustments.
Consider how often you schedule check-ins
Different opinions on how often you should be checking in with your staff abound in advice articles. There is such a thing as too much–then it becomes you checking in on them rather than with them, which creates unnecessary stress and a kind of Big Brother vibe.
I’m not going to tell you that there’s a secret formula for everyone. Each company is different and each individual staff member has unique needs. Daily check-ins may make some feel secure and stifle others. Too many can also be disruptive to your remote employees’ workflow while they’re already battling home distractions.
If it’s feasible, try to work out a check-in schedule tailored to individual employees based on feedback–encourage your staff to be up front without fear of seeming like they’re not being “team players” if they want to cut back on the calls. Be flexible and trust your remote employees. I guarantee they’re working hard for you.
Share information with your remote staff
To put it bluntly, remote workers can’t work with one hand tied behind their backs. That will happen if they have to continuously request access to the resources and data necessary to complete their tasks.
Wouldn’t it just be easier for everybody if they had those resources at their disposal already?
Transparency of information lets everyone work faster, because we all know that email tag is no quick way to get things done.
It also ensures that your teams are able to take responsibility for (i.e, ownership of) their work as there are no unnecessary gatekeepers to contend with. And it builds mutual trust.
How do you keep remote employees engaged?
It really is possible to have a tight-knit company culture while everyone works from home. And while virtual game time is becoming a popular option to boost team spirits, there are a few simple things you can do that make a big (and mutually beneficial) impact:
- Having water cooler moments in regular business meetings
- Asking employees to open up about their goals
- Allowing employees to apply their skills to the fullest extent
Save the first five or so minutes of meetings for water cooler moments
In addition to building “water cooler” meetings into the remote work life, sprinkle these informal, bond-strengthening chats into other interactions with your remote team. The beginnings of meetings are perfect for this.
Why do this? Because it reinforces that friendly, open environment you’re striving to create with the scheduled virtual hangouts, for one thing. For another, it helps to loosen everyone up before teleconferences, which can be kind of nerve-wracking for newbies. The quiet employees may be more likely to speak up and share potentially innovative ideas that they would otherwise feel too insecure to share.
Building a sense of safety and unity is about weaving candid moments into the work experience, preferably as naturally as possible.
Don’t just share the company vision with remote workers. Invite them to share theirs.
Want your work-from-home employees to feel like true stakeholders in the business? Go a step beyond enlightening them about your company’s values and long-term goals. Asking them about theirs demonstrates that you see them as more than just cogs in the machine.
Additionally, it helps them explore their goals and how they might grow with your company as you start that dialogue, potentially helping to ease above-average attrition rates (up to 13.4 percent in 2019, according to Statista) that haunt professional services organizations.
Let your remote workers do what they’re good at
I don’t have to tell you that remote work is different from in-office work. But something that people are often unprepared for is a change in their job roles as necessitated by the new remote environment.
Maybe some parts of their jobs have become obsolete as remote work software takes care of it for them, or they discover that they’re developing new interests as they explore what remote work has to offer them.
Give them the chance to settle into remote work gracefully and enjoy it by expanding their choices. If they’re not satisfied with the way something is going for them now, try to work with them on finding new or additional avenues to channel their skills, or even develop new ones. Again, this works in your favor by lowering the risk of losing them entirely. Plus, it benefits your business by eliminating productivity-halting skill mismatches that slow billable work.
Key takeaways: How to manage remote employees
- Give them strong, clear directions and encourage feedback
- Be flexible in your approach to workflow, collaboration software and check-ins
- Make sure your teams can use the tools you adopt efficiently and effectively
- Clarify all expectations to increase a sense of ownership and ensure that requirements can be easily met
- Don’t stress employees out with too many check-ins
- Give your staff the information access they need up front
- Make the “water cooler” effect natural by sprinkling it into regular interactions, not just scheduled socialization time
- Creating long-term value for remote employees starting with personal goal sharing
To be sure, managing remote teams requires an evaluation of your company, services and staff to generate the building blocks of a successful strategy. If you also consider how practical, supportive and beneficial your remote strategy is for your teams, you’ll ensure a happier, healthier remote work environment that nurtures long-term success for both your company and your employees.