The idea of a completely virtual office was once one that was science fiction. More and more now, it’s becoming the norm for new businesses. Lightning fast internet, free videoconferencing software, instant messaging apps, and mobile phones have made it so that teams no longer need to be bound by a traditional office.
As more and more businesses grow comfortable with remote teams, managers are facing new and difficult challenges. They have questions like: How do you build camaraderie among a group of people separated by thousands of miles? How do you ensure workers are being productive when you don’t interact with them face-to-face? How do you build a powerful team of remote workers?
In this guide to managing a remote workforce, we’ll dive into the latest research about remote work and provide comprehensive guidance for building an effective remote team. By the end, you will see that managing a remote team requires attention and energy, but can give you results even beyond your expectations.
The Effectiveness of Remote Workers
Remote work is becoming more commonplace across a variety of industries. High speed internet and affordable videoconferencing software is making it possible for business to get done with teams of people all working around the world. On top of that, businesses understand that they can save tons of money on renting office space by operating a totally digital workspace.
But there are still questions about remote workers. Are they as focused? Are they as committed? Are they as productive?
In one of the most comprehensive studies of remote work to date, Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom worked with a company called CTrip for two years. The study divided 500 employees up into two groups: A control group, which continued to work at the company headquarters, and the second group of workers, who volunteered to work from home.
The only stipulations to be in the second group were that workers needed to have been with the company for six months, have a private room at home, and have a reliable internet connection.
Professor Bloom expected that time saved by the commute would offset the decline in productivity in workers who remained at home. He was surprised by the results, though: Remote workers were on average more productive than workers who came into the office.
“Additionally (and incredibly), employee attrition decreased by 50 percent among the telecommuters, they took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days, and took less time off. Not to mention the reduced carbon emissions from fewer autos clogging up the morning commute.
“Oh, and by the way, the company saved almost $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing the amount of HQ office space.”
The study did come with a caveat, however: “More than half the volunteer group changed their minds about working from home 100 percent of the time — they felt too much isolation.”
Studies like the one above have shown consistently that remote workers get work done. Productivity isn’t the biggest challenge when it comes to remote work, despite what many managers think. Rather, managers need to address loneliness, burnout, and disconnection within the workforce to effectively manage a remote team.
Overcoming Stigmas About Remote Workers
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in implementing an efficient remote workforce is a management team not buying in. Whether or not they confess to having these ideas, many managers are hung up on outdated ideas about workers who telecommute.
No matter how much work gets done by telecommuters, there will always be managers who believe that remote workers aren’t fully bought in. Other managers will have concerns about productivity among remote workers, or their ability to focus while working from home.
If management doesn’t believe in remote workers, whether entering data, proofreading content, medical coding, or something else alltogether, their failure will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Studies like the Stanford one have shown time and time again that remote workers are just as productive, if not more productive, than employees who commute to an office.
What’s too often holding them back is a lack of support from management. This can be in outdated ideas about commitment, or by managers who don’t consider remote workers for promotions or career development because they aren’t in the office.
Some of these ideas can be subconscious. One of the biggest concerns from people who work remotely is that they will suffer from an “out of sight, out of mind” reality when it comes to management. Managing a remote workforce requires work and commitment, just as much from management as it does from the workers.
We’ll get more into specific ways managers can attack this problem, but the first and most important way is to try and get over implicit biases toward people who work from home. This is the starting point.
Recruiting and Retaining Better Workers
If you can get over these ideas and make a commitment to building a strong remote team, the benefits are there for you.
As the Stanford study showed, two of the biggest benefits in allowing remote work are:
- Finding better talent
- Retaining that talent
“Finding better talent” should be an obvious benefit of permitting telecommuting in your team.
By allowing remote workers, you are expanding your talent search beyond people located near your office, or those who are open to moving to your area. By allowing people to work from wherever they are, you are expanding the field to find the best candidates across the country, or — if HR allows it — around the world.
Just as important is your ability to retain talent. According to a compilation of studies from Global Workplace Analytics (GWA), “92% of employees are concerned with the high cost of fuel and 80% of them specifically cite the cost of commuting to work.”
Similarly, “73% feel their employers should take the lead in helping them reduce their commuting costs” and, perhaps most importantly, “two-thirds of employees would take another job to ease the commute.”
Training new talent takes resources, both time-wise and money-wise — the GWA report found that training a new employee costs a company between $10,000 and $30,000. If a harsh commute is a stumbling block for employees, and something forcing workers to look for new work, you can eliminate that issue swiftly by allowing remote work.
The Stanford study bore these findings out: Employee attrition decreased 50 percent among the employees in the study who were allowed to work from home.
Hiring a remote workforce lets you find more talented people who are more willing to stick around. Getting the most out of that workforce, however, requires dedicated work.
Hiring a Remote Workforce
The first step in this guide to managing a remote workforce is gathering your team. While hiring managers may hope there is some magic way to determine if someone will make a good remote worker, the simple truth of the matter is that it’s really hard to know who will effectively work remotely and who won’t.
The best indicator of success when it comes to remote work is finding someone who has done it before for another company. After that, it’s about trusting your hiring process and finding someone you believe in. If you think someone is a great candidate to work in the office, odds are he or she will be a great candidate when it comes to remote work.
What you can do is help potential candidates get ready to work remotely, and ease people who are new to remote work into that transition by showing that you understand the pain points and can help candidates address them.
If someone hasn’t worked remotely before and would be trying it for the first time with you, you can ask a few questions to help get a sense of how prepared they are to make the transition.
Before we get to the questions you should ask, however, let’s hit on a question you shouldn’t ask.
“Can you make yourself focus at home?” is not a particularly helpful question for you, or for the candidate. If they’ve successfully worked from home before, the answer is obvious: Yes. If they haven’t, they couldn’t possibly know. On top of that, as the Stanford study and other studies have shown, most productive workers have shown the ability to be productive no matter where they’re located.
Focus on the Process
When interviewing candidates, don’t get hung up on questions of productivity. Rather, focus on process and preparation for candidates who will work from home.
If someone has never worked from home before, you can ask them: “Have you thought about setting yourself up a workspace at home?” Or “Have you considered what sort of routine you’ve set up to work from home?”
This can let the candidate display their forethought on the subject, and if they haven’t thought about it, allow you to step in and offer advice on how important it is to create routines when working from home. (You can point them to our article on the subject.)
Another great thing to ask people considering telecommuting for the first time: “Are you concerned about feeling disconnected from the workforce if you aren’t in the office?”
This can allow candidates to speak freely about concerns they might have about working remotely, and allow you to show off your company culture in the process.
If you believe in a candidate, odds are they will work well no matter where they are. What you can do in the hiring process is show that they will have your support when working remotely.
Training Remote Workers
The next step in our guide to managing a remote workforce is training your staff. Training remote workers takes attention to detail and strong intention. In an office setting, training an employee can be a hodgepodge effort from an entire team. Workers can pick stuff up from employees who sit near them, or pay close attention to co-workers, picking up on cues regarding company culture and best practices.
Remote workers often don’t have that benefit. They can’t roll their office chair over to a co-worker and ask them how best to access the HR portal, or how to properly file timesheets for the week, or what format a boss likes a report in.
What this can lead to is employees who feel under-trained and disconnected, and frustration from managers who feel like remote employees aren’t picking things up fast enough.
In an article in Forbes magazine, Barbara O’Malley of Exec Advance LLC argues that managers should pay more attention to remote workers, especially early on in their time with the company.
“Engage your remote workers on a daily basis through some kind of communication,” O’Malley writes. “Use multiple channels to communicate. Then, plan a regularly scheduled face-to-face meeting. This can be weekly, monthly, or annually, and could be combined with a training or coaching program. This constant interaction and engagement will help remote workers feel included in an important aspect of the organization.”
Clear Connections to Resources
Remote workers may not want to bug the boss with constant emails, so it’s also vitally important to connect remote workers with team members and clearly explain what those team members can help them on.
Introducing an office manager in an email and saying “This is our office manager Jill, she does just about everything around here” isn’t very helpful.
Rather, think about connecting your remote employee with Jill and explaining all of her roles and responsibilities, and doing so via Slack or another instant office communicator. Even better than that — schedule a videoconference to connect the two.
An article in Lighthouse, a blog about leadership and management advice, argues that video allows people to engage on a much deeper level than the written word … or even a phone call.
“Research shows more than half of human communication is non-verbal. When you don’t get to see someone in the office every day, having any type of visual clue to what someone is thinking is essential. Whether you’re gauging their reaction to a change in plans, or just trying to judge their overall mood that day, video tells you way more than an audio-only call or chat will ever reveal.
“With so many free and inexpensive solutions for video chat (like Skype, Google hangouts, and Zoom), there’s no reason not to switch to video whenever you can.”
Allowing remote workers to actively engage with team members, especially early on, will pay off in major ways down the line. So much of early success with a company is knowing where to go with questions. If remote workers feel disconnected at the start, they may continue to feel disconnected as their time with the company progresses.
Remote workers need extra engagement early on in their time with the company, not only to get up to speed on how your company works, but also to make the intrapersonal connections needed to succeed.
Effectively Managing a Remote Team
You’ve committed yourself to the idea of a remote team, and done your part to make sure new remote employees are trained well. Now comes the biggest challenge for a manager of any team — maintaining morale, setting clear expectations and goals, and working with your team toward a common goal. This next step in our guide to managing a remote workforce will give you parameters for leading a remote team with excellence.
Make Yourself Available to Remote Workers
As discussed in the previous section, managers need to go out of their way to connect with remote workers. Extra love and attention is needed. Remember: Local workers have ample opportunities to interact with you. This can be with a scheduled one-on-one, or just by passing by your desk in the morning. A wave, a “hi,” or a casual conversation on the way out of the office are all important moments for team-building between a manager and an employee.
When it comes to remote workers, those run-ins have to be created, deliberately. An article in the Harvard Business Review argues that just as important as connecting via video for meetings is remembering to carve out time for impromptu conversations and catch-ups with remote employees during those video calls.
“Building trust and familiarity with your direct reports requires you get to know them on a personal level. With remote workers ‘this takes additional effort,’ says [Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD]. He suggests reserving the first few minutes of calls and videoconferences to simply ‘chew the fat.’
“You should talk about ‘the things you usually talk about at work’— weekend plans, kids, pets, or last night’s big game. Encourage your direct reports to do the same with their remote colleagues. This social bonding ‘builds essential empathy, trust, and camaraderie,’ Ferrazzi says. ‘What binds together virtual teams are the personal details.’”
One-on-one meetings are important for all employees, but they’re vitally important for remote workers, not only to catch up on work, but to make these remote workers feel connected to you, your team, and your mission.
Deadlines Are Your Friend
Some managers are hesitant to constantly set deadlines on assignments, worried that it will come across as micromanaging. If you’re the type of manager who prefers a more relaxed atmosphere in your workplace, operating under the idea that “everyone should know what work needs to get done,” you may need to re-align when working with a remote workforce.
Remote workers will often not be able to pick up on cues from you on a project’s urgency, or have a hard time gleaning a project’s timetable if they aren’t in the office. Setting clear deadlines and expectations for remote workers isn’t a sign of micromanagement. Rather, it is helping them clearly understand what needs to get done, and will actually make their life — and your life — easier.
“Everyone has a different idea of what doing something ‘quickly’ or ‘well’ means,” writes Ilean Harris in Forbes. “Whether showing examples of what you expect to be done, calendar sharing, etc., make sure you have clear expectations from those you work with online. The more prepared they are, the better they can serve.”
The Same Standards
Likewise, setting clear expectations will let you tell remote workers that they are being held to the same standards as local employees, and vice versa.
“‘As the manager, you need to set clear, deliberate expectations in advance and establish ground rules for how interactions will take place,’ says [Keith Ferrazzi, the founder and CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight]. If you fail to do this, ‘things will break down immediately.’ He recommends … setting monthly, quarterly, and yearly performance goals as well as ‘targets for what ‘hitting it out of the park’ would mean.’
“Then, just as you would with employees working down the hall, ‘you should check in regularly on progress’ through an agreed-upon schedule. Mortensen adds: be sure to make it clear that you’re ‘applying the same metrics to the rest of the team.’ Remote workers ‘need to know that they’re not being treated differently and there’s no inequity.’”
Clear expectations, clear deadlines, and clear measurement of progress is vital in establishing trust in remote teams, and managing them well.
Challenges for People Who Telecommute
People who work remotely face challenges every day. Yes, there is the call of the couch and that Netflix account. But more pressing, actually, are concerns about communication, career growth, and burnout. Next in our guide to managing remote workers are some helpful ways to counteract the biggest issues facing telecommuters.
Make It Clear to Remote Workers That There Are Opportunities for Growth
One major hurdle for many remote workers is their concern that they will be passed over for career opportunities because they aren’t in the office. Some jobs can only be done locally, of course, but if a remote employee has shown a strong aptitude for the work, this may be an opportunity for management to re-align their ideas.
If an employee wants a promotion, and another member of management says something along the lines of “well, if they really wanted the job, they’d move here,” challenge it. If an employee is the best candidate for an internal promotion, ask other members of management (or ask yourself) if they can just as effectively do their job remotely. If they can, don’t let that hold you back from considering them for that promotion.
Likewise, make sure you communicate to remote workers that you are thinking about their career growth. For many employees, just communicating that you are thinking about long-term growth and development can assuage tension or concerns. Communicate often. And remember, remote workers often need a bit more effort when it comes to making that communication happen.
Help Avoid Burnout
According to The State of Remote Work 2018 Report, the biggest struggle that remote workers deal with isn’t fighting distractions or staying on task. Rather, it’s burnout.
Since many remote employees work from home, as opposed to an office or co-working space, many struggle to disconnect at the end of the day. There is also a concern among remote employees that they will be perceived as not as committed by management, so they go out of their way to be available at all times.
As management, you need to do your part to ensure that your workforce is refreshed and ready to work. Again, clearly setting expectations can help make this possible.
“Set up work-from-home guidelines, such as emails must be responded to within 24 hours, use text for urgent matters, and no calls between certain hours to make sure teammates are not working around the clock.”
Permitting a flexible schedule is great. Assuming people who work from home should be available 24/7 is not. Set your remote team up for success by clearly outlining expectations, and ensuring that they are able to disconnect.
Bring All Employees Together Regularly If You Can
It’s hard to overstate how much it helps to bring teams together whenever possible. To fight the feeling among a remote workforce that there is a disconnect from the rest of the team, try to work it into your budget to bring the team together at least annually.
During these in-person meetings, intrapersonal bonds are formed, expectations are aligned, and teams are built when people are brought together. Even if just for a day or so, it’s hugely beneficial to allow people who have interacted virtually to come together, share personal details, and talk about family and life.
Many companies will take the money saved on office space for local employees and dedicate a portion of that to team building events for remote employees. Hotel rooms for a couple nights and a few good dinners can cost a fraction of an office space, and do wonders for a remote team.
Building a Strong Remote Team
Building a team that works well remotely requires attention, energy, and a strong commitment to communication from a manager. Natural interpersonal relationships that occur in an office space must be cultivated in a digital space. Likewise, managers must over-communicate on just about everything — deadlines, goals, expectations, feedback — to bridge the gap set about by a virtual connection.
That being said, remote teams can save companies money, and remote workers have shown that they are more productive than workers who come into an office. By following this guide to managing a remote workforce, you can build a remote team that will thrive and do the most for your business.