In an ever changing global business landscape, businesses, and other organizations constantly seek new ways to streamline resources, reduce over-head, and reach new geographical regions without opening satellite offices. Offering telecommuting positions to accomplish these goals has grown in popularity among large businesses, small businesses, and government agencies. With improvements in technologies to make telecommuting both possible, and efficient, telecommuting opportunities continue to increase.
Managing remote workers, however, is a challenge most businesses venturing into the world of telecommuting struggle with initially, and a concern that keeps many businesses in more traditional modes of managing personnel.
If you’re a business owner, or manager considering moving to telecommuting policies, it is important to know that there are well researched, and documented strategies for successfully managing remote workers. Such policies have been researched, and implemented by other successful telecommute friendly organizations such as Amazon, Dell, UnitedHealth Group, and Federal Government Agencies coast-to-coast.
What are some of those challenges that concern managers with telecommute initiatives? An MIT study in 2009 showed the most common concerns are communication challenges, resulting in a lack of trust, a lack of team unity, a lack of shared responsibility, and a lack of commitment by team members when working on achieving team goals. Also, business leaders felt managing remote workers could lead to a failure to develop task-related processes, clear goals, and standards, while lacking ways to effectively collaborate while taking advantage of team member skills, and expertise.
However, even these concerns shouldn’t dissuade managers, or business owners from implementing work from home policies. The noted benefits of having a virtual workforce should far outweigh these concerns. Advantages such as cost reductions, increased sharing of knowledge of markets, and best practices, and geographic diversity with the ability to cover multiple time-zones, or even continents, are all compelling factors that have driven so many other businesses to move more, and more toward virtual workforces.
Working to the benefit of business is the ever increasing, and rapidly expanding technology capabilities that can be leveraged to facilitate these business initiatives. Managing remote workers becomes much easier, and less frustrating for managers, and the remote workers as well when technology is properly utilized. Technologies such as hosted VOIP based telephone, and office communication systems, unified communications, instant messaging, video teleconference, paperless document management, secure electronic signatures, cloud based collaboration platforms, and cloud based data storage..And, of course, backed by an expanding high-speed broadband, and wireless broadband infrastructure that is reaching more remote locations all the time.
There’s no real mystery behind managing remote workers, although previous research has definitely outlined some guidelines to make it easier. One pitfall that some managers fall into is thinking that remote workers have to be managed in fundamentally different ways than traditional office workers. When it comes down to it, they’re still people working for an organization, and toward a common goal. Treating them fundamentally differently can cause feelings of alienation. However, focus must be put toward keeping open lines of frequent communication with virtual workers, and with the teams they need to collaborate with in order to help virtual workers feel connected to their teams.
Fortunately this is an area where I have direct experience. As a business owner handling a contract that required field services in the healthcare market throughout North America, the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific, having a virtual workforce was the most effective, and efficient way to provide the services our clients demanded, while keeping control on expenses. We leveraged technologies effectively, including unified communications, and central document storage, which was vital since my technicians where not only a technical implementation, and technical support team, but also acted as traveling project managers of these multi-million dollar implementations. With a mix of direct employees, and contracted technicians from multiple geographic areas, we were able to balance service levels, and travel times, with productivity, and even allowed our contractors extra time at home; after all, life-work balance is important for everyone, and happy workers tend to be more effective, and loyal workers. We effectively became a virtual company, providing an unequaled level of service to our clients!
Here is our list of the top 5 best Practices for Virtual Companies in managing remote workers:
Keep virtual workers in close communication.
This one should speak for itself. One of the benefits of having a co-located staff is seeing them everyday, allowing them the opportunity to directly communicate with each other, and management, and being able to directly communicate with them in real-time when necessary. Communication with remote teams can be a little different since fact-to-face contact within moments is not always possible, but keeping open lines of communication is both possible, and essential. Advances in technology to unify communication systems, and of course the proliferation of mobile devices make this extremely easy these days.
Best practices state there are guidelines, and expectations that should be clearly laid out, and required. Expectations such as how long it should take to respond to emails, what follow-up steps should be taken, and set days, and times for remote workers to “check-in” with a phone call. Without such structure, remote workers will begin to feel isolated, forgotten, or even inconsequential. Remote workers should understand they are obligated to meet these requirements as part of their position. The use of instant messengers, and other virtual collaboration tools should also be encouraged.
2. Create a collaborative team environment.
Managing remote workers is still a team building process. Co-located workers, and remote workers might perform their duties over a physically disperse geographical region, but ultimately they wear the same team uniform, and have the same team goals. Although some healthy competition, and cooperation can help fuel performance, a manager still needs to be cognizant of the importance of building a collaborative team environment.
Now, a collaborative team environment might seem to imply that everyone gets along all of the time. This is not the case. Without some conflict, whether it be opposing ideas, or simply stating unpleasant truths, team members might be withholding ideas, or suppressing their own viewpoints, which are backed by their unique knowledge, and experience. If ideas are suppressed in an effort to keep the peace, or not upset other team members, there are lost opportunities for growth, or efficiency. Without this input, the team can be losing out on the very benefits of having a diversity among team members.
As a manager, each team member needs to know that they are valued, and their opinions within their role on the team are important.
In my role as a virtual manager, any time my team came together in one place, which was usually for the purposes of R&D or training, I made sure that we set aside time during that visit to all be in each other’s presence, discuss problems, issues, concerns, or simply new challenges that we were facing, and I facilitated a round-table discussion on how we could best achieve results in dealing with those obstacles. Whether it was based around process workflows, or simply the rigors of working independently, and traveling daily, we had open discussions, created lists of solutions, and then implemented policies, and best practices based on those meetings.
3. Establish performance standards, and clarify expectations
Regardless of their physical location, the expectations, and requirements set with remote workers shouldn’t vary greatly from those set with co-located workers. Again, they’re all part of the same team, so extreme differences in requirements may create feelings of animosity, or alienation.
The establishment of performance standards is essential. Managing remote workers, for the most part, eliminates the ability to observe their work, and results directly. Furthermore, working with remote workers who may all come from different cultural, or business backgrounds can create major breakdowns in performance, and communication if these expectations are not clearly laid out. Expectations should outline the team goals, and how each member is to go about achieving those goals. It should also include expected communication standards, and behavior standards, as noted in the first bullet-point regarding communication.
Have I mentioned communication is really important? I think I may have.
Along with this, be sure to recognize the positive accomplishments of your remote workers. Celebrating goal achievement, and other successes helps all employees feel noticed, which is especially important for remote workers to have a tendency to feel invisible, or ignored due to their physical distance from the office.
4. Adapt coaching strategies to managing remote workers
Getting in the same room with the people that you manage is still important. As I noted from my own personal example, natural opportunities to get teams together should be taken advantage of for team building, and learning sessions. However, regularly scheduled visits with each team member should also be on the agenda.
There isn’t a whole lot of research in the arena of how often in-person visits should occur. Predictability is more important than frequency in this regard, and obviously travel budgets will play a role in dictating what is possible. If your remote worker knows you will be there to visit, observe, and assist every three months, or six months, it does build consistency, rapport, and trust. Just as important, the manager must put a genuine effort into understanding each worker’s unique environment, and workflow. Join in on sales-calls, conference calls, or project updates so you can see their position as a remote worker from their perspective.
Since managing remote workers means you don’t have frequent, direct access to observe their performance, this is another area where technology can help. Regular “touch-base” review calls should be scheduled to look at performance metrics, and daily activities. Such deliverables that can be reviewed by indirect observation are any required documents, or reports, their completion status, and if they’re delivered on time. Email communications between team members, and clients, contributions by team members on conference calls, or in group discussions, and any team goal metrics such as sales quotas, sales activity, or customer satisfaction feedback gives the manager valuable insight into the performance of remote workers.
5. Build a trust-based working environment
In the above sections, I’ve noted items such as communication, collaboration, clarity, and consistency. Each of these concepts goes toward creating trust, and is effective in doing so, but they are not the whole picture.
Within managing remote workers, or any team of people, it is important that the team members get to know each other. Personal knowledge between team members: their strengths, the areas where they’re not as strong, their backgrounds, and their experiences. Consider creating a team page using a cloud based collaboration service, or your company’s CRM platform, complete with team member biographies to allow local, and virtual employees to learn more about each other. Set policies that encourage team members to treat each other just as if they were working face-to-face. Policies such as making every effort to be on time for conference calls, and web meetings, and communicating in advance anything that might cause them to miss important meetings or deadlines. Shared calendars within unified communications helps improve transparency, as does consistency, following through on commitments, and meeting your own expectations as a manager.
In conclusion, managing remote workers doesn’t have to involve the reinvention of already established management, and coaching policies. Awareness to the unique challenges that come with virtual teams, and adherence to established management policies, and expectations can keep your remote workers feeling like part of the team, while raising everyone’s level of accountability, and productivity. There is much to be gained by implementing remote work policies. Follow the above advice, and your organization can reap the benefits!