“How do you manage someone you never actually meet?” – the unlikely, but increasingly common question racking creative companies the world over.
While many companies are starting to grasp the advantages of hiring remote workers, not everyone has considered the infrastructure they’ll need to actually sustain them. Nor do they know how to measure employee progress, enable smooth collaboration or build team relationships within a virtual space.
Along with creativity and open-mindedness, managing remote workers requires a slightly different skillset. Nail it first time round with these tried-and-tested pointers.
Communicate openly and often
A huge amount of potential remote worker problems stem from poor communication. While it’s easy to let regular communication slide (especially when you’re in different time zones), it’s not good for collaboration in the long-run. Even though you may completely trust your remote staff to do their job, you still need to have frequent contact with them. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got an ocean and two continents between you; friendly, honest and open communication is vital to every healthy remote work culture.
Your remote workers need to feel included, up-to-date on what’s going on and comfortable approaching you with any problems. So set up semi-regular one-to-one meetings with your remote staff to create a safe space for honest feedback, and make sure you encourage “virtual” socialization. Remote work communication has a tendency to become transactional, as people need to set straight their expectations and deadlines, so just investing time for friendly, unpressured communication goes a huge way to keeping things warm and human.
Technology has a huge role to play in all of this, so consider which tools are best for your team. You need to ensure a smooth knowledge exchange, so remote workers receive all relevant news and can quickly overcome any bottlenecks or obstacles. But you also need to communicate in ways that respect time zones, productive cycles and different schedules. Establish the purpose of your different communication channels, set “availability” contact times and choose collaboration tools which make catching up effortless – Trello and Slack are great for this.
Set boundaries early
Working remotely affords a lot of flexibility, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set boundaries from the beginning. Make sure you’ve explained your team’s workflows, daily availability and key contacts for each project or department. To really utilize remote workers successfully you need to establish clearly defined procedures and project management systems. Consider:
How are you expected to communicate? Will you be using collaboration tools and boards, or do you prefer to use instant messaging, video conferencing, or email?
What’s your expected turnaround time? If you expect replies to queries within a certain timeframe, communicate it!
When will the team communicate? Do you want regular catch-ups every day, or at the end of the week? Remember to take different time zones into consideration.
How can people can ask for help, and how will it be given? If your remote worker is overwhelmed with work, what processes are in place to help them?
Track team progress
Employee tracking is also key to sustainable virtual work – for team visibility and accountability, rather than anything sinister or distrustful. Without any physical separation between work and home, it’s easy to burn out when working remotely. Time tracking is a simple way of helping managers stabilize and balance the workflow of remote teams, by seeing who needs a bit extra to do, and who’s spread too thinly.
But it’s also pretty useful for remote workers themselves. By understanding exactly how they use their time, remote workers can introduce effective measures to better structure their time, improve productivity and address workflow bottlenecks. By sharing their activity with colleagues, it also affords teams a simple way of staying up-to-date on what everyone’s working on and check they’re pulling in the right direction. Essentially, they allow virtual teams to become masters of their own time.
Luckily, employee time tracking doesn’t have to add any extra hassle into your team’s workload; automatic time trackers can follow everything you work on and create timesheets for you in the background. Just make sure they actually serve your employees’ interests; only some time tracking apps protect employee privacy, so everyone feels comfortable using it.
Meet up in person
Meeting in person can be expensive, particularly if you’re spread around the globe, but you should still aim to have a full meet-up with your virtual team at least once a year. Even if it’s just an annual get together for a few days, the return on investment can be huge. People are able to put faces to names, communicate frankly and get to know each other as people, not colleagues – things that are integral in promoting a happy and healthy work culture.
Knowing who your team members are, working to the same goals, and feeling on the same page are essential if you want to have meaningful remote working relationships. And doing fun things outside of work – even for a day – can build more of a bond than a year of remote working. But if this just isn’t an option financially, think about setting up social video events or running company-wide activities to let employees connect with each other. It’s not quite the same, but seeing each others’ faces and chatting in real-time helps strengthen relationships and keep motivation high. Just knowing your company values that sort of communication also sends a very strong culture signal.