Whether by design or necessity, remote workforce management is here to stay:
- Employers often find the skills and experience they need far beyond their workplace locations.
- Employees are seeking greater work hour flexibility and shorter commutes to reduce stress and balance personal and professional demands.
- Real estate is a costly expense, especially in major cities, hitting the employer as high office rent and the employee as a high cost-of-living. Reasonably-priced housing that’s reasonably close to the office in cities like San Francisco, New York and London has become unattainable for many workers.
Yet the benefits of a remote, mobile workforce are offset by downsides:
- Employer challenges include management and supervision, team-building, accountability and information security.
- For employees, the challenges include social well-being, opportunities to collaborate, maintaining visibility and blurred lines between professional and personal boundaries.
All employment arrangements come with their own advantages and disadvantages. In the case of the distributed workforce, obstacles can often be overcome by technology, clearly communicated policies, and remote management best-practices.
How to manage remote workers
LAC Group has been in the business of managing remote and distributed work teams for three decades, long before it became “a thing” with hundreds of employees working at client locations or from home throughout the U.S. and Europe. Following is our advice to companies that are considering or launching a remote workforce agenda.
Facilitate communication and collaboration
Communication is key. The first rule of managing a remote workforce is to make sure the adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy!
It’s important to keep remote workers engaged through active collaboration, information-sharing and open communication. Tools on the market like Slack, Yammer (the platform we use) and Salesforce Chatter are the workhorse tools to rely on, while virtual meetings can be conducted using tools like Citrix GoToMeeting, Cisco WebEx, Join.me and BlueJeans. Within seconds you can connect to remote workers for an impromptu discussion.
According to James Hurley, Deputy Director of Research & Intelligence and direct manager of a virtual team in our LibSource division:
“When working remotely, people tend to err on the side of being more proactive in their communication and their overall “presence”. Through our team’s use of Yammer, impromptu video chats, our research intake platform, the good-old telephone, and so on, as a manager I’m able to keep my fingers on the pulse of the comings, goings, and general workflow of the day.”
Recognize that technology alone is not the answer
Even with technology, creating a team bond can be a challenging endeavor. According to James:
“With the high volume of projects that stream across our desk, taking the silo approach is not an option. Projects often require a tight turnaround time, and with the variables of time-zone differences, shift changes, and the extended business hours of our day, we need to ensure projects are transitioned smoothly, requiring an amplified reliance on one another. We require the team to be responsive to one another.”
And technology does not convey the complete meaning, intent and emotion of human communications. James offers this view in that regard:
“Technology lacks the full ‘between the lines’ benefit of in-person body language. For every online note and quick video meeting, it’s crucial that we pay attention to how our messages will be perceived on the receiving end. And on the flip side, when judging messages that we receive from others, not to over-analyze the tone or tenor in the wrong way.”
Motivate and engage mobile workers
Instilling a sense of shared purpose and mission and sustaining it over time and distance can be achieved through continuous reminders. Provide clearly-defined goals and expectations, not unlike you would with any employee, near or far, and implement tools and processes that enable their achievement.
James believes strongly in being proactive about establishing bonds with mobile workers:
“Creating this bond in the brick and mortar setting is more passive, in that it occurs in a somewhat organic manner – e.g., noticing pictures of family on colleagues’ desks, socializing while getting a cup of coffee and so on. In the virtual setting, bonding happens over time, but establishing the connection requires encouragement of everyone to take the initiative.”
It’s also important to prioritize based on goals and deliverables, and not focus on time or rigid routines or other ways of dictating how and when the work gets done. The myth that remote workers are slacking off and less productive doesn’t hold up. In fact, remote workers often put in longer hours than average. That said, abuses can happen, even when responsibilities are clearly communicated.
As an example, we had an employee working in our LibSource division in a role that required some evening hours. While our managers felt they had been explicit in stating the required hours and allowable breaks during the evening shift, it often seemed that work needs during this schedule were of secondary concern to personal needs and family distractions. After much back-and-forth dialogue, the employee concluded that our scheduling requirements would not work for her, and she resigned.
Clear boundaries need to be established. We have come to recognize as an employer that simply because an employee works from home doesn’t mean he or she is always available! And conversely, remote workers need to recognize that even though they are at home, they still have work and schedule duties to fulfill and expectations to meet.
Offer guidance and mentoring
Onsite workers enjoy support that happens in-the-moment because they are physically together. Yet we have found that our remote workers help each other, and especially help new employees, through virtual mentoring and guidance. Employers can set the stage by encouraging lateral communication and interaction among team members. Arrangements can be made to pair remote workers up with each other, or with a partner who works onsite. And managers can be available and encourage the building of networks across teams, departments and divisions.
Balance differences between onsite and offsite workers
Making sure everyone feels equally included can go a long way, especially if most of your team is onsite in the same facility and only a few are remote. You don’t want to convey an “us versus them” attitude or alienation. Remote workers may feel like forgotten outsiders when onsite workers are insensitive to their feelings of isolation or separation.
Sometimes it’s the employees working in the office who feel put out. We had a situation with a remote employee who would not actively participate during online team meetings. He was often hard to reach, and his replies took an inordinately long time in comparison to the rest of the team. Ultimately this lack of harmony and availability caused mistrust and dissention.
Encourage social opportunities
A great deal of job satisfaction can come from social activities. That’s why we encourage gatherings for social events and support local volunteer projects in cities where we have several employees. Our “virtual” water cooler in Yammer enables anyone to share personal news, stories, photos and interests to develop relationships and build camaraderie. We recognize birthdays, anniversaries, new additions to families and other life events that bring us all closer together, even if we are geographically distant.
Employee and employer remote work differences
Even with all the advantages of a distributed, mobile workforce, a divide continues between employees and employers. According to research by Great Place to Work, flexible working is a top priority for nearly a quarter of employees, who want the ability to work some or all of the time from home or another remote location. Many also would prefer to compress their required work hours into fewer days.
Yet some employers cling to the perception that employees who work from home or some other non-office location do not work as hard, even though that perception narrows the pool of recruiting talent and impacts the job satisfaction of current employees.
One of the biggest misconceptions about managing remote workers is that it requires an entirely different skillset.
“We have a tendency to overcompensate and approach remote workers and virtual teams as these mythical beasts,” says Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD. “But you shouldn’t think about them in a fundamentally different way. They are still people working in an organization to get stuff done. Treat them as such.”
My 20+ years of experience in human resources, and time spent as a remote-based employee myself, has taught me one thing above all else – any obstacle can be overcome with the right people. One final observation from James supports this assessment:
“Despite everyone being spread across the country, coast to coast, I can honestly say this is one of the most collaborative team environments which I’ve been a part of. I think this is due to the people on the team more than anything else. I think it breaks down to the fact that a good employee is a good employee, regardless of where they sit all day.”
In the end, we believe at LAC Group that the challenges of managing a remote, distributed workforce are worth the many rewards.