Tips for managing a distributed workforce

remote-workforce

Whether by design or necessity, remote workforce management is becoming an imperative for employers that want to:

  • Attract and retain the best people, no matter where they are, by removing barriers like geography or commute times.
  • Increase productivity by giving workers more flexibility to balance their time and obligations.
  • Save real estate costs and constraints by reducing their office footprint.

The perceived downside may be the burden of managing remote workers. Yet that management burden is no more onerous than the burdens of managing onsite workers. It’s about applying common sense and basic principles, most of which apply to all employees.

How to manage remote workers

We have some advice for managing a remote and distributed workforce, gleaned from years of experience managing employees who are engaged in client projects from coast to coast and in the UK, as well as our own staff working from home or in one of our offices.

Connect and communicate

Greg Galaida, LAC Group’s own HR manager, said it well when he quipped,

“The first rule of managing a remote workforce is to make sure the old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Keep remote workers visible through active collaboration, information sharing and open communication. Technology platforms like Slack, Yammer and Salesforce Chatter are a necessity. It’s critical to choose a platform based on your culture and needs, rather than popularity, and it’s also important to learn it inside and out.

How LAC Group uses technology for remote workforce communication

We have been using Yammer internally, throughout all our divisions. But as of January 2017, the Enterprise tier will be going away and we will be transitioning to another option. (Click here for more on Microsoft’s plans for Yammer, which will remain available with Office 365 services.)

Sometimes these platforms get frustrating, whether it’s continual interruptions or discussion threads that seem to scroll forever, hiding that one piece of information you need. But they are invaluable for both communication and knowledge management.

Along with online collaboration, the other critical technology that enables remote workforce management is online conferencing and meeting tools. While we use BlueJeans, a number of options are available. And don’t limit their use to regularly scheduled meetings. Within minutes, you can connect to a remote worker online and see each other for impromptu discussion as fast and easy as walking down the hall.

Motivate and engage workers

You can motivate and engage your remote workers by instilling a sense of shared purpose and mission and sustaining it through continuous reminders. Provide clearly-defined goals and expectations and implement tools and processes that enable their achievement.

It’s also important to prioritize based on goals, work product and deliverables, and not focus so much on time or when the work gets done. The myth that remote workers are slacking off and working less doesn’t hold up under examination. In fact, remote workers may put in longer hours.

Offer guidance and mentoring

Onsite workers enjoy support that happens in-the-moment, just because they are together. A helping hand is extended just when it’s needed. Yet as remote workers become accustomed to being online, technology can enable similar instant support through a phone call or online chat.

We have found that our remote workers help each other, and especially help new employees, through 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.

The support of the remote worker’s direct manager is crucial. Perhaps the best thing managers can do is be available, offer recommendations and encourage linkages with co-workers, especially fellow remote workers.

Balance the differences and inconveniences

Some employees across far-flung geographic boundaries and time zones may feel like outsiders. Making sure everyone feels equal and included can go a long way, especially when most of the team is onsite and in the same facility and only a few are remote. You don’t want to convey an “us versus you” attitude. You don’t want the remote worker feeling left out when you discuss that great lunch everyone had together or some other shared experience.

Encourage social opportunities. We have done local volunteer projects in cities where we have several employees working. We enable our geographically dispersed workforce to talk about personal news and interests, share photos and tell stories and jokes through our “virtual” water cooler. Set up as a group in Yammer, it’s a fun and popular way to develop relationships and build camaraderie. We also recognize birthdays, anniversaries, new additions to families and other life events that bring us all closer together, even when we are geographically distant.

Yet all that said, if possible, schedule occasional face-to-face meetings. No technology can fully substitute for personal interaction.

What the data say about remote workers and telecommuting

According to the American Time Use Survey reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (US Department of Labor) in 2015, over one-third of workers in management, business, and financial operations worked from home either some of the time or all of the days they worked.

Yet many people who could work from home, at least part of the time, are not doing so. That may be their preference, but it’s also possible that it’s not an option. We wonder why that is, when there are many advantages.

If people who are able to work from home did so even half the time, , the benefits would be substantial. According to analysis of the US Census Bureau’s 2005-2014 American Community Survey conducted by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, the national savings could exceed $700 billion a year, including:

  • For the business – savings of $11,000 per person per year.
  • For the remote workers – savings between $2,000 and $7,000 per year.
  • For the environment – greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce off the road.

Are you an employer who could accommodate remote workers, yet hesitate to make it available? If so, consider the costs, starting with the workers themselves. Increasingly, people view the option to work from home or another remote location as a nice-to-have perk; some make it a requirement. You may be narrowing your pool of recruiting talent by denying it.

The challenges of managing a remote, distributed workforce are worth the rewards. We hope these tips help you see that allowing more people to work from home is worth consideration.