According to a 2018 Global Workplace Analytics report, regular work-at-home grew 173% since 2005. This figure is almost 50 times faster than the growth of self-employment during the same period. The COVID-19 global pandemic has further accelerated what was already a fast-growing trend. With a large chunk of the workforce now forced to work from home, managers have to rethink what it means to lead highly motivated and productive teams.
It is now difficult to deny that remote employees are likely the way of the future long past the pandemic. An increasing number of employers are finding out that their organizations can continue to run successfully despite having a dispersed workforce.And organizations that have embraced their remote employees are reaping the benefits of a flexible workforce. These benefits include increased productivity, lower operating overheads, and highly engaged and motivated employees.
While many managers worry about coming to grips with this new reality, others are learning that they can trust their remote teams. There is a ray of hope for hesitant managers who worry about running successful remote teams. We’ve put together this guide to help you learn everything you need to know about managing remote employees.
Why Does Effectively Managing Remote Employees Matter?
As many managers have found out, overseeing a remote team is anything but simple. Challenges with poor communication, haphazard onboarding, scheduling, and tracking employee performance are bound to come up. Even so, there are successful examples of managers worldwide who are leading competent, cohesive, and productive remote teams.
What Does Success Look Like?
Transitioning from in-person to remote work can be challenging. It is also not always easy to gauge the impact, for better or worse, of your dispersed workforce. But, several qualities are synonymous with successful remote teams.
Managers Trust Their Teams
Part of a manager’s day-to-day job is checking in with staff. However, this is difficult when you cannot knock on doors or drop by an employee’s desk. Successful remote teams have deep trust between managers and their direct reports.
Managers of great remote teams trust their employee’s dedication and competence. These managers also understand that employees have personal and professional lives. Rather than spending time worrying whether employees are at their desks, these managers focus on employee outcomes.
Remote Employees Feel Connected
Timely communication is a significant challenge, especially with mixed teams. Often, in-office employees receive company-related news and updates ahead of their remote compatriots. This lag in communication can cause employees to feel disconnected or even isolated.
Successful remote teams have a strong sense of teamwork and feel connected to their projects. Additionally, the employees have access to the resources they need to get their jobs done. Chat platforms are an excellent resource for keeping remote employees connected.
These platforms are perfect for addressing work-related matters but can also mimic water cooler banter. In addition, successful remote teams have access to social channels that help them receive information and feedback quickly and allow them to interact and socialize with their colleagues.
Strong remote teams may also have occasional in-office meet-ups or retreats to bolster team building. Online games, brainstorming sessions, and video lunches are additional examples of team-building activities of successful remote employees who cannot meet in person.
While many managers worry about remote employee productivity, others have the opposite problem. For example, according to research from Buffer, 18% of remote hires report struggling with unplugging.
Technology has been instrumental in supporting remote work, but it can be difficult to set expectations. For example, some employees may feel that they are expected to be available 24/7. However, the most productive and happy remote teams have reasonable expectations regarding employee availability.
Additionally, successful teams can maintain a balance between hyper-productivity and potential burnout. Similarly, successful managers understand that it is not just about supplying their workforce with the technology it needs to be productive. Managers equally need to brief employees about how to use these tools optimally.
Jason Fried, the co-founder of Basecamp, notes that unnecessary meetings and micromanagers are the two biggest drains on productivity. Jason is hardly isolated in his view. According to Doodle, an online calendar tool, two-thirds of all meetings are unnecessary or a waste of time.
Remote employees are also increasingly reporting Zoom fatigue. This phenomenon refers to worry, tiredness, or burnout caused by video conferencing overuse. Self-motivated and productive remote teams require fewer and shorter meetings. This setup allows employees large chunks of uninterrupted time where they can focus on deep work.
Case Study: Dell
Dell is well known for its formal remote working program. However, this shift toward a more flexible workforce was largely accidental. Initially, managers gradually noticed increasing empty desks at the company’s UK headquarters. The empty desks were explained by an increasing number of employees opting to work out of the office, including at home, at client sites, or on the road.
After some quick calculations, it was determined that Dell could save significant sums by reducing its square footage. The company also realized it could save money on lighting, heating, maintenance, and general wear-and-tear by sectioning off areas no longer in use or shutting down entire floors.
But, Dell did not have a formal remote working policy. For the most part, individual line managers decided who could and couldn’t work from home. This is despite the issue of flexible working coming up repeatedly in the company’s engagement survey.
Dell decided to pilot a formal remote working program at its head office in Bracknell. The program would involve a small staff section, starting with HR, IT, finance, legal, and facilities departments. The company also incorporated its sales staff and Women’s Network when developing the scheme. These two teams already had extensive experience working remotely.
The company then created a dedicated page on the staff’s intranet where employees could access information about the program. Employees also had to fill out an application form to ensure that the staff’s role was suitable for remote working. The pilot program was an instant success, with Dell reporting increased employee engagement.
Dell eventually expanded its remote working program to cover its entire UK business. Currently, at least 65% of the company’s UK workforce work remotely between one and five days a week permanently. Some of the benefits Dell gleaned from its remote working program includes:
- External recognition, including being voted on of the “Top Employers for Working Families in the UK.”
- Improved employee retention
- Reduced carbon footprint
- High engagement scores
- Positive informal feedback
The program’s success also spurred Dell to create the global “Connected Workplace” to take its flexible working to its global workforce.
One Secret Weapon To Master Managing Remote Employees
If you could only choose one tool to help you master managing remote employees, it would have to be HR software. HR software comes packed with features to boost productivity, improve morale, reduce human errors, improve compliance, and track metrics such as turnover and hiring costs.
While you are spoiled for choice in the HR software market, Zenefits is arguably one of the best software suites for managing a remote team. The company recently launched two new features, People Hub and Employee Engagement Surveys. These features aim to solve some of the remote team’s most persistent challenges, including communication and employee engagement. The company even tested these features on its dispersed workforce and selected customers before rollout to the general public.
Other Zenefits features to help you efficiently manage a remote team includes:
- Create a compensation package
- Self-onboarding for new hires
- Managing employees with company directories and org charts
- Create and manage PTO policies
- Generate insights on turnover, employee compensation, and workforce diversity
- Offboarding employees
Zenefits offers three base plans starting at $8 per month per employee. You also have the option of tacking on more HR features and add-ons at an extra cost, allowing you to customize your product suite to your organization’s needs.
4 Essential Strategies for Managing Remote Employees
Some managers may be hesitant about leading a dispersed workforce. But, it is possible to lead a remote team successfully. Here are a few strategies to keep in mind when managing a distributed team.
1. It Starts With Hiring and Onboarding
If you haven’t already hired your remote employees, you can get a running start building your dream team. Remote workers offer a global talent pool, so you might want to keep this in mind when advertising open positions. Target job boards that offer the best talent mix for your organization.
Despite remote jobs being flexible, but be sure to highlight any conditions you might have. For example, employees may be required to work according to a specific time zone. You may also need employees to attend in-office meetings or make an occasional site visit. Specifying the terms of the remote job will prevent mismatched expectations when vetting candidates.
Additionally, there are specific characteristics that make good remote workers. These qualities include tech-savvy, self-motivated, collaborative, and skilled communicator. Think about the essential attributes you’ll be looking for in a remote worker and reference them when hiring candidates.
Remote jobs also tend to attract far more applicants than local jobs. Therefore, you may need to incorporate HR software to help you sort through the applications. Zenefits integrates with various applicant tracking systems, including Breezy, Jazz, Greenhouse, and Lever, to help you sort through the numerous applications.
Finally, create a comprehensive onboarding employee checklist for your new hires. Be sure to include sharing your remote work policy with your new hires. The policy should contain details like specific work hours and acceptable reasons to work from home.
For example, Shopify has a well-articulated work-from-home policy. The policy outlines the communication tools employees should use and how the choice of software impacts the team.
2. Equip Remote Teams With the Technology They Need
It’s impossible to set up a high-performing remote team if your employees aren’t equipped with the right technology. Issues such as slow computers or poor quality conferencing tools can set up your employees for failure. It is worth setting up a budget for equipping your full-time remote employees with the tools they need for their job.
Some of the things to think about include:
- Computer setup
- Remote desktop
- Virtual Private Network (VPN)
- Tech support
Dell is an exceptional example of how to equip remote teams for success. At Dell, each employee is issued a laptop. In addition, remote workers are eligible to receive office equipment, including a docking station, headset, keyboard and mouse, and monitor or laptop raisers.
Additionally, remote employees receive a stipend toward the purchase of office furniture. Employees are free to purchase furniture from their preferred supplier and include an ergonomic desk, ergonomic chair, surge protector, first aid kit, and lockable desk or filing cabinet.
3. Build a Strong Communication Culture
Poor communication is often the undoing of a remote team. Building a collaborative environment can be a challenge when employees aren’t sharing the same office building. Set up clear channels of communication to overcome this potential pitfall. This includes a single communication platform for the entire remote team.
The first step is ensuring that all team members have access to information. This way, nobody gets left out of the loop. There are two types of information to think about here:
Pulse information – This refers to information about day-to-day activities and projects. This information is dynamic, ongoing, and gets shared quickly.
Reference Information – Which refers to critical information that employees need to do their job. The internal documentation doesn’t change often and may include how reimbursements work and login credentials for systems and software.
Whatever the case, consider scrapping email as the primary communication tool. It is easy to leave some members out of a team email. Email is also not well suited for storing and retrieving reference information.
Instead, team chat tools let team members share information in real-time. Members can address each other directly and scroll old communication where needed. Consider also a central place to store and share documentation. Employees can retrieve the required internal documents with a simple click. HR software like Zenefits solves both these problems with its collaboration features.
For example, the People Hub, which is included in Zenefit’s Zen Plan, is built around the concept of communication. This feature offers a platform where employees can communicate and share critical documentation on a straightforward interface.
As remote teams grow, so does the information that gets shared. Therefore, it is equally important to filter information so that employees only see what is relevant to their position and function. You can easily overcome this problem by segmenting the information.
Consider setting up separate communication channels or rooms for specific types of information. For example, you can have a different medium for sales, marketing, support, and so on.
4. Conduct Individual Check-ins
We recognize the importance of cutting out unnecessary meetings. We also appreciate that there is a fine line between checking in and micromanaging. Still, it is essential to have one-on-one face time with your remote employees. Aim for an environment where employees feel free to approach you for one-on-one support where needed.
For most organizations, weekly check-ins should suffice. However, a quick 10-15 minute meeting with your employees can make a tremendous difference in communication and productivity. Additionally, be sure to indicate when and how employees can reach you outside of the allotted regular check-ins.
However, not every meeting needs to be face-to-face. To avoid Zoom fatigue, consider alternative communication such as chat or email. This is especially true for smaller or simpler issues that don’t require video conferencing.
Most Common Misconceptions of Remote Teams
We’ll end with a few common myths and misconceptions of remote teams.
Remote teams are less productive: Arguably, the most pervasive myth about remote teams is that they are less productive than in-office employees. In truth, remote employees deal with fewer distractions like office banter, unnecessary meetings, and long commutes. This leaves them more time to focus on their essential work tasks. In addition, when managers set clear goals, remote workers feel empowered to work at their best. Finally, some studies prove that employees are actually more productive when given the autonomy to work remotely.
Remote work requires a massive investment in equipment: Another common misconception is that remote workers need expensive and specialized equipment. On the contrary, the typical remote worker uses the regular laptop or desktop found in a retail store. Other equipment may include software, desk, and ergonomic chair. The cost of equipping flexible workers more than pays for itself in increased productivity and reduced in-office costs.
Virtual meetings are less effective: On the contrary, virtual meetings are more productive than in-office meetings. This is because the virtual environment doesn’t support endless non-essential small-talk. Instead, virtual workers tend to dive right into important discussions. Chat tools also help reduce the frequency of meetings. Employees can share or request information instantly and check-in in real-time.
The company culture suffers: Without the water cooler gossip and coworkers dropping in on each other, managers may be concerned about eroding the company culture. However, it is possible to bolster the company culture with frequent and effective communication. Managers who make a conscious effort to show virtual workers that they are valued also help to reinforce the company culture.
Managing a remote team effectively takes time and learning on the fly. However, any effort to effectively manage your remote team will pay off in increased productivity, lower overhead costs, and increased employee engagement.