Offering remote work opportunities to your employees can provide a number of benefits to your team including reducing your corporate footprint as well as providing additional flexibility and time to your staff. Yet, sustaining a strong, cohesive workforce when some or all of your staff is remote is not without its challenges. Maintaining a relationship of trust between employee and manager, fostering a spirit of team camaraderie, and providing coaching, mentoring and development opportunities all need to be part of the overall formula for a successful remote workforce.
In my current engagement, we maintain a high-functioning team that works remotely anywhere from a few days per week to full-time. While the opportunity to work offsite started as a perk to team members who had been working at our in-house agency for more than a set amount of time, it is now a necessity due to physical space constraints. It has also become a key retention tactic in a competitive market for top tier talent. Over time, we have learned a few tricks of the trade shared in this piece.
It Starts at the Interview
Working remotely is not for everyone. Some people need to go to a physical location and be with other people in order to be effective and happy. Those who will be successful working remotely are those who are self-motivated, task-driven, don't need continuous on-the-spot feedback, and can work independently a good portion of the time. During the interview process, look for candidates who speak in detail about how they overcame obstacles themselves, are self-aware of their abilities and weaknesses, push through challenges without assistance, and complete tasks with little to no instruction.
Communication Is Key
Be certain to establish standards for communication, availability, and accessibility at the start of a new hire's engagement. Remote work does not necessarily mean flexible hours; if you expect your staff to be available during normal business hours, make sure to say so up front.
With a team that is working remotely, it's nearly impossible to over-communicate. In addition to team status meetings and one-on-ones, staff should be ready to frequently check in and provide updates on progress and project status, allowing managers to easily keep track of each team member's workload and availability and also help overcome any hurdles or blockers. During team and client meetings, individuals should be encouraged to speak and offer their ideas and thoughts; in this way, each team member will retain their own voice and remain connected and in contact with the team.
Ultimately, we want each team member to feel connected and engaged. Studies have shown that occasional time spent face-to-face will help remote employees establish rapport with their peers and enhance team camaraderie. A regularly scheduled on-site team meeting will provide the needed occasional face-to-face time, and can help team members establish and sustain those connections. Depending on your team's unique circumstances and needs, such a meeting might occur weekly, monthly, or even quarterly. Teams that occasionally socialize outside the office also reap the benefits of enhanced connections and better productivity.
Tools of the Trade
Obviously email and cell phones will be used to keep in touch with a remote workforce, but other tools play an important role as well. Instant messaging tools such as Lync and Jabber not only permit team members to stay in constant contact, but also give insight into when people are online and available. While these applications can feel a bit like "big brother," they are important to a manager's ability to keep their finger on the pulse of staff availability. They also keep peers, other team members, and even clients in touch with one another despite the physical separation. Video conferencing applications such as Skype, GoToMeeting, or WebEx can allow for screen sharing to provide on-the-spot feedback, creation of documents as well as other forms, and coaching and collaboration. Video conferencing also keeps team members focused and helps them avoid multitasking.
Good estimating practices along with strong overall metrics gathering and analysis lay the foundation for the success of a remote workforce. Once a manager is familiar with the level of effort required for a given task, they should be able to assign activities to the project team and have confidence in the estimated turnaround time. When making assignments to remote workers, the estimated level of effort to complete the task should always be clearly communicated as well as any other critical expectations. Tracking time, measuring efficiencies for discrete tasks, monitoring billable vs. non-billable time, and having open discussions around metrics keep the whole team focused and on task.
We have found that the ability to work remotely is perceived as a great benefit to our staff and has helped us preserve a very low attrition rate while increasing efficiencies. By understanding the potential pitfalls and managing to them, we have been able to retain a high-performing team of remote and semi-remote staff.