With developing technology, and a new emphasis on work-life balance, more workers than ever have joined the remote workforce. Gallup reports that the remote work trend continues to grow for companies across the US. In fact, while 39% of employees worked remotely in 2012, that number had risen to 43% by 2016.
And this isn’t only in the US. In 2017, collaboration platform Polycom conducted a survey of more than 24,000 workers, finding that 62% of the world’s workforce now takes advantages of “flexible working practices”, including working from somewhere other than a traditional workplace.
While this trend affords companies the luxury of hiring the best person for the job regardless of geographic location, it also poses some complications as far as management and cohesiveness within organizations. Here are five challenges facing managers who oversee remote workers, as well as some tips on how to handle them:
When you’re corresponding electronically, the nuances and emotions of facial expression and tone of voice get lost. And that can result in some sticky situations in the remote workforce.
“Most of our communication is email,” says Dayne Shuda, who has been managing a remote workforce since 2010 as the founder of Ghost Blog Writers. “It works great most of the time, but sometimes it’s challenging to make sure the right emotion and context are coming across.” Shuda says that sometimes employees are offended or hurt when that was not the intent, while at other times “it can be difficult to communicate urgency.” Being mindful of your word choice in electronic communication, or arranging for a quick video conference or phone call can mitigate these miscommunications.
“Because we all work remotely, I can’t just pop into somebody’s office to give them feedback,” says Kari DePhillips, founder of digital content agency The Content Factory.“Instead, I have to schedule a call or send it via email or Slack – this doesn’t bother me, but I’ve learned that it sometimes intimidates employees.” DePhillips says that because tone of voice tends to get lost over text, moderately negative feedback is sometimes perceived as severely negative. “When I give written feedback, I spend a little extra time making sure that the content conveys what I want it to say in a way that doesn’t make the person feel like they’ve failed,” says DePhillips. She also says she has increased the amount of positive feedback, so they’re not just constantly receiving criticism.
Building relationships and a company culture with team members across the country or internationally requires a more conscious effort than doing so in a traditional working environment.
According to Dr. Kim Turnage, co-author of Managing to Make a Difference, building relationships and company culture starts with onboarding remote workers. “Ensure there is both a team onboarding activity and time that the new employee spends with each team member one-on-one,” she says. “We have found that a structured get-to-know-you exercise can help facilitate and jump-start relationships.”
Companies need to be more intentional about facilitating these relationships when working with telecommuters. Dr. Turnage explains, “hallway chatter and meeting at the water cooler don’t happen when you work remotely. You need to find ways to help engineer this from the very beginning.”
Shuda says that building trust is key. “When everyone is located throughout the US, it’s difficult to build a sense of belonging.” To foster that feeling of cohesiveness, Shuda suggests private Facebook groups and frequent company newsletters to encourage interaction and keep remote workers up-to-date on company happenings.
Many remote workers have unique responsibilities and the luxury of working independently. However, this independence can hinder relationships and a cohesive company culture. At The Content Factory, DePhillips she says that most employees have a client or two, who they work with separately. “ Although there’s some teamwork required when working on big reports or client projects, most of the work is done independently.” However, DePhillips says that there’s a whole team of people on staff who have skills or knowledge that could be helpful.
To support collaboration among remote staff, DePhillips holds monthly meetings for each department and for the team as a whole. “Adding Slack channels that encourage collaboration and sharing of relevant information has also been helpful,” she says.
A full 98% of respondents to the 2017 Polycom survey believe that the ability to work remotely positively impacts productivity. While that’s an easy claim to make, how does an employer ensure the productivity of workers when they don’t share a physical space?
Anna-Vija McClain is a business efficiency expert, consultant, and president of Piccolo Marketing–– she says the key to tracking remote productivity is measuring their performance. “Unfortunately, not all remote workers are created equal, and if you don’t have a measuring stick for their performance, you can’t expect to manage it on the back end,” she says.
McClain says this is where all-inclusive project management tools can help.
“Keeping an open communication this way will allow you to spot potential problems, and eliminate roadblocks early, giving you a better remote worker experience.”
Read More: Top 7 Tips to Increase Employee Productivity
Currently an HR business partner for USA Today, Patrick Colvin has over 10 years experience coaching managers on communicating with remote employees. Colvin says it’s hard to measure the productivity of someone during a workday when you can’t simply walk over or see them at their desks. “In this case, you will have those who take advantage of the fact that there’s no one breathing down their necks. The key here is to set expectations, metrics, deadlines and work output goals the same as you would for the employees you can physically see in the office.”
Managing remote workers requires managers find ways to balance expectations with compromises. Keep in mind that your remote workers have chosen to work in a different location for a reason, and while this allows for new opportunities, it also takes some adjustment.
“The benefits of being a remote worker include the autonomy to work where and when you want,” says McClain. “If you are hiring a strictly remote worker and expect them to clock in for a regular workday, you may find your options limited.”
McClain says it’s important to set expectations around remote work that appeal to both parties, emphasizing availability for communication rather than formal work hours. “Maybe a remote worker is available to chat about project updates during normal business hours, but plans to do their own work on nights and weekends.” So McClain suggests being flexible. “ As long as there are clear deadlines, you can create a winning schedule”.
When managing a remote workforce, it’s crucial to promote open channels of communication which allow for collaboration. Studies find that remote workers want the ability to collaborate with their coworkers. For example, 62% of the Polycom respondents said they’d like access to collaborative technology that would help them connect with colleagues.
Colvin says, “managers should try to plan time for remote workers to be in the office periodically to collaborate and establish those personal connections with their other team members, giving them the opportunity to experience the company culture.”
DePhillips notes that adequately sharing knowledge between managers and their team members can also be a challenge. The solution? The Content Factory has created step-by-step, standardized protocols, explaining everything team members need to know about the target audience, individual clients, and more.
According to all our sources, the rate of remote workers will continue to grow in the next few years and beyond. Though this will necessitate a shift in company culture and management protocols, appropriate leadership will ensure an efficient, effective, and mutually-beneficial relationship.