“You lucky *%@#!” was the less than polite response I regularly received from friends and colleagues when they discovered I was working from home. Admittedly this was when they found out where my ‘home’ was; at the time, we were living near Geneva, Switzerland, with a spectacular view of the mountains from my home office. These days, as a business mentor and management consultant in the Cardiff area I do not get quite the same level of envy, but the challenges with remote working require similar strategies.
Of course, not everything is as ideal as it seems at first. At that time I was employed by a multinational company in the oil and gas industry, so my ‘working at home’ were really the periods spent in between frequent overseas trips. The only upside of the jet-lag was that I could be available for the inevitable conference calls at all hours of the day and night!
As you would expect, communication is everything when working remotely. Capable managers should be able to adapt their style to managing remote teams confidently, but if you struggle with supervising people in your office environment then those drawbacks will likely have even greater negative outcomes if you are managing remote employees. Leadership coaching can be effective for developing the communication and time-management skills which are essential for overseeing remote teams.
Being part of a remote team and subsequently managing other remote teams has taught me some valuable lessons for maintaining morale and performance. Here are my 6 guidelines:
1. BUILD THE CULTURE
Company ‘culture’ is not a buzzword, it has a real effect on the well-being and productivity of its employees. The culture of a company is normally well understood by the office-based workers. Policies, ethics and vision statements are often displayed and even the office layout and environment help communicate the personality of the organisation. A culture that is consistent with the values and needs of an employee can be a powerful motivator helping to create a happier and more productive workplace.
Not being embedded within the organisational culture can leave the remote employees directionless and disengaged, which can be disastrous for your business if they are in customer-facing roles.
Use every opportunity to communicate values, policies and goals to ensure that your employees understand how their behaviour needs to reflect your company culture. Videos and slideshows are simple tools to incorporate as part of every conference call. Your intranet site, desktop images and screensavers can continuously reinforce your messaging. Also, don’t underestimate the power of company merchandise to communicate your culture as well as your brand with your employees and customers.
For us in the oil and gas industry our primary focus is always on safety and we reinforce this element of our culture at every opportunity. Each meeting or teleconference features a ‘safety moment’ to share a case study, an incident or an initiative that reflects our absolute focus on keeping our employees safe in and out of the workplace.
2. GET TO KNOW EACH OTHER BETTER
Easy to say, not so easy to execute effectively. Especially if you have the added challenge of team members spread across several time zones and with potential cultural differences to overcome.
Face-to-face meetings are always going to be easier and video-conferencing can never fully compensate. Non-verbal signals and body language are an important part of how we communicate and interpret other people’s behaviour, without these cues misunderstanding is common.
It is important to meet your team face-to-face as soon as you can to build relationships and understand what makes them tick. Getting the whole group together routinely is ideal but failing that you must make the effort to meet individually.
Getting to know each other in person will enable you to communicate more clearly and effectively together, strengthening the relationships and trust between your team members, which will go a long way to building motivation and productivity.
3. DON’T LET ANYONE FEEL ISOLATED
Everyone benefits when morale is high and employees are motivated. However, it is easy for remote workers to feel insecure when they are ‘out of sight, out of mind’. As a manager, you need to adopt proactive communication to build team spirit and maintain the engagement of your employees.
You need to gauge how often to touch base informally with your people; some may need more mentoring and support than others.
At the very least, use routine (quarterly, as a minimum) performance reviews to assess your employees’ well-being and motivation. Take time to coach your people if you feel they need some extra attention. Also, make sure that they feel they have the same opportunities for self-improvement and career-development as their office-based colleagues.
Everyone likes to feel involved in appropriate decision-making discussions, so don’t forget to invite your team as virtual attendees for employee forums or announcement meetings.
We all enjoy a pat on the back as appreciation for work well done, so remember to always recognise your remote employees and ensure they receive attention for their efforts.
4. USE BUT DON’T OVERUSE TECHNOLOGY
Technology has given us the ability to communicate effectively, but it needs to be used appropriately to avoid becoming a curse.
It’s a no-brainer to use technology for teleconferencing, videoconferencing, quick messaging, calendar sharing and intranet collaboration. Most businesses now benefit from using a CRM platform, and if implemented properly it will allow your remote sales team to stay connected. I have also at times found it invaluable to use cloud-based software for managing project tasks and for group preparation of large documents such as tenders. There are plenty of resources online to compare the features of these products, so I won’t mention them further here.
The invention of email has allowed more and more people to work remotely, so it has to be a good thing, right? Paradoxically, because it is over-used and abused, email is no longer an effective way to engage in meaningful collaboration and conversation. Use it sparingly and always consider if a quick telephone conversation wouldn’t be a better approach, thereby also giving you the opportunity to reinforce the personal relationship with your people.
5. ESTABLISH A CALL ROUTINE AND STICK TO IT
One of the challenges of remote working is the self-discipline to keep a routine. As a manager, you can help with this by setting up your regular catch-up calls at fixed times. Whether your routine calls are one-on-one or you make use of team conference calls, the routine will help to anchor your employees’ schedules and help them with planning.
A huge frustration with remote working is the background noise, interference and echoes you have to deal with on teleconferences. So be prepared to experiment with the various tools and technologies to get the most from your communications. For example, you may find a conference-call suits your routine team updates, while webinars enhance information-sharing meetings among a larger group, or video-conferencing may work better for you with one-on-one discussions.
A useful technique I have found to aid regular verbal communication is to set aside time periods each week on your calendar and make it clear that these are just for calls from your employees should they need to discuss anything with you. This makes you easily accessible without any clumsy back-and-forth on ‘when is the best time to call’.
6. ASSIGN CLEAR ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES, THEN TRACK AND SHARE RESULTS
I find that individuals are more motivated and productive when they are given accountability for a task, a project or an initiative. By assigning responsibility you give a sense of ownership, and this can be an especially effective motivator if the outcome has a shared effect on the team’s performance.
Where appropriate, do not always assign tasks that suit the individual’s obvious strengths, challenge them to work on activities that will improve their skills and competencies. But ensure that the workload is realistic and spread evenly across the team.
Giving a group shared visibility to all the team members’ responsibilities, progress and achievements will encourage collaboration and create peer pressure to improve productivity. Find a simple way to track performance, perhaps a scorecard or dashboard shared on your intranet.
There is a temptation to micromanage the work of a remote team, but this only leads to a lack of trust and damages morale. Micromanaging is not necessary if roles and responsibilities are thoroughly defined and agreed upon, with key performance indicators clearly specified, documented and routinely tracked.
Lastly, make sure you measure and evaluate the performance of any remote employees with the same methods and metrics as those of your office based workers.
Remote working is now easier than ever and it can greatly benefit your business. By utilising remote employees, you can reduce your cost base and gain access to high calibre people who may not be prepared to move location. Some small businesses feel unable to expanding sales into new geographies for fear of not being able to effectively manage remote employees to achieve optimum sales performance.
It should not be a daunting prospect. In the first place you need to ensure your team members are self-starters with the right mindset and organisation skills (and are good communicators of course!). The manager has to be confident, well-organised and above all a clear communicator in order to create a motivated and productive team.
What are your experiences with working remotely or managing a remote team?
I help companies drive growth, strengthen performance and improve productivity. I am a business management consultant and mentor focused on delivering exceptional results.