Best Practices For Managing Remote Employees
By: Chloe Sesta Jacobs | April 8, 2020
6 Mistakes Workforce Managers Can Make (and What to do Instead)
Managing a team is an art in itself. Throw in the additional challenges that arise when that team is dispersed across the city, the country, or even the world, and it can mature a lot to handle… especially for those managers who have been unexpectedly thrown in the deep end as a result of a global crisis.
The Rise of Remote Working
Remote working was practically unheard of until the 1970s. In fact, it wasn’t until 1973 that the idea was even put forward. Former NASA engineer Jack Nilles published a book called ‘The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff’, introducing the idea to a world that had become accustomed to the 5-day, 40-hour workweeks adopted by businesses like the Ford Motor Company in the 1920s, and the office cubicle which came about in the 1960s thanks to researcher Robert Propst.
Of course, over the past few years, the widespread implementation of technologies such as cloud computing, which enables us to access information from anywhere, at any time, has rapidly accelerated remote working towards being the new norm. Many organizations may have been starting out a remote team and testing the waters, but right now many of us can’t afford to dabble; it’s time to dive in.
We’re amid a global pandemic. And while we can’t say with any certainty what’s going to happen, what we do know is that the remote working landscape will be forever changed. We have businesses all over the world who, like it or not, have had no choice but to enable employees to work from home in line with Government guidelines on social distancing, so it’s time to fast track remote working. Now is the time to venture beyond the basics, and delve deeper into not just starting a remote team, but actually building a strong and capable remote team that truly delivers exceptional results.
Introducing the Challenge
Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced a number of businesses to bypass many of the essential stepping stones to creating effective remote working policies to ensure the safety of their valuable employees. This means that many managers and team leaders are finding that they’re being faced with the challenges of remote working without having fully prepared for the situation. Here, we’re going to explore some of the most common issues facing managers of remote teams and demonstrate best practices for managing remote employees to address these challenges.
Overall, the biggest mistake managers can make when managing their remote employees are:
- Expecting a seamless transition
- Using the wrong tools
- Overlooking team building
- Assuming everyone knows everything
- Running before you can walk
- Forgetting about professional goals
Mistakes Happen, Let’s Expand and Solve
1. Expecting a Seamless Transition
Let’s be honest. It takes time to adjust to any sort of workplace change, and moving from managing an on-site team to leading in a remote working environment isn’t always easy. Don’t expect this to be a completely seamless and straightforward transition. Instead, see this for what it is: a brand new work setting for your employees. When bringing a new hire into the workplace, you wouldn’t expect them to know how they were expected to behave within this particular setting, would you? No. And that’s exactly why many organizations are prioritizing the creation of powerful onboarding processes.
Onboarding is a technique that managers can borrow to help remote workers adjust and adapt to their new working environment. While the exact process will be different for all businesses, and perhaps for all teams, onboarding could include online presentations, training courses, and interactive content that lays out the groundwork for remote working and helps employees understand what’s expected of them in this new setting. It’s also a good idea to work with other managers to create an easy-to-search knowledge base where employees can find all the information they need to successfully transition.
And while businesses may not be looking to take on any new hires right now, it’s worth considering how onboarding your existing employees can be good practice for onboarding new remote hires in the future. With organizations getting a taste of the benefits of remote working, we can reasonably expect virtual teams to become more commonplace even after social distancing regulations are relaxed. By understanding your team’s needs and requirements at this time, and finding ways to guide them, it’ll be easier to bring in new remote workers and onboard these new employees further down the line.
2. Using the Wrong Tools
Do a quick Google search for ‘mistakes managing a remote team’ and you’ll see that one of the biggies is not using a time tracking tool to log employee hours. But you know that already. You’re smarter than that. So let’s twist this slightly into something actually valuable to you: not using the right tracking tools. That’s the real mistake here. The problem with many time tracking tools is that their capabilities don’t extend beyond basic desk hours; they don’t take into account deliverables, away-from-desk meetings, the legalities of working hours, or even the inflexibilities that come with flexible working.
Regardless of what has been made clear is expected of employees through your new remote working onboarding process, we can’t do anything about the fact that there are distractions in the home that simply don’t have to be dealt with in the office. Perhaps there’s a delivery man at the door, or the dog pooped on the carpet, or someone is trying to sneak into next door’s open window. It happens. Standard time tracking tools don’t account for these inflexibilities, so it’s important to find a tool that facilitates remote working; an employee time clock that makes it easy to record exact working hours.
Many different tools could meet your expectations, but some features to keep an eye out for are compatibility across multiple devices, verification methods such as GPS or visual proof of location, and timesheeting capabilities that can be exported directly to your payroll software. Your primary concern here shouldn’t be that Jim is online between 9-5 and instantly available. It should be that Jim’s goals and targets are being met, that he’s meeting his contractual obligations, and perhaps even more important that he’s taking the necessary breaks to ensure you’re retaining your legal compliance.
3. Overlooking Team Building
There’s a common misconception that team building only applies to teams that work together physically; who think they need to work in close proximity to each other but that is simply not the case. As all leaders will learn as they begin managing remote teams, positive relationships are vital even when employees are working individually from home. By using collaboration software, you can make sure your workers have access to communications channels that enable them to easily maintain relationships with you, and with their colleagues to ensure a friendly and supportive working environment.
This is important for two reasons. Firstly, let’s consider an employee’s relationship with you, their manager. Using tools and software to build relationships drives professional growth. Employees don’t have to like you, but they should feel comfortable sharing their feelings, and they should have peace of mind that you’re around when they need you. By taking the time to build this sort of relationship, you’re opening up doors to learning about problems before they arise, to improving reception of feedback, and to forging a stronger bond between employee and core business, generating long term loyalty.
In terms of employees’ relationships with each other, it’s important to remember that many organizations have been investing heavily in creating an engaging and nurturing company culture over the past few years. Gone are the days of isolated cubicles (sorry, Propst). Instead, businesses are creating environments that are more relaxed, more supportive, more open, and more focused on wellbeing. Removing employees from these environments can have quite the impact, so collaboration tools aren’t just about professional development; they’re about providing peer support, exactly when it’s needed. Build relationships by scheduling teambuilding activities, such as carving out an hour to do a game of Virtual Jeopardy.
4. Assuming Everyone Knows Everything
OK, so you’ve created a sort-of onboarding process and you’ve made sure that all the important documents are readily available for your team. Great. You’ve also spent some time checking out time tracking tools and collaboration tools, and everyone’s got to grips with them well. Fantastic. You’ve done everything right, so your team should know what’s going on, right? Wrong. Don’t assume that your employees know everything; don’t expect them to be up-to-date on the latest business news, or for them to be clued up on new goals. It’s now up to you to help them understand the bigger picture.
It’s important to remember that digital communications can only go so far. There’s still a closed-door here between workers in their homes, and the business itself, with communications, simply acting as letters that are posted through the mailbox. When working remotely, employees learn only what you want them to. This is a stark contrast to working in the office, where information is absorbed almost organically. Whether it’s observing client body language or overhearing tidbits of information around the water cooler, employees get an overview of what’s going on simply by being around. Not at home.
Transparency is vital. It’s essential to ensure that employees remain connected to the business and can easily see how their individual and combined efforts directly contribute to the core business. But there’s a fine line. Transparency doesn’t mean opening up your Google Drive and allowing everyone to see everything. It means keeping your team informed about business successes, failures, and changes, about new clients and projects, and about operations in general. It helps them to understand how their efforts are making an impact on a larger scale at a time when they can’t always see it for themselves.
5. Running Before You Can Walk
At times such as this especially when businesses are trying to jump in head first to ensure the continuation of services throughout uncertainty, it’s tempting for managers to try and hit the ground running. You may feel like you need to dive into managing a remote team and start running before you can walk. The truth is that there is a big difference between managing a team that you can rub shoulders with, and managing a team that’s potentially located in a different time zone. Rather than trying to wing it, it’s much better to address any insecurities, ask for help, and identify a suitable pathway to success.
As a manager, it’s important to lead by example. And you can’t set a good example for your team if you’re feeling a little lost yourself. There’s no shame in admitting this, and in seeking out opportunities that could help you to develop your leadership skills and help you face the unique challenges of leading remote workers. The good news is that immersive learning is one of the best ways to understand these challenges and identify effective and efficient ways to tackle them, but it never hurts to prioritize your learning journey and take measures to optimize your approach to deliver the best results.
You can seek out your own opportunities to identify a management style that works for you, or you could ask your own managers or business leaders for recommendations on where to find opportunities such as this, or for advice on what sort of opportunities would be most suitable in these circumstances. And even if you’re getting on OK, leadership training is still worth considering to help you build confidence during times of disruptive change, and for helping you build a strong and stable foundation on which to base your own leadership techniques and guide your team to new heights.
6. Forgetting About Professional Goals
It’s not just your professional development that you need to be thinking about when managing a remote team; it’s the professional development of your employees, too. While it may sound harsh, it is remarkably easy to forget about the human side of your team when you’re not around them every day; they become a face inside a box. It’s a horrible thought, but it’s natural. Out of sight, out of mind. This is why it’s important to be thinking about why employees work for the business. Money plays a part, sure, but why have they chosen this job? What do they want to achieve? Where do they want to go?
Remote employees are still employees, and they still have their own career path they want to follow, and their own dreams they want to transform into reality. As a manager of remote workers, it’s important to set your team up for success by ensuring that they are continually learning, continually expanding their knowledge and skillset, and continually developing in the right direction towards career progression… even if they’re not in the office. Communications and collaboration software is an essential base for this, ensuring you’re always in touch with your team, and always accessible for discussing opportunities.
Prioritizing your team’s individual professional development can bring a number of advantages. Not only does it help to expand an employee’s knowledge, but it also demonstrates that the organization has their best interests at heart, which can sometimes be difficult to see when there’s a geographical disconnect between employee and business. Providing new opportunities for professional development is highly effective at keeping employees engaged and motivated, ensuring they’re always giving their best, and even helping to improve loyalty; essential at a time when turnover rates are increasing rapidly.
Let’s be real for a moment. Absolutely nothing can prepare us for the reasons why we might have to manage a remote team… like worldwide pandemics, for example. But we can ensure we’re prepared to handle whatever’s thrown at us. As a team leader, understanding the subtle yet significant differences between managing an on-site team and managing an off-site team is key to developing a remote working environment that nurtures valuable skills while still delivering fantastic results for the business.
About the Author:
Chloe Sesta Jacobs works as Head of People & Culture at Deputy, a robust scheduling software that can be used to manage your workforce in a wide variety of different industries. Chloe sees her work as an extension of her lifestyle and is constantly working on revolutionizing the people and culture space. Chloe’s “why” is people; she gets her kicks from intensifying the purpose and exploring the potential of those around her.
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