With today’s rising demand for more flexible working, businesses are seeing an increasing number of individuals working in different ways to the norm – whether that’s working from home, from multiple bases, outside of core business hours, term time only or any number of other options.
Remote working is a term being used more frequently as one of the flexible working options, but what exactly is remote working, and how do you manage remote team members?
What Does Remote Working Mean?
‘Remote working’ may summon up pictures of farmers out in the wilds of Shetland or lighthouse operators on unpopulated islands, but the usual definition of ‘remote’ doesn’t apply here. Remote workers are simply those who mainly communicate with the company they work for by phone and email, rather than having their own chair in a company office. They could be employees or freelancers, full time or part time, and could work remotely either some or all of the time.
Remote working has been growing in popularity since IT and telecoms developments have made it possible to link in with computer systems from outside the office, and to have a fully functioning home or mobile office. As long as the work doesn’t require a physical presence in a central location, staff can probably deliver it remotely.
The usual assumption is that remote workers are mainly home-based, however, this group could also include people who spend most of their time on the road, for example sales reps or technical engineers, or people who work from more than one base or out in the community, such as district nurses.
In fact, to be a remote worker, there doesn’t even need to be an office that you’re remote from – Business Insider magazine has featured a company called InVision which has 700 remote workers but no office space or headquarters.
How to Manage Remote Workers
On the face of it, managing people who work remotely may seem more difficult than managing an office-based team, but that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. Remote workers can still be invited in to team meetings and for one-to-ones with their manager on a regular basis – they don’t have to be strangers. Of course, if they are based in another country a physical visit may be difficult but a video call can also work well (although you may need to work around different time zones). So the same line management techniques can be used whether just one member, most or all of your team works remotely.
There are a number of tools and software available that can help with this, from time trackers (e.g. Toggl or Timecamp) to project management tools (e.g. Trello, GetFlow or Asana), and cloud-based services like Google Drive, Dropbox or Box that can be used for sharing information. The key – as with any team – is to ensure effective communication.
Are You Tracking Your Remote Workers or Their Output?
The importance of tracking time only really comes to the fore when you need to charge for the time spent by your remote workers, for example a marketing or PR agency charging clients by the hour – but this is true whether your staff are working remotely or not.
If you have remote workers, there’s a presumption of a trusting relationship where you don’t feel you have to keep your eye on that individual all the time. This means that time trackers should be no more necessary when you can’t see people sitting in their chair while they work than they are for in-house teams. In truth, all a time tracker really proves is that an employee (whether remote or onsite) switched the time tracker on and off. To keep reporting hassle to a minimum, consider whether you need to know exactly how much time has been spent on what, or whether it would be more helpful to focus on the outputs being delivered.
Project management tools can help keep managers up to date with work in progress. They also help teams coordinate their efforts and understand the bigger picture of a project. These are of course also useful for teams based in the same office, but communication along these lines is much more important where teams work remotely, without the ability to catch up informally in the office.
Team Building for Remote Workers
Team building is just as important for remote workers as it is for those working onsite. Most companies will want to create a cohesive company culture no matter where their staff are based, and to share information about the company vision and objectives.
If you have remote workers as part of your team – whether they are employees or freelancers – you’ll help support team-building by involving them in all the team events and meetings you hold. If your whole team is remote you may need to come up with new ways to hold team meetings, such as a video conference call, or an away day at a venue that’s as convenient as possible for everyone.
As well as holding face-to-face meetings, you can also create a team newsletter, intranet pages, team emails and ad hoc updates. But don’t neglect the more informal side of team building. How many conversations are held in staff kitchens, discussing not just work but people’s outside lives too, getting to know and understand each other better? Make it clear to remote workers that they are also allowed such downtime during their working hours, where they can stop for a moment to simply chat with each other – and consider providing a dedicated method (e.g. a Slack channel) for them to use for this. Informal chat plays an important role in building strong teams.
Tips for Managing a Remote Team
- Keep your communications clear and targeted, and err on the side of providing more information. Be comprehensive but don’t overload, and don’t presume knowledge.
- Think about how you express yourself in written communications. Without personal contact, messages could become confused or misinterpreted.
- Remote working relies on a certain amount of trust on both sides; don’t ruin that by micromanaging people who you’ve already decided are able to work unsupervised for much of the time. Set the parameters for reporting and stick to them.
- Use the right communication methods at the right time; don’t rely on email for urgent messages, for example, but make that call.
- Discuss with team members how they like to communicate and agree the methods you’ll use between you.
- Have regular catch-ups with all your team members – if you don’t see them every day it’s important to keep a regular two-way communication channel open.
- Consider setting up an online forum such as a Slack channel or WhatsApp group which all your remote and onsite workers can use to chat informally. This acts as a substitute for those casual chats that often take place in kitchens and corridors – in fact, some companies with remote teams even name their chat channel ‘the watercooler’ or something similar.
- Remember that everyone has their foibles, so try to take those into account. Some people may work best if you leave them alone to get on; others may prefer more hands-on support. Some may like to work at either end of the day to keep their afternoons free and others may be serious early birds who like to plough through all their work first thing. Some may even want to turn off all their communications when they have a complicated or long task to focus on. Being aware of how your remote workers like to work will help you both get the best out of the arrangement.
While the main communication methods for linking with remote workers may vary from those used within an office, managing a remote team shouldn’t really be any more difficult than managing a centralised team. By focusing on great communication and building an understanding of how everyone works, it could feel just like they’re in the next room.