A recent survey by Timewise found that 63 per cent of permanent, full-time staff enjoy some degree of flexible working - including working from home & flexible hours. Indeed in our own client base, of mostly technology and business services based businesses, we estimate that this figure is closer to 95%, showing that those doing 9-5 in the office, really are fast-becoming the minority. Added into mix the other shifts in the workforce of today which include the rise of the gig economy and the increasing use of freelancers, SME leaders who have such flexible and diverse workforces are now being presented with even more interesting challenges when it comes to management.
Because although the cost benefits of working with remote teams can be a no-brainer, managing employees across different locations (and sometimes time zones) is an entirely new skill in itself. If not done effectively, these virtual teams can become a real headache, lead to unsatisfied, disconnected employees and in some cases even negatively affect your customers.
First off, you’ll need to take the time to work out how you want to manage the teams first: some may prefer to micro manage and use technology as their control (one company I know makes a point of sharing with any new employees the fact that they collect data on their key strokes whilst working away from the office....) however our experience has shown that this leads to a quickly deteriorating relationship between you and them. Or alternatively empower all with a simple results-only approach, something which can leave the employee feeling autonomous ( although please note that this shouldn't be confused with a total absence of contact with your employees from one week to the next & does require clarity over the results actually needed and the support to get there...).
You should also help your managers develop these skills, it can be pretty daunting to be given the task to build up rapport with teams you may never meet face to face, so put some measures in place to encourage relationships to be built and avoid the team becoming too reliant on purely communicating electronically. Phone calls and Skype can be great at over riding the initial awkwardness and getting people to connect in a more 'normal' manner.
Yikes! If you feel like this could be a problem waiting to happen for your growing business, get on the case now, read on for our top 10 tips to managing remote employees:
- Hire The Right Skills
You need ‘doers’: people you can trust to just get on with the job, without you holding their hand all the time. So we would always recommend assessing their result-orientation as part of the assessment process. Great communication skills are also a must here, as you need people who recognise the importance of constantly keeping their colleagues in the loop and building relationships from afar.
- Hire The Right Managers (& support them)
If you decide to delegate the day to day management of your virtual team members then of course you need to ensure you’ve got the right managers in place. They need to be comfortable with a more results-based style of performance management and giving their direct reports the space to approach tasks in their own way (without dictating to them how to do it). They will however be required to offer a lot of support and encouragement to their virtual team (often more than those who are sitting next to them and interact with them on a more regular basis), so a positive outlook and approachable demeanour are hugely important. A flexible mindset is also key: managing effectively across different locations and time zones is always not a 9-5 job ...
- Onboard Carefully
On-boarding is even more important with remote workers than office-based ones, as it can be even harder (and take longer) to make them feel like part of the team. Bear in mind that sometimes they won't meet their team for months after they've joined, this part needs to be as friendly and welcoming as possible & what goes on in real life (introduction, shaking hands, high fives if you're than way inclined.... etc) can be translated into Slack and Skype just as easily with a bit of effort. In addition to a lot of 1:1 support, being clear over objectives & encouraging the team to interact, make sure you have a raft of suitable introductory videos for them to digest for the bits of 'downtime'. And these shouldn't just be on training, but also on the vision and culture of the business as well. To a certain extent the onus is on you to- after a full briefing - take a step back and leave them to it.
- Have Clearly Defined Ways Of Working
Well thought-out processes provide structure and direction for getting things done - wherever you are and whatever time it is. Project management and other software can be especially helpful here, but just as important are what norms are expected: when, with whom and how often you are expected to share information and for what purpose. There are an equal amount of businesses where 1-2-1 email is still very much encouraged as there are those who copy everyone and anyone into every email, so be clear on what type of working processes there are in yours to reduce the stress of the team and encourage efficiency in this regard.
- Make Document Sharing A Priority
One of the most important virtual team disciplines is how the team shares and edits information. Dropbox, Googedrive, OneDrive as well as a whole host of other document sharing systems are a godsend here, however in addition to being clear over what is used for which information, be sure to share any security protocols with the team when you use these too (I still haven't forgotten the moment when one unfortunate new member of a team I was working with deleted three month's work overnight...).
- Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
You won’t be bumping into each other in the corridor, so the emphasis with virtual teams is on the leader in particular to make an effort to stay in touch and keep channels of communication open. Constantly ensure your virtual team members know what they are supposed to be doing and how this fits into the bigger picture of the business as a whole. Reiterate your business objectives and vision throughout the year and remember that your culture and values are being reiterated with every interaction you have with them. Which is the right method of communication is important too: Instant messaging is great for quick team interactions & keeping people in the loop, video chat is great for team meetings to ensure non-verbal cues are communicated also however if members of your team work in different time zones, make sure that you have an overlapping period where everyone is working and organise your virtual meetings during these times. Got anything sensitive? Give the general Slack/Convo channel a wide berth and book in that 1-2-1 phone call......
- Create A Team Culture
If people know what's going on and what they're all working towards, then you're one step closer to this, however you'll need to make a bit of an extra effort initially to make sure this really sticks. Some I know encourage leaderboards on their software in all sorts of areas (from steps to sales made) to try and encourage a bit of healthy competition and camaraderie. Another set out to lead by example by assigning a member of staff an extra role to make sure all events are loaded up and shared with everyone (until it became the norm for everyone to do the same). And always mark birthdays and other special occasions with some sort of a card / gift (of even gif??), remembering the typical whip round no longer applies, but that most love a nod on their special day still!
- Promote Individual Accountability
Whilst how virtual employees complete their tasks should be largely down to them, they must still be accountable for their contribution - and have it recognised. A message board where everyone posts what they’ve done that week is a good idea as are monthly one to ones, as is using online performance management software to help transparency, such as 7geese .
- Provide A Means For People To Give Feedback Easily
Understandably, it may take some virtual team members longer to feel comfortable enough to give constructive feedback. Set up a feedback portal to ensure that any issues or frustrations are addressed and that no fresh ideas are missed: there is tonnes of software out there to help this on a more structured way (CultureAmp and Peakon are just two which spring to mind right now), but as with the general communication, lead by example and share your own feedback first in an open way which encourages others to do the same.
- Get Everyone Together Once In A While
Working on one’s own suits many people down to the ground. But to develop and reinforce an even better team dynamic, individuals should see each other face to face and get to know each other. In Real Life. Team away days needn’t cost the earth and are often the number one way to help improve team efficiency.
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