Managers of remote teams face the same challenges as those with local employees: They want to optimize productivity, motivate their team to do better, and retain employees for several years.
While the problems are the same, the solutions are often different. Managing a remote staff requires creativity and flexibility to succeed. Here’s what 16 experts have to say about remote management and how you can lead a team from around the world.
Hire People You Can Trust
The first step in hiring a strong remote team is choosing the right people. This can be hard if you’re unable to meet them in person of watch how they work for the first few weeks.
Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, found the best way to evaluate an employee before hiring is to give them a test. “During the hiring process, it’s smart to focus on skills and the candidate’s approach to the job by having candidates do small a test or a trial project, to see how well — or not — they follow instructions, ask questions, and generally perform in a remote environment.”
A minor assignment will prove the quality of their work, as well as their communication skills and ability to accept feedback.
As far as employee hiring across time zones, make sure your potential employees know what is expected of them before starting the job.
Harsha Vemulapalli, writing for Agile Connection, admits that teams working across the globe have time zone challenges and emphasizes communication as a way to bring them together.
“Teams can take turns alternating the burden of being the party who has to stay up late or get up early. Alternatively, it can be an individual’s decision, but these issues are best established as non-negotiable practices as a team is selected and forming.”
However, investing time in hiring the right team members can save you in the long run with onboarding and micromanagement.
Jason Shah, Founder & CEO at Do, explains the recruiting benefits of hiring remotely: “One of the major upsides of cultivating a remote workforce is that you can draw from a pool of talent that may have been previously unavailable to you. … Being able to work with people that have the right kind of experience and skill set can mean getting more done in less time.”
Often, employees view remote work as a perk, allowing you to connect with uncommonly talented job applicants.
Create a Structured Onboarding Process
Once you have a team of candidates, or a new hire to join an existing team, you need to make sure they’re trained on company processes, expectations and culture during their first few months.
Eric Siu, CEO of Single Grain, has five years of remote management experience under his belt. He loves having a central point for remote employees to use for all of their questions and problems. He says:
“One of my favorite tricks for onboarding remote workers is to set up an internal wiki that covers things such as where to find company information, who can answer your various questions, what tools the office uses and so on. … The fact that we have all our internal documentation centralized — including screencasts showing how different tasks are performed — makes it easier for new remote hires to get up and running.”
Along with the intranet, set up channels of communication so they can reach out to you with specific questions.
Rocco Baldassarre, Founder & CEO of Zebra Advertisement, says it’s OK and even encouraged to communicate with employees in multiple channels. “The benefits of establishing multiple communication tools is two-fold. First of all, your team has a way to communicate something that is urgent to the right person immediately. Secondly, it unifies processes such as what to use for conference calls, screen recordings, and so on.”
At the end of each month, check in your with your team to make sure they don’t have questions or challenges about the processes laid out. This way, they won’t struggle for too long and know they can come to you with anything.
Set Clear Expectations for Evaluation
As you build your remote team, determine what kind of work life you expect from your employees.
For example, Craig Bryant, co-founder of We Are Mammoth, highlights the difference between remote work and contract work. “The most important thing to protect against, though, is that employees don’t treat remote working as flex time. They’re separate policies. Remote working is a tool, not an allowance, so employees need to be just as available, accountable, and productive as they would be in the office.”
If you expect your employees to clock in and work a traditional business day, make sure they know what is expected of them.
However, not all teams need to be evaluated by their time worked. In fact, many workers choose the remote lifestyle for its flexibility.
Quin Woodward-Pu of Audienti offers alternatives for evaluation:
“Because remote workers can often be more productive than their office-based counterparts, hours are generally not the most accurate form of evaluating performance. A common best practice for assessing off site employees is executing performance reviews driven by project results instead of conducting focal reviews.”
Project-based management also allows leaders to step back as long as their teams are hitting the right deadlines.
Blair Thomas, co-founder at eMerchantBroker.com, says remote teams need management, but shouldn’t be micromanaged. “Measure their performance, and as long as they’re attending daily meetings and working as effectively as others, treat your remote employees like secret weapons. Constant monitoring of time, and keeping track of their every move, will only serve to engender stress and reduce their efficacy.”
Most companies choose a balance between time and project evaluation to make sure they’re getting the most of their teams without tracking every hour.
Make Your Remote Employees Feel Included
Even if your team members are scattered across the world, they still want to feel like they’re a part of a company and movement. Nicole Fallon, Business News Daily Assistant Editor, offers advice for motivating employees who work remotely.
“Mobile workers often say that they love the flexibility of their jobs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they enjoy missing out on being part of office culture. If possible, try to have your remote employees plan a day to come into the office every once in awhile.”
Mårten Mickos of School of Herring cautions managers of remote and digital teams against unintended preference of local employees. “If somebody in the meeting room does something that can be observed only visually, make an effort to tell all those who dialed in what is happening. … When deciding on bonuses and other rewards, always think about the employees who are not in the same location as you are. Don’t punish digital behavior; reward it.”
This means drinks after work or a catered lunch might not be the best rewards for teams hitting their sales goals, as only local employees can attend.
Alternatively, Kyra Cavanaugh of Life Meets Work created a list of team-building exercises specifically for remote teams. One example is to create a “virtual bar” where employees can meet and get to know each other.
“This is a designated time where team members can connect via chat, conference call, or media to discuss personal and/or professional topics. Some teams have gone so far as to post a ‘Personal Conversations Only’ note on their virtual bar. It’s a time to connect on a personal level, have a little fun and unwind.”
This is also something both virtual and physical teams can enjoy, creating a bonding experience for both parties.
Invest In Your Employees — Professionally and Personally
Hiring remotely follows the same principles as hiring locally. Companies that fail to invest in their teams will have higher turnover rates and more dissatisfaction within the staff.
Dave Nevogt, co-founder of Hubstaff, warns companies about outsourcing remote employees for menial work and encourages managers to invest in their remote teams instead.
“We don’t go for affordable work; we go for high-quality talent. Eventually, new team members become an integral part of the team and an important part of our lives after working with them for hours every day. Over time, we learn how many kids they have, what their hobbies are, and what they are passionate about.”
To learn more about your new hires and your team’s new co-workers, use communication tools for social and professional relationship building, as Neha Kirpal for Experteer Magazine explains:
“Because of their physical separation, one of the biggest challenges virtual team members face is an inability to easily learn about one another and what each person brings to the project. Online tools can help, in the same way that social-networking websites help college and high-school students get to know other members of their communities.”
Along with social inclusion, remote employees also want to grow with the company and have an advancement plan.
Multimedia producer Debbie Mitchell emphasizes the importance of creating a growth ladder for employees. “Similar to working in a traditional office, a virtual office should offer an employee the opportunity to grow. Be clear and know what you have to offer them moving forward.”
You will have the same turnover problem with remote employees as in-office ones if you’re hiring them for dead-end jobs.
There Is No Cookie-Cutter Solution for Remote Problems
The new world of remote work creates challenges for employers who are looking to adapt. In the long run, every company is different.
Anna Zelaya, client services performance team lead at Gallup, manages seven employees throughout her day and recently moved to Barcelona. She admits that knowing her team before moving gave her a leg up, especially when it came to motivation and communication.
“To effectively transcend the distance, I need to know from experience exactly how to best communicate with each team member. Managing remotely would be exponentially more difficult if I didn’t know my team well, including how they prefer to interact and what they do best.”
Zelaya is just one story of a manager’s transition, and every company and team has their own strategies for success as well as challenges. That’s why author Anita Bruzzese disagrees with companies that use Yahoo as their only case study when deciding on remote work policies.
“Yahoo has become the poster child for ‘What is Wrong With Telecommuting’ when the issues were much more complicated. … It’s better to think about your company culture and your team so your workers don’t become resentful of your attitude.” What works (or doesn’t work) for Yahoo might not work for your company.
Patience, flexibility and creativity are three of the most important traits in managers of remote employees. With these three skills, you can work to create a better environment for all of your employees and work to find solutions that make most parties happy.