Bringing together a team of differing personalities is hard enough when you’re working together in the same office. If your remote employees are spread across different states or continents, it’s even more challenging to maintain strong relationships and a healthy team dynamic.
But remote work will likely grow even more prevalent than it is today, meaning more leaders will need to learn the art of managing employees from afar. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 43 percent of employed Americans worked remotely at least some of the time, and according to Flexjobs, as of 2017, an estimated 3 percent of Americans reported working from home at least half the time – an increase of 115 percent since 2005.
Embracing telecommuting has numerous benefits for businesses, from reducing overhead to improving productivity to attracting and retaining talent looking for flexibility. (Millennials, the largest generation in the workforce, particularly prize flexibility and the ability to work virtually.)
But if telecommuters aren’t managed well, it can be a poor experience for everyone involved. Here are several ways to effectively manage your remote employees, whether they’re full-time workers or long-time freelancers, and foster a healthy team relationship from afar.
1. Build personal relationships
I’ve written it before and I repeat it often: Few things matter at work more than relationships. When you’re in an office, you and your colleagues can slowly build relationships over little moments like chatting in the hallway or lunching together. Remote employees don’t have these opportunities, which can leave them feeling disconnected from their in-office teammates. And if they’re freelancers, they’ll have even fewer opportunities for connection than full-time employees. This means it’s especially important to be deliberate about building relationships with remote team members. Make a point to schedule periodic video one-on-ones to simply catch up, or send messages to ask how their weekend was. And if you travel to their area, take the time to grab coffee or lunch together.
In short, make the effort to learn about their personal life and check in regularly. Don’t underestimate how these efforts can aid your success; teams bound together by strong relationships and trust perform markedly better than those who are not.
2. Use real-time communication tools
Whether it’s Slack, Skype, or something else, using a team messaging/collaboration program makes it easier for your team to stay in close contact. In addition to helping your team work more smoothly, these tools are great for the casual chatter that helps forge relationships. In Slack, you can create individual channels on various work topics, for specific teams and for off-topic chatter.
3. Prioritize frequent face time
It’s tempting to communicate primarily through emails and Slack messages, but nothing beats face-to-face communication. Consider making all your regularly scheduled team meetings video calls (Zoom is a good option) rather than conference calls. Some businesses also make a point to gather all remote employees in person one or more times a year to foster deeper relationships. If you have employees in the same city, you can arrange or encourage occasional group outings to help your team connect.
4. Always think of your remote employees
If your business is fully distributed, everyone is in the same boat. But if some workers are in an office and some are remote, it’s easy for those on site to forget about the telecommuters, especially if they’re freelancers. Make sure your remote team members aren’t an afterthought. If you discuss something important in person, send an email update so they don’t miss out. Make sure every meeting is available to them either via phone or video conference. And ensure your in-office staff knows how to use the video conferencing technology and is encouraged to use it.
5. Balance trust with clear expectations
If you trust someone enough to hire them, you should trust they can work remotely without being distracted. It’s important that your team members feel trusted and respected as the adults that they are. However, it’s also helpful to have clear expectations in advance so there’s no confusion on either end.
For example, you could let remote employees know that they can take lunch whenever they’d like, but they need to be available during all other business hours. You could ask them to put any appointments on their calendar and inform you just like they would if they were in an office. You may also want to set helpful limits on work. For example, let remote workers know that they don’t need to respond to evening emails.
6. Recognize and show gratitude
Showing recognition and expressing gratitude goes a long way with employees, especially those who are remote or freelance and probably feel less connected and visible than in-office staff. There are lots of ways to do this. You could give out bonuses for work well done, start a recognition program, or highlight employees in an internal newsletter. You could send remote employees a holiday gift so they feel as valued as your employees.
I know of one business that mailed remote employees a related gift when the in-office team did a teambuilding activity. For example, when the team took a screenprinting class, it made and mailed notebooks to the remote employees. Another included its sole remote freelance worker in a gift of champagne – by delivery service – on employee appreciation day. These small acts of gratitude and recognition can add up and help maintain employee satisfaction among your telecommuters.
Managing remote employees comes with its challenges, sure. But if you make an effort to build healthy relationships, get face time, communicate well and express gratitude, you, your remote team and your business will all benefit.