Some may say it’s coming, others would say it’s already here.
The US tech industry in 2015 had roughly 300,000 full-time employees in computer science jobs working from home. Along with tech moving in this direction, 83% of employees feel they do not need an office to be productive. On the other hand, many employers feel that have remote employees may seem like too much catering. Companies fear that remote workers can reduce productivity, causing the delayed deliverables and an eventual turnover. While these concerns may be validate and are not completely erroneous, managers can do specifics activities to effectively manage remote employees.
In a survey by American Express, 75% of millennials believe that the workplace should be ‘flexible and fluid’ from a working perspective. Hence, working remote is becoming an expectation in the workplace and soon a necessity to attracting younger employees as known as Millennials. With this said, learning how to manage remote teams is paramount to keeping up with the current workplace trends. If a manager is able to effectively manage remote employees, they will open up new doors of opportunities to their recruitment department and team dynamics. This comes with an inevitable asterisk where not all positions can become remote, but there are many that can.
I have built two companies both with entirely remote teams and have definitely experienced quite a few challenges. However, after much trial and error each company became profitability. Below are seven non-trivial tips that you can immediately start applying to your remote workforce that I also used to build my past two remote companies.
1. Measure Everything
Is the remote employee falling behind? How much work should they be doing? What if they disappear ‘ghost’ me and I don’t find out for several days? How will I backfill?
These are all common questions that will arise when you start to hire remote employees. Depending on the role or position there are various ways of handling different situations, but all have a common imperative element- measurement. If the remote position is a full time, you better make sure you measure everything what a person is doing inhouse first. That means what is their responsibility, how long it takes to finish each individual task, and what are common sticking points. Once you have attached time to the activities of a position, you will now have a rough ballpark idea on how long it should take a remote employee to finish work.
Both part-time and full-time require different types of payroll models and timeline approaches. For full-time, each week or planning period, managers should have a meeting with their remote staff to cover what the quarterly and weekly deliverables are expected, and most importantly, mapping those to a timeline. (See scrum workflow). For finances, full-time can usually be paid on a hourly/salary basis unless the employee is working in a sales capacity. However, managers should have data correlating time to deliverables in order to ensure that their remote team is productive.
On the other hand, for part-time (See Upwork, Toptal, Freelancer), deadlines are important but they are more in a milestone format than a rolling workflow. From a financial perspective, in more part-time or small project based jobs, I would suggest making these performance-based instead of salary to remove financial liability. You will definitely experience a lot of bad hires for remote work which brings the question: how do you mitigate financial risk?
In order to mitigate financial risk, have a job that would take say four hours cost a flat fee of $100 versus paying the individual per hour. Once the project has been completed, the payment can be released. A common hang up for employers is hiring employees who charge hourly and then disappear. By leveraging a project-based model with flat fees you can mitigate financial downside. However, you will need to measure time versus cost-per-hour to ensure you are paying enough for the project.
2. Documentation is King
One of the biggest reasons why people are in house is because of training purposes. During the job, many challenges will arise but where would someone look for those answers? It’s usually someone on their team who is physically close by. However, if you have a position that is constantly being replaced, having proper documentation is extremely important. In addition, having each employee who reads that documentation, update it.
Invision, a software company that has mostly remote employees developed a revolutionary approach to handling high early turnover. The solution consisted of the first three weeks of activities mapped out on an hour to hour basis. That way, Invision could overcome the initial hiring ‘hump’ period where people usually disappear because they don’t have a clear direction. A simple diligent on-boarding process can work wonders for retention.
I tried the Invision technique, but made the documentation for one week instead of three. And still, saw a strong increase in retention. In addition, it made it easier to see if the employee was a good fit because I knew how far along they should be since there was a concise on-boarding program. If they didn’t meet the milestones by the end of the first week, I automatically knew that weren’t a good hire.
3. Setting Clear Expectations
Managing employees comes down to setting and meeting expectations. With remote employees those expectations need to be ever so more clear. When should the employee do status updates? When should they show up they show up to meetings? When will they be fired for miscommunication? The list goes on, but all require conciseness. In house employees have the luxury of watching and observing culture. On the other hand, remote employees have no idea what to expect simply by observing people in the office so the manager needs to make the implicit, explicit. By doing so, the remote team knows what to expect and can meet the manager’s expectations.
With the remote team that I currently manage, we have tasks, goals, and deadlines; each one made explicitly clear. I don’t care how the team accomplishes their goals, as long as they do by a specific time. If a manager does not set clear expectations and focuses too much on the how something gets done, micromanagement surfaces. A manager cannot look over an employee’s shoulder halfway across the planet unless they install screen-share software. However, that is not something I practice because it involves too much micromanagement, prevents scalability, and undermines integrity. If a manager can set clear expectations for their team, the supervisor can remove grey area, avoid micromanagement, and empower their team all at the same time.
4. Mandatory Meetings
I used to have this optional, but when I started to have more employees go full-time, I needed mandatory time to ‘take a temperature check’. In most in house offices, if a meeting is missed its usually no big deal. You will probably see that employee later that day. For remote teams, I make it a big deal. Why? Because the individual has a lot more freedom to do what they want with their day making it that much easier to be available for meetings. In addition, if meetings involve other team members, and a remote employee does not show up, they come across as aloof and disengaged. For successful meeting planning, the remote employee and I discuss what dates work well for them and I hold them to that. I let them know these are mandatory because they help keep the trust in our relationship.
5. Leveraging Videos
Remote teams usually interact over instant message (see Slack, Skype, Google Hangout) and email. These are all great ways of communicating but they have one giant problem- lacking body language context. With non-verbal communication over half of what determines if we like someone depends on their body language (55%), second is vocal tonality (38%) and third is content (7%). With instant messaging and email, employees only perceive the smallest aspect of non-verbal communication – content. Hence, leaving a huge margin for misinterpretation.
As a result, when I respond to emails that are long form, I often use tools like Loom, a free video recording plugin that records my face and voice, to respond. For meetings, I ask for remote employees to use video so we can see our faces and have the context on how we both feel on certain points. However, even if they don’t, I still make sure to use my cam regardless if I have a bad hair day.
6. Understanding the Anxiety
One thing that is not talked much about in the remote culture is the anxiety that surrounds it. In remote cultures, employees do not have the privilege of seeing their managers day to day. Anxiety arises when employees do not have context to gauge a situation effectively. Was that a small mistake or one that I would get me fired? By understanding this extra complexity I hope you understand how much over communication is appreciated in remote teams.
7. Exploring Horizontal Culture
Culture usually starts from manager to report direct. Strong cultures are built when the employees engage with each other on the same time, hence horizontal engagement. In order to facilitate this, managers must be very conscientious of culture and who gets along with who. There were a few times I was hiring for a position and I turned an overqualified candidate down because I did not believe that they could maintain the culture. While this step has a lot of grey area, I would suggest paying attention to your current culture because having horizontal engagement is an immensely strong tool to keep employees around but also to increase overall engagement.
I hope you found these tips helpful as I have for addressing remote teams. Learning the art of managing remote teams is a tricky art that takes a good amount of time to master. In the beginning, it can be very nerve racking, but as you have teams for longer periods of time, you will learn that if you put a good structure in place, you will bring out the good in people.
Jeff Butler Internationally respected speaker and consultant, Jeff Butler helps bridge generational gaps between Millennials and companies looking for their talent and patronage. Butler has quickly built his reputation as a memorable presenter with tangible solutions for attracting, retaining, and engaging Millennials as employees and customers. Within just the past three years, he has spoken at two TEDx events and multiple Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Amazon, and LinkedIn.