How to manage a remote workforce

As technology transforms the way we communicate, the virtual workforce is on the rise. Many of us now regularly work with team members who are not physically present – whether they are telecommuting from home, working remotely in the coffee shop around the corner, or based in a different city, country or time zone.

A survey by Nemertes Research Group illustrates the trend toward remote working, suggesting that the number of virtual workers in the US has increased by a huge 800 percent in the past five years.

But it’s not just the US where remote working is growing.

Future HR Trends’ 2015 Report “Profile of the global workforce: present and future” suggests that remote working has now become part of mainstream work culture, with almost 50% of managers in the US, the UK and Germany allowed to work remotely, and the share of managers who work at home in many developing countries rising to between 10% and 20%.

Of course with a remote workforce comes a specific set of demands and challenges for managing the team. So not only is technology changing the way we work, it’s changing the way that leaders need to lead. With that in mind let’s take a look at five skills and tips for successfully managing a remote workforce.

Almost 50% of managers in the US, the UK and Germany are allowed to work remotely.

1. Set clear expectations

A common fear among managers (especially those who are used to working in a traditional office environment) is that virtual workers will take advantage of working remotely to slack off. Setting clear expectations by establishing the ground rules will make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them – and cut down on your temptation to micro-manage team members.

Be clear about when you expect team members to be contactable and online for the rest of the team or clients, and set clear, shared, measurable objectives around what team members need to achieve and when (read ‘deliverables’). Putting ground rules and goals in place around availability, productivity and performance ensures accountability.

2. Be available and share your vision

Just as important as setting clear expectations around availability for your team, so too is ensuring that you are available for them when they need you. When employees are located around the country – or around the globe – it’s easy for small issues to turn into big problems if they’re left unchecked. And it is also easy for a team member to feel detached or even forgotten, which may lead to them wondering what their overall value is.

To take it a step further, your availability should really be about your keenness to talk to your team and share your vision. And remember that regular communication and feedback is a very different thing than micro-managing. You want your remote team to realize just how important they are in building your company so they can get a clearer picture of what their role in the bigger picture is.

Another way to look at it is that you don’t want to assume they will figure out your vision and expectations on their own. If you don’t share these with them, you run the risk of your remote team going in their own direction, which may lead you to feel disappointed with the work they deliver.

3. Choose the right technology to communicate

It is obvious, but it needs to be said: Communication is key to harnessing the potential of your people. Technology provides a wide range of options for keeping the channels of communication open – from VoIP and video-conferencing to emails, online chat, texts and phone calls.

Successful remote leaders consider which technology is the most appropriate for the nature of the discussion and the desired outcome. For example, while emails may be fine for quick one-to-one exchanges, they are generally ineffective for group discussions.

As well as choosing the most appropriate means of communication, effective leaders will consider the needs of their employees when scheduling calls or virtual meetings – especially if team members are working in different time zones.

4. Build trust

Trust is at the core of a successful remote workforce. According to a survey conducted by HR.com and ic4p, listening and trust are the two most important factors to virtual and remote teams. So how do you build trust?

This is tightly tied to point 2 above, where the key takeaway is communicating your expectations with your team and then letting them get to it. Successful remote leaders understand that the goal of any team is the work produced (again, read ‘deliverables’), not the time spent at the desk working on a project. If you are worrying about the latter, you will fall into the “micro-managing” trap, and resentment will build up quickly.

So trust is you trusting your team to do the job you want them to do, and that team also trusting the whole process. Again, if you do not communicate your expectations clearly, you will likely feel let down because their work will be something other than what you thought you would be getting. And in the process your frustrations will increase and they will sense that, and trust issues will grow into serious communication problems that will ultimately threaten the working relationship.

5. Give feedback and recognition

Feedback and recognition are key to team morale and performance. This is particularly important in the context of a remote workforce, where stopping by a colleague’s desk to comment on their work, or having an impromptu chat over coffee isn’t an option. Without adequate acknowledgement and recognition, it’s easy for remote team members to feel isolated and unmotivated. Effective remote leaders make a conscious and consistent effort to provide very clear feedback on the work performed.

It’s worth remembering, too, that communication is a two-way process. Make sure your team members have the opportunity to have their voices heard. Set up formal mechanisms for this whereby you ask them on a quarterly basis (more often in the beginning) for their feedback as to where things are going well and where they feel there is room for improvement. You’d be amazed at how seemingly small suggestions can go a long way in improving productivity and overall quality.

You stand to gain as much as the employee

Those same leadership skills and qualities that apply to building a productive in-house workforce also apply to the remote workforce. They are just easier to forget given the distance and lack of face-to-face contact. So it is your job to figure out how to adapt these skills and apply them to the virtual workplace.And remember that you stand to gain from a remote workforce just as much as your remote workers do. That is, you are not building a remote workforce because you are a nice, flexible boss trying to give your team the best possible solution for their needs. You are only doing it where it makes economic sense for you to do so. It’s about having access to the best talent, about finding lower-cost talent that sits in regions of the world where salaries for the same work are lower, and it’s ultimately about many more things that make it a win-win for both sides.

About the Author: Neil Petch, Chairman at Virtugroup
About the Author: Neil Petch, Chairman at Virtugroup

With a history of business successes, Neil Petch is well known in the UAE and beyond as a visionary entrepreneur with a passion for helping others establish and grow their own businesses. Neil founded Virtuzone in 2009 and quickly established it as the region’s leading company formation expert, before launching Virtugroup, a holding company that has a wider mandate of supporting startups from establishment; to successful market entry; and all the way through to exit.