Companies like 37signals and HelpScout have large remote teams, and remote work is growing among companies that have a physical offices as well. In 2014, 24% of US workers spent at least some of their work week working remotely.
You might think that remote work would come with a whole new set of management challenges. In fact, many of the same principles hold true. But there are a few snags you’ll want to avoid. In addition to ensuring that your remote workers follow best practices, here are five tips for successfully managing remote employees:
Create clear communication guidelines
If you’re working remotely, it’s easy to let communication fall by the wayside and let your team operate pretty independently. However, that’s exactly what you want to steer clear of. “If you, the manager, don’t create good, open communication channels, the remote worker will feel, well, ‘remote’ and forgotten,” says INSEAD associate professor Mark Mortensen.
This can get complicated in larger companies, where some teams are remote and others aren’t, or there are multiple remote teams working separately. “As a manager, it’s important to keep the flow of information about what’s happening individually, on a team, and in the company transparent and available for everyone to see,” notes Trello VP of Marketing Stella Garber.
Your communication guidelines should be shared with new hires as part of their onboarding process, and can include things like:
- How the team prefers to communicate (email vs. text message vs. chat vs. phone vs. video conferencing, or in the case of the Trello team, Trello boards)
- When the team prefers to communicate (regular meetings, certain days or times—don’t forget to adjust for time zones!)
- Expected email (or other communication) turnaround time
- Information on heads-down days, if your company does them
- How employees can let the team know when they’re working remotely if it’s not their permanent set up
Make sure everyone understands the process
Even with an in-person team, not having documented processes can cause problems, and those problems balloon when you’re working on a remote team. When people aren’t all in the same location, Suzie can’t just pop by and ask a question about what Step 3 was supposed to be. Instead, she has to send an email or post a question on Slack, and then wait for a response before she can move forward with the project, which can bottleneck an entire work day if there isn’t an established process.
You can use tools like Skitch to document processes, and Evernote or Google Docs to store them online (all tools covered in our article on team tools for remote workers). Send links to all the documentation as part of employee on-boarding so that new hires know to check there first before asking questions.
Create a virtual water cooler
Doing regular team meetings is a good call for managing remote employees, but it’s not enough. Your team members need to interact with each other spontaneously and independently, and to get to know each other as people, not just co-workers.
Mortenson, in the previously-quoted article, has an interesting idea: Set up video conferencing around the office that’s always on, like a portal. “It might feel weird the first day it’s on, but by the tenth day, people are more comfortable,” he says, noting that video is especially good for this because it “brings us together and connects us, increasing the intimacy of our relationships with one another.”
You can also build personal time into meetings, allowing for 5-10 minutes at the beginning or end of meetings for everyone to give a personal update. The big upside of using video conferencing for these ideas is that it naturally leads to more impromptu, unplanned conversations that can often lead to the best ideas from your team members. And if you want a lower tech option as well, create a Slack channel just for chit-chat (at Highfive we call ours #random).
Don’t rule out one-on-ones
Team camaraderie is important, but so is making time to talk to your employees one-on-one. This gives your team members the chance to address any issues they might be afraid to bring up in group meetings, or don’t want to discuss via email for fear of being misunderstood. In addition to being a good time to air issues they might not want to discuss elsewhere, it’s also a great way to check in with team members about their role and if it’s aligning with their overall career goals. Mentoring does help with employee retention, after all!
Get the team together physically once in a while
As we all know, breaking bread together builds stronger teams. However, it’s a little awkward to set up a video conference inside a restaurant. Spending time with your teammates in person every so often is essential. One idea: If you hire new employees in groups, consider doing training in-person to make them feel welcomed to the team.
Although doing a meeting over video might not be exactly the same thing as being in-person, it does enable bonds to form faster during those times everyone is one place. When people who work together over video conferencing meet in person for the first time, they’re often amazed at how familiar their co-workers seem. So find ways to bring your remote team face-to-face as often as possible, whether in-person or using video. It’s an easy and effective way to build strong relationships among people who aren’t together every day.
Leaving the Office Behind: A Guide to Remote Work
How employees and managers can build the best culture for remote work
Whether you’re a work-from-home employee, frequent traveler, or manager in charge of distributed teams, you need the right setup and the right tools to make remote work effective. This guide covers the the dos and don’ts to help you build a successful remote work culture.