Making remote work an option is an investment that can pay off for employers and employees alike. Companies that embrace telecommuters can recruit the best talent without geographic constraints. Employees who have the opportunity to work from home or another remote location are, according to studies, happier, more productive, and more loyal to their organization. No wonder remote work is on the rise. In 2016, 43% of workers in the US reported working remotely at least some of the time. The share of people doing at least 80% of their job outside the main office rose to 31%, from 24% in 2012.
Remote workers don’t have to be managed very differently than counterparts who come into the office daily. By keeping communications and expectations consistent, managers of geographically diverse teams can build relationships that bridge the distance.
Set clear expectations
Trust and transparency are the foundations of a successful remote- working relationship. You and your employee should discuss in detail mutual expectations concerning work hours, communication, and deliverables at the start of the remote-work arrangement. When and how often will you check in with each other? What flexibility will be built into the employee’s schedule—i.e. an early start in the morning to accommodate an afternoon break to pick up a child from school? What are their responsibilities and how will they communicate updates to the team? Defining these things at the outset gives employees and managers a clear understanding of what each side’s obligations are and how performance will be measured.
This is also an opportunity to review how consistent and organized your company’s processes are. Do you have a style guide? Do you have a clear organizational chart and system of responsibilities? Spreading workers across multiple locations doesn’t automatically create problems in itself, but it can highlight existing weaknesses and inconsistencies.
The best managers always set clear expectations
Communicate, with as many senses as possible
You aren’t going to bump into your remote report in the break room or be able to invite them along on a coffee run, so it’s essential to schedule time for regular check-ins. For a team member who works entirely outside the office, consider a micro and macro approach. For example, you might have one system for sharing daily updates on the progress of assignments and immediate business, and a longer scheduled meeting, perhaps on a weekly basis, to go over big-picture issues.
Communication is essential to keeping that relationship active and ensuring that all team members are getting the same information. Remember that the people who tend to work best remotely—those who are self-disciplined, organized, and able to function effectively with minimal direction—are also the people easiest to overlook in favor of squeakier wheels. Keep to your commitments and follow up with employees to make sure they keep to theirs.
Communicate with as many data points as possible. We consistently overestimate our ability to convey emotions effectively through email alone. When video conferencing is available, use it so you can see each other’s body language and nonverbal responses. Tone and meaning can be easily misinterpreted in a flurry of Slack messages—pick up the phone for a short conversation instead. It’s an investment in the relationship: research has found that even short phone calls on unrelated topics make subsequent email negotiations easier and more collegial. And don’t forget to keep your own calendar and status updates current. A remote employee can’t see the empty chair at your desk when you’ve left for lunch or a meeting and may wonder why messages aren’t being answered.
How to build strong relationships in a remote team
Set up your systems (and some backups for when they fail)
Technology has made the growth of remote work possible. But technology can be fickle.
Choose a suite of tools for your team to use and follow up to make sure that everyone has the support they need to use them consistently. Options to consider:
Instant communication: Slack, HipChat
Video Conferencing: BlueJeans, HighFive
Project management: Asana, Trello
Shared docs: Dropbox, Google Docs
No one wants to waste time troubleshooting once a meeting starts, so have contingency plans in place for a remote connection to continue seamlessly if (or, more accurately, when) one system fails. Is the video screen in the conference room on the fritz? Fire up Bluejeans, or whatever video link you’re using, on a laptop and set it up next to you so that remote workers have a seat at the table. In case the internet connection cuts out, determine in advance which cell or office phone remote employees should call so you can put them on speaker. In small group meetings where everyone is expected to collaborate, being able to hear and see one another is essential.
What everyone should know about running virtual meetings
A conscientious remote employee is making an effort to understand and adapt to the organization’s needs and culture. To show that the commitment goes both ways, try to understand what the organization looks like from the remote worker’s point of view. If it’s possible, visit the remote office (but only when it’s practical to do so—inviting yourself to an employee’s home may be overstepping the bounds of a professional relationship!)
Think about relationships between team members, both in the central office and remote locations. When all members of a team are in far-flung locations, there’s a shared commitment to connecting virtually and equal access to the organization’s information and culture. When only one or a few individuals are outside the central location, it can be easy for remote workers to feel alienated. When discussing work-from-home or remote arrangements, monitor your language to ensure you’re not creating any unintentional divisions or resentments within the team.
How to manage direct reports
People who work from home tend to value their flexibility more than office perks like happy hours and free snacks. Nonetheless, it’s important to make sure that your organization’s sense of camaraderie extends to the remote offices.
Arrange quarterly or semi-annual offsites for team members to spend time together face-to-face. Allot a few minutes at the start of each team videoconference for people to chat about their weekends, their kids—the things that make colleagues feel like fellow humans instead of just co-workers.
And when the team gets new coffee mugs or fleece vests, remember those far-flung colleagues and drop one in the mail.
Rethinking the work-life equation
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