Managing remote teams is only different in one way

If you’re not already managing remote workers at your company, chances are, it’s only a matter of time.
If you’re not already managing remote workers at your company, chances are, it’s only a matter of time.
Image: REUTERS/Aladin Abdel Naby
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If you’re not already managing remote workers at your company, chances are, it’s only a matter of time. The share of employees working outside of the office four to five days a week is up 24% from just four years ago, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. And 43% of American workers spent at least some time working off-site.

Americans increasingly prefer to work where they want, when they want, and on the work of their choosing. And the good news for employers is that remote working was shown by one Stanford study to create “astounding productivity boosts,” greater focus, and lower employee attrition. There’s an opportunity for a win-win here—as long as managers understand how remote workers’ needs differ from their “traditional” brethren.

My company, Business Talent Group (BTG), has since its founding in 2007 included a mix of full-time, less-than-40 hours-a-week (by-choice), remote, and on-site employees. And because of the nature of what we do— structuring projects at companies and then vetting, deploying, and overseeing high-level independent consultants to do the work—we’ve also had over a decade’s worth of experience making remote individuals and teams work.

In my experience, remote teams don’t differ fundamentally from traditional teams, except in one critical respect: you have to be more organized and deliberate than you are when managing people in one location.

Being more deliberate will help you balance helping remote workers feel a part of the overall team and culture. At most companies, it’s assumed that if you are not working “full-time” or remote, you’re not an “A” player. I try hard to make sure everyone understands that all are equal.

Here are three suggestions to use intention and planning in order to strike the balance:

Define the work and then trust remote workers to execute within the deadline. From the outset, make clear what needs to get done. This is not about what you expect people to do, but what you need them to deliver. You can’t reward people for hard work alone; it has to be about performance. Otherwise, you’ll undermine the efforts you’ve made to set specific goals and value all employees equally. The more precise— and measurable —you can be about the output of the work, the better.

Can’t get in touch with remote or a part-time colleagues in the timeframe that you’d like? This does not mean that they are not A players. It means they are exercising the flexibility you gave them. Remember that on-site employees are frequently also unavailable, whether because of meetings or other commitments. If you need a remote employee to be always available, make sure you communicate that at the beginning and decide how you will stay connected.

Use technology to connect remote workers, not tether them. Remember that remote workers often need lifestyle flexibility for childcare or medical reasons. Forcing remote employees to always be available via technology platforms during 9-to-5 hours can negate the whole reason they chose to work remotely and cause resentment. Instead, use technology wisely and strategically to cultivate corporate culture, collaboration and engagement. Communication tools like Slack, Hipchat, and Twist can help your team forge personal connections and keep important work exchanges close at hand. Information-sharing technology can also facilitate transparency and job-sharing across a group regardless of where people are working.

Design a culture of collaboration and interdependence. Use social cues to make people feel like they are working as contributing partners on one shared task—even when they’re apart—rather than working in parallel.

A Stanford study showed this team approach boosts motivation. We have also found that a collaborative, communicative approach helps us avoid misunderstandings. When someone is not in front of you, it’s easy to assume he or she is not working. So one of our core values has always been to “assume positive intent.” Even when it appears that someone is making a mistake or dropping the ball on the critical task, assume that he or she is working toward a shared goal. And then, as the saying goes, trust but verify.

The rise of remote working doesn’t eliminate the benefits of face-to-face communication—benefits like trust, nuance, and attention. So it’s important to get together when you can. Our in-person events feel like high school or college reunions; people are thrilled to see each other. Stanford Professor Pam Hind’s research suggests that these good vibes also make us more productive. According to her, bringing remote teams together for occasional in-person meetings helps boosts relational coordination, responsiveness, respect, and problem-solving—even after they return home.

Remote working is “one of the biggest drivers of transformation” in the workplace, according to the World Economic Forum. Like any disruptive force in business, there’s no reason to fear it, or worse, resist the kind of adaptations that will make the trend work to your advantage. The technology exists to overcome the physical distances, all managers need to do is stretch beyond comfort zones to overcome the psychological distances.

Jody Greenstone Miller is co-founder and CEO of Business Talent Group.