Managing staff who work remotely

There is no doubt that more and more Australians are working remotely from their workplace’s main office.

My business employs people who all work remotely - three from their home, another three in other countries. And, apparently, my business is not that unusual.

According to new research by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, about half of Australia's workforce are digital workers who use the internet to work away from their office for at least a few hours each week and are quite happy to do so. Many work from their homes. Others work while travelling. And some, like myself at times, work quite happily in cafés.

While 35% of digital workers work less than a day a week away from their office, 22% work away from their central office at least 4 days each week.

The benefits for team members and workplaces are certainly there: 55% enjoy the flexibility and 30% say they get more work done.

But there are also challenges: 24% say they have reduced access to communications and 20% say they miss the face-to-face contact with colleagues. And there are also the challenges for managers in leading team members who they do not see every day, who may well work in another State or country.

So, what works in managing staff who work remotely?

  1. Use the right people: Although many people already do some work at home, working remotely on an ongoing basis does not suit everyone. It is best suited for people who are self-motivated, trustworthy, good communicators, whose work does not require them to be physically present at the office, and who are comfortable with technology and communicating on-line.

    So, when filling positions that are required to work remotely, it is essential that people with the above qualities and abilities are recruited. Alternatively, you may already have some staff who would like the freedom to do some of their work hours outside of the workplace. If such working arrangements are new for your workplace, you can always trial it on a limited or temporary basis.

  2. Communicate clear expectations: New team members may need detailed instructions until they are more familiar with what is required. It is also important with remote workers to be very clear about how their work will be measured – the outputs, so to speak.

    You don’t want to dictate every part of their work, of course. People need to be free to do their work, their way. Instead, hold people accountable to goals they set for themselves, letting you know how they are going, and if there are any difficulties.

  3. Build and maintain relationships: It is always easier to build relationships when you see people face-to-face. So, it may be possible to bring team members together for important meetings or shared professional development from time to time.

    You can also build relationships with remote staff by chatting to them face-to-face, but on-line, through services like Skype and Facetime. Even team meetings can be held this way. And, of course, there is contact through old technology – the telephone. If you are communicating primarily by email, still allow time for some chattiness, getting to know people personally and letting them get to know you.

    Some workplaces have a web page with photos and a short bio of all of their staff to help people feel part of the larger team. Other workplaces set up a shared Facebook page where team members are able to share information, ask for help, and get to know each other.

  4. Maintain good two-way communication: Certainly, this is important when team members are office-based. But it is essential when people are working remotely as it is easy to feel disengaged from what is happening. So, keeping people in the loop, involving them in decisions that affect their work, and being approachable, all help facilitate good communication. You also need to be clear as to when you (and they) are contactable, allowing for timezone differences for team members who work interstate or overseas.

    It is important to appreciate that when you are primarily reliant on written communications, such as email, the potential for misunderstandings or communication breakdowns will increase. The lack of context, tone and body language contribute to these misunderstandings. The potential for misunderstandings also increases when you are communicating with someone from a different culture.

    So, it is important that such misunderstandings or communication breakdowns are expected, normalised when they occur, and clarifications made when needed.

  5. Ensure that technologies are useful and compatible: There are some wonderful technologies that support remote workers – task managers, shared calendars, shared documents, portable laptops and smart phones – to name just a few.

    However, the devices need to be able to communicate with each other. It is no good, for example, if a remote worker’s Windows-based personal computer cannot read files sent from your Apple Mac computer.

    So, it is important that file formats are agreed, that smart phones and computers are compatible, that important software works across devices, and that everyone has access to internet connections with sufficient speed.

  6. Provide meaningful recognition: Although this is important in workplaces generally, remote workers don’t get the positive feedback that office-based workers receive through their interactions with colleagues. So, recognising the efforts of remote workers becomes especially important.

    It is important to realise that people like recognition in different ways. Some like to be trusted and left alone to do their work. Others feel affirmed when they are given the opportunity take on a new challenge. Some value their supervisor making time for them or simply being genuinely thanked.

Given the growth of organisations, the emergence of new technologies, and the wishes of many team members, the trend for more people to work remotely is only going to become stronger.

We need to be prepared for it. And we need to make it work.  

What do you do to work well with colleagues who do not work alongside of you? I would value your experience. You can add your thoughts and comments through my Facebook Page.

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