Remote work, or working from home, is growing more popular as business start realizing the benefits of such an arrangement. Not all the data is in, but early evidence suggests that working from home can make us more productive, and allowing remote work means companies have access to a wider range of candidates from all over the country—maybe even all over the world.
Still, working from home is not without its challenges, especially for leadership and management. How can you execute your responsibilities as a team leader when your team isn’t physically present? Fortunately, these seven strategies can help you out:
1. Set measurable targets. Everyone knows that one of the best ways to encourage team productivity is to set better goals. However, the types of goals and targets you set will have to be more based on tangible outcomes. For example, you can’t assign your remote workers to tackle an assignment for a specific number of hours or for a specific time of day; instead, set expectations for the final products you need. Remote workers tend to do better with bottom-line expectations, rather than process expectations, so measure progress based on these measurable outcomes. This is harder for conceptual or creative work, which doesn’t always come with hard deliverables, but you’ll still need a way to quantify your targets.
2. Don’t expect instant communication. Communication is key for teamwork, but even if your remote workers have set hours, don’t expect instant communication. One of the greatest advantages of remote work is that you aren’t constantly interrupted by questions or other forms of communication—in fact, some experts suggest that you could lose up to six hours of productivity per day due to interruptions. Instead, if it’s not an emergency, send your message in a written format and don’t expect an immediate reply—your employee will respond when he/she is finished with a given task. Of course, if you do have an emergency, you’ll need to escalate your form of communication as appropriate.
3. Allow flexibility. The more you try to restrict or control your remote workers, the fewer productivity and morale benefits you’ll see. Most of your workers will have other responsibilities—such as dropping kids off at school or doing laundry—and allowing them these moments of divergence from work will help them focus better on work when they get back to it (not to mention sharply reducing the stresses of their personal lives). Allow some degree of flexibility when it comes to hours “on the clock,” and if necessary, with deadlines. That doesn’t mean your employees are calling the shots, but it does mean you’ll give them the best possible work environment for them.
4. Strive to maintain bonds. When you work remotely, it’s easy to lose the personal connections you have with your other team members. While you don’t necessarily have to be friends with your coworkers, you do have to have a mutual respect and understanding of each other. This can get lost in translation when you aren’t communicating face-to-face on any kind of regular basis. Accordingly, make an effort to maintain bonds between your team members. That might mean occasional Skype sessions, getting together at the office every once in a while, or even going out for lunch on a certain day of the week.
5. Keep everyone on the same systems. Interruptions in productivity and communication can happen when your team is using different systems for different purposes. For example, if you and coworker A use Slack, but coworker A and coworker B use Skype as their main communication channel, you’ll run into problems when you try to communicate as a group. The same is true for time tracking, project management, and any other apps your team uses to get their work done. Make an effort to keep everyone using the same apps, programs, and processes to minimize potential hiccups.
6. Verify communications. Though dubious as a political phrase, “trust, but verify” falls in nicely here. Remote work means lots of written communication and lots of assumptions about what work is actually being performed. When you have reliable employees working for you, you can generally count on them beginning work on tasks when you assign them, and trust them to hit deadlines. However, you’ll always want to follow up with a verification, ensuring that your employees have received these messages and are clear on their responsibilities. The opportunities for miscommunication are too numerous to ignore.
7. Give and receive feedback. Finally, understand that working with a remote team is a mutually demanding process, and one where nobody really knows the ropes. Every team and every individual will have different preferences, and as you encounter more situations, you’ll be exposed to new challenges. Give your team feedback on jobs and points of communications they handled well (or poorly), and open yourself up to criticism from them as well. Through this recursive process of self-improvement, you’ll gradually build a better team communication system.
8. Outsource what you can. If you’re running a smaller, nimble team, it makes the most sense to maintain your biggest core competencies in-house and outsource the rest of the mundane work to other contractors and outside firms. The biggest struggle with this is finding talent that you can both rely on and trust. Doing so can take iteration and, most importantly, time.
With these seven strategies, you’ll have a better chance at keeping your team informed, motivated, and working together as a cohesive unit—even if they’re working from all over the United States. They aren’t perfect, and you certainly won’t become a master of remote team management overnight, but they will help guide you in this relatively new slice of office infrastructure and human resources.