A special analysis done by FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics found that between 2005 to 2017, there was a 159% increase in remote work. Today 4.7 million, or 3.4% of the population work remotely. Lister estimates that by 2025, some 70% of the workforce will work remotely at least five days a month.
The benefits to organizations that offer remote work are twofold. They can save big money on limiting brick and mortar space and they are likely to see an increase in productivity. According to one recent survey, 53% of the remote workers who responded said they were more likely to work overtime, compared to just 28% of those in the office. For employees, working remotely allows them to experience less distraction, flexible schedules, and a commute-free lifestyle.
That being said, there are some pitfalls to having a dispersed team that managers need to overcome in order to engage workers and maintain or elevate productivity:
- Employees can feel less motivated or connected to the mission of the organization.
- Working alone can bring about feelings of isolation or loneliness.
- For many, especially those that work remotely 100% of the time, it can be a challenge to unplug.
For these reasons, managers must take specific measures to engage their team including:
Select and hire those who would work well remotely
In the same way that some people need be given clear and consistent direction, some just don’t have the self-discipline or self-motivation to work remotely. They need a reason—and a time–to get out of bed, shower, and get to a physical space in order to be in work mode. Conversely, other individuals are more disciplined and can feel just as motivated by walking downstairs to their home office as they can arriving at an office for work.
When hiring, look for individuals with track records of proven accomplishments that were done either solo, or did not depend on the location of the workplace. Also, bear in mind the reason why some people would be more adaptable to working from home. Parents or part-time employees might be a good fit so they can juggle their other responsibilities.
Be sure to ask them about the physical workspace they will allocate in their home to know if they have a quiet area that will minimize distractions. It is also important to determine if they are good working with technology so they are able to troubleshoot technical issues themselves.
Set clear expectations, routines, and goals for everyone on the team
When scheduling meetings be sure to be cognizant of time zones and set a routine for the team to follow. For example, on Tuesday afternoons there will be a Skype call and by end of day Friday all feedback is due to the project manager.
Set certain standards and lead by example by always using your Skype camera, rather than just the audio, which further enforces the notion that the team should speak, and see, each other regularly. Researchers at the University of Iowa have found that when it comes to memory, we don’t remember things we hear nearly as well as things we see or touch. Without any of the non-verbal cues to discern intent from what we see and hear, communication issues can easily arise.
Keep the team current on your strategy and goals, and how any leadership decisions will affect them. The more they are kept informed and follow a common mission, the more motivated they will feel to perform to the goals set by you. Ongoing and regularly scheduled meetings will help keep everyone up to speed on all performance targets.
Vary partners for collaborative tasks
A great way to keep the team working together is to mix team members, when possible, for different partner groups. For example, rather than assigning the same lead for one project or task, switch who is responsible so that team members alternate who they have to engage with. This will ensure that Karen doesn’t always talk to Tim and never to Robin.
Mixing up team projects also promotes cross training which is beneficial for both development and retention. Employees are less likely to leave if they feel that they have access to other opportunities and are not just stuck in their usual wheelhouse.
Incorporate personal engagement
When working remotely it can be easy for employees to feel disconnected from the team as they don’t have the same opportunities for water cooler interaction. As a manager, it is important to create an open and trusting environment. This requires some time being spent learning about personal aspects of your employees and encouraging others to do the same.
Rather than asking how the weather is, spend the beginning of your team meetings checking in with team members, inviting them to share something in their personal lives—family, hobbies, or interests. Perhaps someone in their inner circle is sick, going off to college, or just got promoted. Sharing topics like that encourage a stronger bond that will make team feel closer.
Gestures like snail-mail cards on birthdays, virtual team lunches on work anniversaries, and monthly in-person happy hours to celebrate promotions are ideas to consider. In addition, promote a mindset and practice of celebrating differences, being sure to remember national holidays and learning about and respecting cultural differences.
Solicit their feedback
As is true for any manager it is your responsibility to understand how well your team is working. This understanding is of even greater significance for your remote team. These helpful questions from Lighthouse are a good starting point when exploring remote team members’ satisfaction:
- What is your favorite part about working remotely? (Understand what drives them)
- What is your daily work routine?
- Do you feel included in our team decisions? Why/why not?
- How are the tools that we use as a team working for you? (i.e., are they handicapped by poor audio on calls or do they struggle using any tools the team uses?)
- Which of your coworkers do you wish you had more of a connection with? How do you think that would help?
- You visit the office X times a year. Do you feel like that’s too much, not enough, or just right?
- How might I better support remote employees like you?
Use the feedback gathered from these questions and to adjust your, and the teams’, ways of working. Be sure to check in, in a few months, to see if the changes you’ve made have had the desired impact.
When it comes to remote work, an online study by Zapier found that 74% of respondents said they’d be willing to quit their job to work at home. Over 25% said they’d like to try it, but their company didn’t offer that option. Overall, 95% of U.S. workers who participated said they wanted to work remotely.
This means that whether or not your team includes remote members now, the chances are good that you will be in a position to manage a remote team, or at least have a few remote team members at some point in your career. It’s important to be proactive and establish protective measures and habits that make a strong team in order to achieve happier employees and higher productivity.