By Jan Makela
A February 2018 Gallup poll showed that more than 43 percent of the United States workforce is composed of remote workers—and the ability to work remotely is a powerful recruiting and retention tool for many organizations. In addition to those obvious benefits, the organization also enjoys lower costs by saving on office-related expenses and a boost in productivity as employees are perhaps no longer on long commutes.
People will consider part-time work if they are afforded the flexibility of not having to come into the office, and as not every role in an organization requires a full-time employee, it can prove a perfect arrangement for the employer and employee.
To get the most out of employees who telecommute, however, you need to have some firm guidelines in place. Here are five keys to implementing a work-from-home system and methods to best manage remote employees.
1. Set Clear Expectations.
Many managers worry that remote employees won’t work hard without supervision, although studies consistently show that remote employees are more productive than their office-based counterparts. When there are productivity problems, it’s most often due to unclear expectations, not slacking off. With these strategies, you can ensure that your expectations are crystal clear.
Properly define what success looks like in the operational context of your organization. Have a frank conversation and discuss the definition of “success” for a specific project. Be sure that you and your employee have a shared vision. Set firm goals and identify the required outcome, and establish a timeline for specific milestones.
You should regularly check-in with your remote staff, monitor progress, and ensure that they are moving toward their goal in a timely fashion. If you’ve given clear direction on the required outcomes, you don’t have to make a personal judgment about whether someone is working hard. By investing time in the planning stage, it will pay off in productivity.
2. Relationships Matter.
People are social creatures and need interaction to stay engaged. Building a good relationship with your remote employees ensures that they don’t feel isolated from the team. It also sets the foundation for good management. In a shared environment, relationship building happens around the water cooler, in hallways, and before and after meetings. Without physical proximity, new avenues for relationship building need to be used with remote workers.
Use instant messaging for the types of interactions you have in the hallways with office-based staff. Ask how their day is going, send a link to a helpful article, or share a joke. You’re not going to just run into your remote employees, so connections require deliberate effort. Set reminders in your calendar to make sure informal check-ins don’t get overlooked. Encourage a couple of minutes of personal chit-chat at the beginning of calls. Ask about their weekend, family, or hobbies. Follow up on their comments from previous calls.
3. Be Available.
Remote employees also can’t stop at your desk when they need a quick answer, so it’s important that you set aside time to be available for them. Respond to messages promptly so you don’t hinder their productivity. If you can’t fully address a question right away, let them know you’re working on it.
Share your calendar. Sharing your calendar allows remote staff to see when they have the best chance of catching you between meetings. Schedule regular check-in times. Remote staff then can save their nonurgent questions for your regular meeting, rather than sending multiple emails or instant messages.
Another avenue is video calls, which can build rapport by allowing colleagues to visually connect. It’s more personal than a voice on the phone or text in an email. Video calls offer another advantage. . .callers are more engaged and less likely to be distracted by emails or social media. Many video-calling programs have polling options. Add a personal touch by starting each meeting with a question similar to: What method of communication do you prefer (email, IM, phone, video call)? What are your weekend plans?
It’s also helpful to add a nonbusiness touch that will jump-start a personal connection and has distinct business value. We learn a lot about each other visually. Create a shared picture folder. Invite team members to post an image of family or activities they have been involved in.
Communication takes extra effort when working remotely. To be effective, you must communicate clearly, often, and well. When talking with someone in person, there are many subtle cues that add to the message. Facial expressions, gestures, body language, and tone of voice all help to interpret the speaker’s meaning. Those cues are often missing when communicating remotely.
Be direct. Clearly state what you need and when you need it. This reduces the need for followup messages to clarify the request. Be warm and personable but not overly familiar. Without nonverbal cues, jokes and casual comments can be easily misinterpreted.
Share your progress. When you’re not in the same office, your colleagues don’t know what you’re working on. Let them know how projects are progressing. Share your barriers. Likewise, let your colleagues know what barriers you’re encountering and what help you need to address those barriers.
5. Connection to the Organization.
You might find that remote employees don’t have the same buy-in and engagement as people who experience some exposure to the home office. If your employee completely works from home, consider including them in home office training events and allow them to meet people that they may interact with but never see. You might find that relationships improve and turnover of remote workers decreases. Finding ways for employees to connect is the secret sauce to having successful employees that do not come to the office.
Both the employer and the employee—part time or full time—can benefit from working remotely. For the employee, the advantages may be obvious; however, employers also benefit from less overhead, increased cash flow, and access to a larger talent pool. When implementing a work-from-home arrangement, it’s Important to follow these five guidelines to best position employees—and the organization—for success.
Jan Makela is an executive coach, Ellicott City, Maryland (www.StrengthBasedLeadership.net), and author of Cracking the Code to Success and Be the Manager People Won’t Leave: What Great Managers Do to Create an Organization Where Employees Thrive.