Something strange is going on in the telecommuting world. Large companies like IBM, Yahoo, Bank of America, Honeywell, and Best Buy have called their remote staff back to the office.
Why is this happening?
Business Insider reports that IBM wants team members in specific departments, such as marketing and IT, to collocate in assigned cities. IBM believes that collocation promotes creativity, innovation, collaboration, and productivity. Though the company saved millions of dollars by instituting a telecommuting workforce, they predict that employees will experience greater job satisfaction while collocating than working on dispersed teams.
It’s possible that large companies like IBM find remote teams difficult to manage, so they’re reverting to previous, more comfortable methods. Managers may feel that impromptu meetings, announcements, and training are quicker and easier in person than over the phone or internet. They may also feel that accurate tracking, accountability, and performance evaluation are more difficult when team members work from home. However, Global Workplace Analytics reports that telecommute improves collaboration, productivity, and employee performance measurement.
Information security is another reason large companies may recall their remote teams. Information and network assets may be harder to manage and protect when teams are spread out. For example, enterprises that keep customer social security numbers, client sales data, or patient medical records may feel more comfortable managing security when employees are located under one roof and using an internal network. However, modern cloud-based applications have improved remote access security features so that teams can work anywhere using desktops, laptops, or mobile devices. Increased accessibility boosts productivity and prevents delays in communication, which generally decreases costs.
6 Tips for Successfully Managing Remote Teams
So, how can companies reap the benefits of a remote workforce and prevent a future recall? It’s all about balancing employee autonomy and connectivity. Companies need to find that sweet spot between letting their people loose and maintaining order. Here are a few tips to help create such a balance.
1. Find the Right People
First and foremost, you need the right people for the job and team. Consider the interpersonal and professional qualifications necessary to execute business tasks and the overall mission. Research your candidates thoroughly through LinkedIn, online search engines, and professional references. Verify employment and profile your candidates as much as possible using online resources. If necessary, ask candidates to submit work samples or complete aptitude tests to prescreen them and validate their skills.
Prior telecommuting experience may be favorable, but include candidates with strong resumés and interpersonal skills in your search. Thousands of qualified professionals want to transition to telecommuting careers, but they need an opportunity to prove they can work from home. Such individuals are often ambitious and work hard to exceed expectations. When you find a handful of qualified candidates, request a video interview instead of a phone interview. Video interviews are as close as you can get to in-person meetings, and they give you a better glimpse of the candidates’ telecommuting capabilities.
Bonus Tip: Use trusted job posting sites that specialize in telecommuting, such as Virtual Vocations. With Virtual Vocations, you work directly with an Employer Relations Manager and post jobs for free.
2. Establish Enforceable Policies
Small businesses and teams might get away with short blurbs about employee conduct and how to protect sensitive information. However, larger groups may need stricter rules and training. No matter the size of your team or clientele, establish firm policies so that employees know what’s expected of them. Depending on your organization and team structure, you may need policies for:
- Communication, especially for sending emails to clients
- Social media, especially when tagging team members in photos or mentioning the company in posts
- Travel, including how to take vacation days or work while traveling
- Availability, including normal business hours or flexible schedule requirements
- Accessing the company network, including password storage and using public WiFi connections
- Time tracking and invoicing, especially for contractors
There’s no sense in creating policies that you can’t enforce or monitor, however. Use cloud-based applications as much as possible to keep a data trail of your team’s communication, reporting, and access logs. Online apps make security and other investigations easier and prevent a total shutdown of your entire operation.
Bonus Tip: Create a straightforward training presentation deck that discusses your policies, provides team members with downloadable copies, and requests a signature of acknowledgment and acceptance.
3. Create Efficient Processes
Everyone faces time management, productivity, and quality control challenges. Help your telecommuting team members make effective use of their time and talent by creating simple processes for repeated tasks, such as submitting assignments, reporting errors, requesting help, and uploading completed forms. Avoid micromanaging your employees, but give them quick-and-easy ways to access resources and complete the administrative aspects of their jobs.
Evaluate your processes regularly (e.g., every quarter or calendar year) to make sure they are still working as designed. Ask your team if they agree with the current processes and if anything needs improvement. Get everyone’s feedback and aim for a consensus among the entire group. Team members who feel that their input is valued are more likely to take ownership over their jobs and perform to a higher standard.
Bonus Tip: Document your processes and use a review checklist during your evaluation. Designate one or more employees to write, edit, and review each document. If you need help, consider posting a temporary position for a technical writer on the Virtual Vocations job database.
4. Use the Right Tools
Cloud-based tools work best for remote teams. Small and large companies alike can benefit from applications like Slack, Basecamp, Evernote, and Dropbox. It may be tempting to cut costs and use personal email accounts for communication and sharing documents, but cloud-based tools provide better security and collaboration. Consider tools for:
- Document storage
- Time tracking
- Customer relationship management (CRM)
- Online content management
- Project management
Research integrated tools with features that allow teams to chat real-time, work on documents simultaneously, and keep records and notes all in one place. Real-time collaboration and document storage are especially useful for teams spread across multiple time zones. Integrated tools are also convenient so that team members only have to log into one application, and thus remember only one username and password combination. Microsoft Office 365 and Google are popular choices since they integrate with many other programs.
Online applications also provide role-based access control, which increases security. The system administrator creates user groups with different privileges or permissions and assigns team members to the appropriate group(s). For example, some team members may need to modify client information, where other team members only need to view client information. The system administrator can create two user groups: one with permission to modify, and one with permission to view only.
Bonus Tip: Avoiding hopping on the bandwagon and subscribing to the latest, hottest tool that everybody else is using. To choose the right tool for your business and team, turn to your policies and processes for guidance. Once you clarify your methods, establish criteria that will help you fulfill your policies and processes. Then, qualify tools based on your criteria.
5. Communicate Often
Communication is critical in any organization, but remote teams need an extra nudge to stay connected. If collaboration is necessary for your business, consider scheduling a regular phone meeting on a weekly or monthly basis. You can discuss your team’s current status, project issues, changes to processes, and upcoming events. You can also introduce new team members, acknowledge individual achievements, announce birthdays and anniversaries, and share tips and industry best practices. If phone meetings are out of the question, consider using an online group chat application to make announcements, report progress, and answer common questions.
Also, leave some room for water-cooler talk and fun. Give your team an online space to speak a bit more casually, share office humor, and post pictures of family and travel adventures. Encourage members to get to know each other so that they stay connected, feel like their part of the team, and have people to turn to for support.
Bonus Tip: Schedule a holiday work party through a video conference tool. Make it fun and add contests, jokes, a slideshow with team pictures, and a recap of the year’s achievements. Just because you don’t share an office doesn’t mean you can’t have an office party!
6. Continuously Improve and Adapt
The nature of work changes as technology changes. Though it’s sometimes wise to stick with what works, blind complacency can lead to failure. Avoid getting stuck in ruts and holding onto old ways simply because they’re comfortable. However, you don’t have to give up and change trajectories when the going gets tough. In other words, you don’t have to call your remote teams back to the office when risks appear.
Remote work environments have just as many challenges as office environments. When you interpret every challenge as a limitation, you summon doom and gloom to join your team and business. Contrarily, when you perceive challenges as opportunities to think differently, perform better, and grow, then you inevitably set yourself up to succeed.
Bonus Tip: Schedule time each quarter and year to evaluate the nature of your business and remote work structure. Identify quality issues, productivity gaps, and technology constraints, as well as core competencies and areas where your team excels. Compare your status with telecommuting trends and best practices. Then, develop an improvement plan to address your concerns and cultivate a team culture around quality improvement.
Additional Tips for Successfully Managing Remote Teams
Here are a few additional tips to keep your team engaged:
- Mail handwritten thank-you cards on occasion to let your team know you sincerely appreciate their efforts.
- Host coffee or dinner meetups for team members who live in the same city.
- Create a unique hashtag that team members can use on business-related social media posts.
- Email a weekly trivia question or joke to lighten the mood and give everyone something to look forward to.
- Send your team some swag like pens, notepads, coffee mugs, and USB drives, with the company logo.
The key is to facilitate connection and trust among your team. Go the extra mile to let your employees know they are valued and appreciated. You’ll find your telecommuting crew working harder and feeling happier than ever.
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