Image: Shane Adams Image: Shane Adams

More and more people are choosing to work from home and many companies operate out of multiple different sites, often across different geographies, says Richard Harris from Okappy.

In a 2014 survey of business leaders at the Global Leadership Summit, almost 60 per cent of leaders said that the majority of their workforce would be working remotely by 2020.

As the service sector becomes an ever-larger part of the UK, European and US economies, this often entails teams of technicians and engineers visiting lots of different sites. More and more people are choosing to work from home and many companies operate out of multiple different sites, often across different geographies.

There are many benefits to remote working for both the company and for the employee, including increased productivity and the ability to attract “Millennial Workers”. However, managing teams is already difficult without the additional complications that having remote teams entails.

Managing remote teams is difficult when team members don’t see each other and don’t have the option to communicate face-to-face. If team members are frequently out of the office and at different locations, it is much harder to build rapport between individuals. It is harder to communicate if you’re relying on emails, telephone calls or instant messages and it’s harder to spot personal or project issues or identify areas for improvement.

So if more and more people are working in remote teams, how can you best manage those teams? Following are 5 top tips for managing remote teams.

1) Hire the right people

Working remotely requires the right sort of person. They have to be technical and especially comfortable using communications technology such as mobile phones, messaging apps or job management software. At the same time they need to be a self-starter who is happy to work on their own. They need to be able to build relationships quickly with clients and colleagues, often with people who they may have had little contact with previously.

It is important to spend time recruiting the right person and to think clearly about the type of individual you are looking to recruit, even before you’ve placed an advert.

Think of the questions you want to ask in the interview, ensure the questions are relevant and ensure you ask the same questions to each applicant. It’s also good to be precise about what outcomes you expect a person to deliver.

In the interview, spend time understanding what roles the person has been hired to do in the past, what were his or her biggest accomplishments and also what were his or her mistakes. It doesn’t matter what those mistakes were, it’s what the person learnt from them and what they did to change that is important.

You could also ask what their bosses would think of them and why they left and don’t forget to follow up with references.

It is also important to sell the benefits of working for you. You could think of the 5 Fs that candidates typically care about – Fit with your company, Family (what support they get), Freedom to make decisions, Fortune (salary or benefits as well as career progression) and having Fun.

For more information, see Eight tips for recruiting remote workers and seven steps to smarter marketing.

Once you’ve found someone who you think will be the right fit, don’t rush the decision. Trust your instincts, listen to recommendations, follow up on references and do background checks.

2) Focus on outcomes

You’ve hired the perfect candidate, now it’s important to ensure that everyone knows what is expected of him or her. It is important to set expectations and focus on clear outcomes. With less face-to-face contact, everyone needs to be singing to the same tune.

Managing jobs using software, publishing information on intranets or sharing information using messaging apps helps everyone be aware of outcomes and know when those outcomes have been met. This leads to less disputes and more harmonious relations for those in the office and those out and about.

Maintaining consistency is also key. Once you set your targets, goals and outcomes, stick to them otherwise it could be disconcerting or frustrating for outside teams. When people are working remotely they don’t have the same access to information that their colleagues in the office have. There is less opportunity for “water coolers chats” so there is a risk that any change will come as a bolt out of the blue to the remote team.

Team workers will create their own information networks. If your company is not clear, open and transparent then this can lead to rumours and “Chinese whispers” which can increase stress and anxiety for all concerned and ultimately reduces productivity.

3) Access to information

One of the benefits of working in remote teams is the flexibility that it entails. No more clock watching, no more commuting and no more time wasted in pointless meetings.

But it is important to ensure that remote team members have access to the right information so they can efficiently schedule their work. With the big strides in communications technology especially around cloud based applications and networked software, getting real-time information is now quicker and easier than ever.

But it is important to decide which information is shared and which information is maintained centrally. In my experience with Okappy, we’ve found that some customers are very open, sharing all their job information with all their employees, letting them pick the jobs they do (and get paid for) whilst others prefer to manage the work centrally. This depends on your workers, how they work best and the level of trust between the office and the outside teams.

Think about your corporate culture. It you tend to use a top down approach with management leaving outside teams to get on with their works, providing help and support rather than monitoring and micro managing can help ensure more efficient working and happier team.

As former Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously said “it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

4) Allocate centrally –

Choice and having control over your day-to-day working life is important. But, some times having too much choice and too much information can be overwhelming.Again, going back to my experience with Okappy, some customers are happy to let all their employees and subcontractors see all jobs, see what their colleagues are doing and help each other out whilst others keep the job information hidden, only allocating one job at a time when the employee is ready.

Partly this is a measure of trust, partly a function of the size of the company and the number and type of jobs done each day.

However, for some decisions such as which health care plan to use or which phone to buy, you could leave this decision to the individual. But does the individual really want to take the time to research each option. Having lots of different technologies in circulation can also impact a company’s own cost as they have to support different devices and settings.

It’s a fine balancing act for management. Too much freedom can have a negative impact on work done whereas too much control can erode trust.

5) Good communication

Building personal relationships with your employees is the best way to make sure they feel heard. Listen to their needs; ask what matters most to them. Keeping the dialogue open and informal, will create an environment where employees personal and professional goals can be met

Having frequent meet ups can help build relationships and provide an opportunity for face-to-face communication. But remember to schedule a time and location that suits everyone.

Working with remote teams can have its benefits but it also throws up lots of additional things to consider. However like it or note, more and more companies are using remote workers and more and more workers expect to work away from the office more often.

By Richard Harris, director, Okappy

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