The concept of an office has changed dramatically in the past eight years. In the early 2000s most small businesses could count on their employees spending their days within the physical walls of an office, but even then things were starting to change. New internet-based tools allowed employees to perform tasks without being physically present in the office. In 2005 remote employment reached a tipping point, according to these Telecommuting Statistics from Global Workplace Analytics.
Since then telecommuting has grown 433 percent. Much of that growth came in the early years – the last big jump came from 2007 to 2008 – but the fact remains that more employees than ever are working outside the office. Chances are your small business employs workers who don’t even live in the same state. Yet they can be just as productive as, if not more productive than, in-house employees.
Anyone managing remote employees needs to understand that their needs are different than those of in-house employees. Remote employees enjoy a more flexible lifestyle and tend to take advantage. It’s not up to them to conform to the rules of an office in which they do not work. It’s up to the manager to ensure everyone is on the same page. That’s why these five crucial tips will come in handy for anyone managing remote employees.
# 1. Get them on Skype
It might not seem becoming to recommend one specific communications tool, since there are dozens upon dozens of them. But from experience, Skype is the way to go for communicating with remote employees. Just think about the factors you desire in an instant messaging platform:
- Dedicated to work (not shared with friends and family)
- Ability to quickly share files
- Video chat capabilities
- Group chat support
- A record of archived chats
Go through every major instant messaging platform, and only Skype really fits the bill for all points. Google Talk comes close, but too often people keep both professional and personal contacts on their lists. That’s the easiest way to become distracted and miss important points.
The downside is that while Google Talk and all of its features are free, Skype Premium, which adds group video chat and other features, does cost money. But you’re managing a business, right? And isn’t a communications platform important to your business? You can justify the small expenditure with the large benefits.
# 2. Set regular check-in times
Perhaps the most important reality to keep in mind when managing remote employees: they don’t act like traditional office employees. To manage them in the same way as office employees is to fail at managing remote employees.
Managers must understand that remote employees tend to spread out their days. They will take mid-day breaks to run errands. They will move to the couch when the desk chair becomes uncomfortable. Sometimes they’ll take off for hours during the day and make up that time at night. To tell them they can’t is to misunderstand their situations.
Yet as managers, we need to stay in contact with employees near and far. So how can we adapt our styles to fit those of our remote employees? By setting regular check-in times. It doesn’t have to be for long, either; just a couple of minutes per day will do. It also doesn’t have to be at a regular time. “Regular check ins” means regular on a daily or weekly basis.
Meeting regularly might not cause any great improvements in workflow. What it will do is prevent slip-ups. The biggest changes are the ones we don’t see. Setting up regular check-ins with remote employees, at a time that works for both manager and employee, will help keep everything above board.
# 3. Use a collaborative task manager
When you manage employees in an office, task management can take many forms. It can come from an email, from task management software, or even a memo dropped onto the employee’s desk. Because you know where they’ll be, it’s easy to follow up and follow through. That becomes a bit more difficult with remote employees. Managers need a set way to assign and check in on tasks.
When I started working from home, my boss used 37 Signals’ Basecamp to assign tasks. It worked well enough. I could view my tasks, and then upload the completed work. Yet there was always something clunky about Basecamp that didn’t work for me. It might work for many managers out there, and for them I encourage it. But there are alternatives.
Sensing a need in the market, many developers have created collaborative task managers to help when managing remote employees. There are intricate solutions, such as WeekPlan, that can help managers who oversee a dozen or more employees. For smaller projects, something like Toodledo can provide minimalist task management.
# 4. Ensure mobile compatibility
Most small businesses cannot afford to supply their employees with smartphones. The service and upkeep costs are just too high. Yet many, if not most, employees of small businesses will carry smartphones of their own. Almost all remote employees will have a smartphone; it’s tough to run errands mid-day without one. To the manager, this means one thing: ensure compatibility.
That isn’t to say that the manager should ensure all employees are using Android, or all employees are using iPhone (or even BlackBerry). That’s a bit unrealistic today. I use the Google Nexus 4 on T-Mobile, while some of my employees use the iPhone on Verizon or the Samsung Galaxy S3 on AT&T. That will never change. What we can do is use software with cross-platform compatibility.
We can circle right back to Skype with this. It is available on all smartphone platforms (coming soon to BlackBerry, at least). We can communicate that way, whether we’re at our computers or on our mobile phones. The same goes for task managers like Producteev. We can share notes with Evernote. The key is ensuring that all software we use, we can use on any device. It helps keep all employees and managers on the same page, since we have all relevant information with us at all times.
# 5. Arrange for in-person visits
For the most part, companies have accepted remote employees. They work one place, we work another, and with the power of communications tools we get the job done. But anyone who has managed remote employees or who has worked as a remote employee knows that the lack of personal connection can be grueling.
Employees sit at home all day, escaping to coffee shops for a touch of human connection. They love the flexibility and freedom of remote employment, but still need people in their lives. Managers type to remote employees and sometimes see their faces in video chat, but still yearn for that personal connection, as they do with all employees.
The solution – one I’ve experienced first hand with great success – is to convince the big boss to sponsor trips for remote employees. Get them a flight and a place to stay, and let them spend a week a year in the office, interacting with the regular employees. This might not be feasible for, or even attractive to, everyone. But for those willing, it can provide insights that you just can’t get over an internet connection.
Are you a remote employee? Do you manage a team that includes remote employees? What are some things I missed that you consider best practices?