Doug Flaig, President of Stratus Building Solutions.
When Covid-19 began to spread, many office workers were forced to stay home, and now three-and-a-half years later, many of them are still there. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s survey, before the pandemic, fewer than 6% of Americans worked from home. But it’s forecasted that by 2025, 22% of employees, or almost one-fourth of the workforce, will work remotely.
The benefits for employees are undeniable: greater flexibility in the hours they work, saving time and money by not having to commute to an office and the ability to achieve a better work-life balance. Employers have seen benefits, too. They’ve saved money on office space and supplies, and they can recruit the most talented job seekers without worrying if they’ll consider relocating.
But this new virtual office environment comes with its own set of challenges. How do you manage workers you’ve never met in real life and don’t see every day?
Establish remote work ground rules.
From the start, you need to set agreements with your employees. In his book Straight-Line Leadership, Dusan Djukich argues setting agreements with your team, versus expectations, creates better buy-in and execution.
With the proper agreements in place, conversations become more about the agreement and less about the person. Remote work is a privilege, not a right. But it’s also important to ask each employee about their work style, and then apply that in your dealings with them. You’ll find that some people may not have the personality or self-discipline it takes to be successful working remotely, and it will be up to you to determine who does and who doesn’t.
In a remote setting, the mission can sometimes become obscured by physical separation. Therefore, remote teams require frequent reminders of the company’s goals and regular tracking against targets, such as through a weekly progress scorecard. This ensures that despite the physical distance, the team is united and aligned in purpose and direction. Transparency on where everyone stands against the targets can help foster healthy internal competition as well as collaborative effort on shared goals.
When managing a remote team, it is essential to meet regularly over video, as body language, facial expressions and other non-verbal elements of conversation are often lost in emails and telephone calls. A weekly face-to-face session will foster understanding between you and your employees and open two-way lines of communication, making them better able to voice concerns they may be having so you can head off problems. Make sure your employees know they can always reach out to you via instant messaging, email or phone calls if they need help.
Trust is essential. If you can’t trust your remote employees, the arrangement has little chance of succeeding. Micromanaging, while never a good idea, isn’t really possible in this scenario, and many attempts to try have backfired.
As a good leader, you can avoid the pitfall of micromanaging by focusing on outcomes and results rather than hours clocked. And in a flexible work study done by Mercer in 2020, 94% of employers surveyed said productivity remained the same or improved after employees began working remotely.
Foster a sense of unity.
Work is only part of the equation. One of the dangers of employees working remotely is that they can feel like they are working in a vacuum. I’ve found the most successful companies foster a sense of unity among their employees—building a team that works together toward a common goal.
In the office, a lot of this happens organically. Employees gather around the water cooler to discuss their weekend plans or meet in the breakroom for cake to celebrate a co-worker’s birthday or promotion. Maybe they go together for drinks or trivia after work.
With remote workers who’ve never been in the same room, or possibly even the same city, team building needs to be deliberate. Weekly video group meetings will give your team members the chance to get to know each other face to face and build community. This will help your employees stay connected, happy and productive.
Another approach to fostering a stronger bond among your remote team members is through utilizing phone calls instead of relying solely on emails. Emails, and even instant messaging, can inadvertently replace meaningful and efficient communication. When an email exchange extends back and forth multiple times, it’s beneficial to gently encourage your team to opt for a brief phone call, which can expedite the resolution process and enhance overall clarity without the need for extensive typing.
Great leaders know that the key to successfully managing employees, whether they work on-site or remotely, is to treat them as people. Recognize they have families, hobbies, dreams and goals that have nothing to do with what happens nine to five. Remembering and celebrating their milestones, including birthdays and anniversaries, will let them know you care. And while an email or a shout-out in a meeting is great, a handwritten note of recognition or encouragement adds a personal touch.
Create an environment where remote workers can thrive.
Remote work is here to stay. Creating an environment where remote workers can thrive only takes a shift in perspective and a willingness to keep them engaged. By establishing excellent communication, setting clear goals and measuring progress by work output and not hours, all while valuing employees as individuals, you will benefit both your employees and your organization.
Your remote workers have the potential for incredible productivity, creativity and innovation. However, if your organization doesn’t learn how to empower remote teams, they may take their skills and expertise elsewhere.
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