How To Manage Remote Employees
Like many things, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the face of workforce organisation forever. Remote working was, of course, a thing well before 2020. But it was largely viewed as an in-job perk, something you let people do on a Friday as a little pick-me-up.
Before the pandemic, around one in three people worked remotely some of the time. But at the height of COVID-19, nearly half of people were working from home full time. This proved that remote work was more than a novel treat. For sectors of the economy that largely involve desk and computer-based work, it became apparent that it was a viable alternative to having people travel to work in a shared space.
When you consider the benefits in commute time and cost, and the fact that many people feel they are more productive working from home, it’s no surprise that half of workers want to continue working remotely long term.
So COVID has changed the way workforces are organised. Following on from that, it has also changed the face of management. Our models and theories of management and leadership have always been based on one key assumption - that the people you manage will be physically present in the same building at the very least.
Now remote working has pulled that assumption out from under our feet, there is a lot to reconsider. What does oversight of remote teams look like? How do you ensure people are working if you can’t physically see if they are at their desks? How do you maintain strong channels of communication across teams, enable effective collaboration, allocate tasks, foster a sense of team spirit?
Perhaps most fundamentally, we have to consider if the shift to a culture of flexible working arrangements is changing the nature of management and team leadership itself. So what does this ‘new normal’ of management look like?
Here are some key best practice principles for how to manage remote employees.
Adopt an enabling mindset
There are lots of different management styles. Some people are naturally great organisers. They like to be the hub of everything that goes on and have a hands-on approach to leadership, allocating tasks, asking for updates on the fly, pitching in wherever needed. This works well in an office environment where you are physically part of the team and lead from the front, as it were.
However, it’s not so easy to pull off with remote teams. It requires continuous dialogue, which can be distracting when it has to come in the form of live chat or voice calls. As the manager of a remote team, you are by definition at a remove from your staff. Rather than fight against this, embrace it and adjust your leadership style accordingly. Take a step back and try to see your role as that of an enabler, the person who focuses on helping others do their job. Rather than taking the initiative and leading from the front, adapt so you are offering help as needed or as requested.
Trust your team
A lot of managers struggle with what feels like that loss of hands-on control when managing remote employees. How do you keep on top of performance? Where’s the accountability? How do you know people are doing what they are meant to be doing?
Again, try not to fight it. Remote work inevitably requires leaders to place more trust in their employees, because they cannot physically look over their shoulders to see what they are doing. But many people respond very positively to having extra trust placed in them. They don’t want to be micromanaged, they relish the opportunity of taking responsibility for their own work and proving themselves. Give them the opportunity and you will likely be pleasantly surprised by the results.
Set expectations but aim for consensus
Trusting your remote employees doesn’t have to mean giving them complete free rein. As a leader, you are still responsible for making sure that everyone pulls their weight to achieve the best results for the business. Accountability matters. So set your expectations around performance, output, behaviour etc. Repeat them on a regular basis so everyone is clear. Then trust your teams to meet those expectations.
At the same time, wherever possible, get input from everybody about the best way to run the team and what the shared expectations should be. People will buy into things more readily if they feel they have ownership of them.
There’s a reason why remote working is also widely known as flexible working. It doesn’t just mean flexibly switching between the office and home (which doesn’t even apply to full time home workers). It also means having flex with things like working hours and working patterns.
One of the big draws of remote/flexible working is it gives employees more power to adapt their working lives around other aspects of their lives, such as school runs and childcare. With both parents in many households working full time, this is an absolute must for many people..
Yes, you can set your expectations about times when people have to work, whether that’s so they can get involved in meetings or interact with customers. But rather than dictate fixed working patterns, you will find it much more productive if you trust your remote employees to do what they need to do in hours of their choosing.
Focus on providing support in anyway you can
Bringing things full circle, the way to put an enabling mindset into action is to make it your priority to help your remote employees in any way you can. First of all, make yourself available and approachable. Work on making sure everyone in your team knows they can ask you for help whenever they need it. Two things that really help with this are making a point of asking if there is anything you can do to help on a regular basis. And then acting on anything they do ask for promptly.
Go out of your way to ask how people are finding remote working and if they are having any issues with anything. Be specific about what you ask - is their internet connection up to scratch? Are all the cloud apps they use functioning ok? What’s their home office set up like? Are they comfortable as they work, do they need their workspace setting up ergonomically to reduce aches and strains? Do they have the equipment they need, do they have enough storage?
These are all things which, as the manager of a remote team, you are in a position to improve. You can find a checklist and even more tips in our New Employee Starter Guide. The more comfortable and happy you can make your remote employees, the more productive they will be. By helping them out, you will earn their trust and loyalty, and together you will achieve better outcomes.