Technology may someday give all the jobs to automated robots. Until that happens, humans will continue to do the heavy lifting — just not the way they used to.
The State of the American Workplace Report from Gallup found that 43 percent of Americans now work remotely. Many only work remotely on the road, but for an increasing number of employees, full-time telecommuting is a way of life.
Managers of remote employees face unique challenges. Even those who prefer to leave workers to their own devices occasionally need status updates, answers to questions and quick turnaround on small projects. When the boss can’t drop by without boarding a plane, communication can quickly become a frustrating game of phone tag.
Remote employees don’t want special treatment, though. They’re just like everyone else, and they want the same respect, oversight and opportunities afforded to their in-office colleagues. To build solid two-way relationships with remote employees, managers need to know what makes those employees tick.
Resisting progress isn’t the answer
Some, like former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, tackle the issues of remote work by removing the option altogether. While that might prevent the occasional slacker from slipping through the cracks, it also prevents companies from reaping the benefits of a remote workforce.
For starters, remote workers tend to be more productive than their in-house colleagues. One study from SurePayroll found that 86 percent of people prefer to work alone to achieve maximum productivity, while 40 percent say impromptu desk visits from co-workers are a major distraction. Home offices have their own brand of interruptions, but stay-at-home professionals have more control over their environments and more power to stay on task.
Home offices also save companies money. Office space, desks and electric bills get expensive, but when employees handle those costs themselves, employers reap the rewards. As more young people (who increasingly prefer remote options, per Gallup) enter the workforce, employers will need to offer remote work options if they expect to compete for top talent.
How to manage remote employees or workers
Remote employees might be independent, but they still deserve to feel included. Follow these tips to manage remote workers the way they want to be managed.
1. Hold more meaningful video meetings.
The International Labour Organization found that 40 percent of remote workers self-reported high stress levels compared to just 25 percent of in-office workers. While it’s possible that remote employees tend to be more prone to stress, managers can reduce the anxiety that accompanies remote work by making remote workers feel more like part of the team.
Schedule regular one-on-one video calls at least weekly to keep connections strong. But don’t limit video calls to business only. Take some time at the beginning of every call to catch up on remote workers’ personal lives, so they feel less like contractors and more like valued team members. No need to pry — just stay up to date at an office-appropriate level.
Do the same for full-team meetings. Leave time during video calls to keep colleagues familiar with faces and help everyone get to know one another.
2. Provide explicit expectations.
No leader enjoys micromanaging, but remote employees need an extra level of detail in their instructions. In-office employees can drop by for a chat if something comes up. Remote employees can send an IM or call, but those actions feel much more interruptive than an in-person knock on an open door.
In a survey of businesses with remote workers, HiveWork found that clear communication of expectations was one of the most important factors in successful management. Set concrete timelines and measurable goals, then step back and let the remote employee handle the rest.
Pay more attention to IMs and emails from telecommuters. They will call when something is truly urgent, but they shouldn’t have to wait 24 hours to get answers to their shorter questions.
3. Don’t overload them.
Communication with remote employees is a complex problem with a Goldilocks solution. Too little makes employees feel frustrated and unappreciated. Too much makes them feel untrusted and creates some of the interruptions they left the office environment to escape. The perfect amount makes employees feel supported, not smothered.
Ask employees how much communication they like, then work together to find a system that works for both sides. Time Doctor recommends that businesses, even small ones, use project management systems to help remote workers see what’s happening without needing to send multiple emails. When remote workers have insight into what others are doing, they don’t need to ask as many questions and can do their work with minimal interruption.
Remote workers are tremendous assets for any company. Like all team members, they want to be managed by people who respect and understand them. Follow these tips to keep remote workers in the loop and remind them that they’re just as valued as anyone else in the office.