Once rare, the phenomenon of remote work has today become common and is increasingly sought after by employees. Surveys estimate that anywhere from 40% to 70% of workers in the US telecommute at least once a week. And almost half of US job seekers say the ability to work remotely is a significant factor in choosing a job.
While the stereotype of people lounging in pajamas instead of working at home may still hold for some people, a two-year Stanford study found that remote workers at a large Chinese travel company were so much more productive when they telecommuted that their output was equivalent to working a whole extra day. And a recent survey by Indeed found that the majority of employees and employers feel remote work leads to increased productivity.
That’s not to say that remote work doesn’t come with its own challenges. Workers may feel isolated, miss out on team activities and even lose motivation. What’s more, problems with communication are already common in employee-manager relationships: 44% of workers say this had led to a delay or failure to complete projects. And distance can strain things even further.
So how can you get the best performance out of your out-of-office staff? Let’s take a look.
Though remote work eliminates literal water cooler conversations, messaging and texting between coworkers is a popular alternative. But all modes of communication are not created equal: research shows in-person conversations build trust, allow for subtleties in communication and get people to pay more attention.
If remote workers spend some of their days on site, try to maximize in-person time. When being together isn’t possible, use video or phone calls, as these better simulate a face-to-face conversation than written communication.
When conducting virtual meetings, set a few clear expectations to run them more smoothly. For example, ban multitasking, such as using other devices during meetings; it’s distracting, and science shows humans aren’t very good at it. You should also ensure everyone has the chance to share, both through unstructured time that allows for open conversation and through structured time, where all attendees can add items to the agenda.
Because many remote workers can feel left out, frequent communication is also important. If you don’t work in the same space as those you supervise, schedule regular check-ins with them; otherwise, you can easily go weeks without interacting. This also helps prevent isolation and confusion.
On the other hand, if employees are constantly messaging you, it may be time to set boundaries or to reassess whether they need to work in the office.
Set clear expectations
Much gets lost in translation with text-based conversations, such as emails or instant messages, since these eliminate the subtle behavioral cues of in-person chats.
For example, a breezy request can come across as a power trip without an accompanying smile and some background information. Even when intentions are clear, people are less likely to respond to email requests than in-person requests.
That's why it’s important to set specific expectations with workers. Outline tasks or requests clearly, explain what you expect of the employee and tell them when you need it by. Then make yourself available to field any questions employees may still have.
Compared to on-site employees, remote workers are more likely to feel that colleagues gossip about them and don’t fight for their priorities. It’s important to build trust and connections between remote staff, as well as between on- and off-site employees.
As with remote meetings, whenever the whole team has time together, consciously incorporate unstructured activities to help build relationships. Research has shown that “structured unstructured time” helps team members better understand one another and improve performance.
In one instance, workers’ giving one another virtual “tours” of their workspaces helped them gain insight into others’ attitudes and behaviors. And the Harvard Business School found that even taking as little as six minutes at the beginning of a call for employees to share what they’re working on or to discuss things from their personal lives can improve a team’s working relationship.
Finally, just because an employee is remote doesn’t mean there aren’t ever opportunities for face time. Host on-site or off-site meetings with the whole team or schedule business trips for remote workers to give them some in-person interaction.
Remote-work arrangements can vary widely, from workers who are home one or two days a week to those who live in an entirely different city (or country) from headquarters. Positions also vary in terms of how well they’re suited for remote work.
The best approach to managing remote employees will depend on your team and organization. For employees who only occasionally work from home, managers can use the same approach and practices they use for in-office workers. But managers whose entire teams are remote may need different strategies in terms of how to communicate clearly and meet goals.
Due to demand from employees, offering the ability to work from home can help attract and retain talent. And by getting ahead of the challenges of remote work, you can help geographically dispersed teams be more cohesive and successful.