Managing a remote team has it challenges. But with effective management and constructive methods and policies, you can build a positive company culture and boost productivity for your work-from-home employees. These tips from four top business executives will show you how.
Since COVID-19 hit in 2020, the way we live and work has changed forever. “Remote working isn’t going away,” says Alison Schwartz, owner of the boutique consulting firm Grow Strategic Solutions. Companies with effective work-from-home policies and support systems in place will benefit. “Employers who adapt and adjust will retain and attract high-quality staff,” Schwartz says.
Whether your workforce is completely remote or you function on a hybrid model, you need a well thought-out game plan for effectively managing employees who work out of the office. These management strategies will help you foster a productive and happy team.
Managing remote employees has its hurdles. For example, it can be difficult to keep channels of communication open. “There’s value in being with people, connecting with them, and understanding your organization’s culture that being remote might not give you,” says Brian Crowley, assistant vice president, human resources and operations at the Aerospace Industries Association. “You have to formalize methods of communication. There are passive forms of communication and little interactions, such as in the hallway at work or if you grab lunch together, that you don’t have when you work remotely.”
The Aerospace Industries Association had a 100 percent in-office policy before March 2020, but since COVID, it has fluctuated between supporting a completely remote workforce and operating on a hybrid model and was fully remote at press time.
Since the early stages of the pandemic, the trade organization has been regularly assessing the needs and wants of its employees through surveys and virtual meetings. It asks its managers to frequently check in on employees to gauge their needs, objectives, and challenges. “You should formalize team meetings and one-on-one sessions, and you need to think about gauging how employees are feeling,” Crowley says. “Managers need to get used to asking questions they wouldn’t normally ask, such as, ‘How are you doing?’ You need to create some of the social conversations that organically happen in an office.”
Schwartz recommends using additional communication methods, such as video chats and instant messaging, to keep in touch with remote employees.
ReminderMedia, which provides marketing solutions to sales professionals and business owners, became a fully remote organization in 2021. The company employs various methods to keep its workforce cohesive and connected, such as hosting regular company-wide and departmental remote meetings using communications platforms that include Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Meet employees’ needs
When employees work in an office, they have access to supplies, such as a computer, a phone, and a desk. It’s good policy to meet your remote workers’ basic equipment needs too.
Joe Fuld, president of The Campaign Workshop, an advocacy and political advertising agency, used to rent a 4,000-square-foot office space, but chose to make his company entirely remote in April 2020. He has instituted several policies to mitigate common stressors associated with remote work. For example, he now rubber stamps all requests from his staff for equipment and supplies that fall under $250. “It’s really important for employees to have the freedom to order their own pens, lap desks, and office chairs,” he says.
He also provides his staff with an Internet and cellphone stipend, matches employees’ charitable donations, and at one point sent four rapid COVID tests to every member of his workforce. “We had employees who were stressed about finding the tests,” he explains. “A lot of the big stressor issues are little things that an employer can fix.”
Working from home might not be suitable for all remote workers, so Fuld gives his employees a yearly travel stipend. “If you want to get out of your house and rent a place and visit family or whatever, we will give you $300 a year to work from anywhere,” he says. “We don’t really care where your office is as long as you get your work done.”
Remote workers want employers to be flexible about how and when they can get their work done, Schwartz says. “You can always negotiate terms and boundaries or maybe have a trial period with benchmarks and check-ins along the way for both employer and employee to give honest feedback about how the arrangement is working out for them,” she says.
Managing remote workers requires unique skill sets. It’s helpful to set up goal expectations so everyone is on the same page in terms of productivity requirements. Many companies use task-management software to set goals and monitor employees’ performance. For instance, ReminderMedia uses task management platforms, such as Wrike and Jira, to track projects, the completion of assignments, and the amount of time spent on tasks and projects. Platforms like these are useful not only for the employer but also for employees. “We found that the more an employee understands exactly what they are supposed to do, the better they’ll feel about themselves, and the better the company feels because it’s achieving what it wants to achieve,” says Luke Acree, president of ReminderMedia.
You might also want to set guidelines to structure employees’ workweek and their interactions with each other. “The bad thing about working remotely is that you are always at work,” Crowley says. “It’s very easy for work to creep into your home life.”
He notes that it’s helpful for managers and supervisors to model behavior that benefits their employees. For example, if a supervisor regularly sends emails to employees at 9:00 p.m., the people they supervise will feel obligated to respond at that hour, he says. He adds that an executive he worked with in the past stopped work promptly at the same hour every day. He did that so his employees didn’t feel obligated to work overtime, he explains.
Employees can feel isolated when working remotely, so it’s important to take steps to boost morale. “Before, when you looked at our company culture and asked why everyone loved ReminderMedia, everyone would say the people. One of our biggest fears with going remote was that people wouldn’t be able to interact with each other anymore,” Acree says.
So at ReminderMedia, managers often plan virtual social activities for employees and will sometimes include icebreaker games in virtual meetings. Acree and his staff also send treat baskets to employees at holidays, and workers get a free membership to Calm, an app used for reducing anxiety and stress. “We want employees to know we care about them, we are thinking about them, and we appreciate them,” he notes.
With careful planning, you might find that having a remote workforce is the best thing for your company. “You have to be very intentional, open, and consistent,” Acree says. “If you do that, you will have a successful remote team.”