American Express saves $10-$15 million annually in real estate costs while greatly improving employee productivity with its flexible workplace strategy called BlueWork. This fact that should be reason enough for companies to accommodate telecommuters into their workforce, if not build a virtual-only office where all employees are working from remote locations.

By 2020, 1 out of 3 people will be working online from anywhere they want

Odesk (Online marketplace for hiring remote workers)

While setting up a comprehensive 9-year workplace strategy like BlueWork is the ideal way to manage telecommuters, if that is too ambitious for your business, you can start with a small team of mobile workers and build that up as your business grows.

However, starting small doesn’t mean there will be no challenges. Here are some tips to help you get started managing from a distance.

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Tip #1: Hire proactive & self-motivated workers

Hire proactive & self-motivated workers

Challenge: The fact that you don’t have to be tied to a desk to get work done can be liberating for some, while a challenge for others. Since telecommuters are mostly working in isolation, either from their home or a cafe, they have to cope with distractions that office-goers don’t face. Managing time and project deadlines can also be a problem for some as they essentially have to supervise their own work.

Solution: While you can use a number of tools for managing projects, there’s really no solution if a worker is not self-motivated. Not everyone works effectively from a remote location and hiring the wrong person for a telecommuting job can be a managerial nightmare. As for hiring the right candidates, it begins by attracting talented people to your company. As a quick fix, you could use personality assessments, such as a Myers & Briggs personality test, to understand whether a candidate is fit for the role or not. These assessments can be taken from anywhere and anytime, and are ideal for screening potential telecommuters.

Tip #2: – Create a fantastic onboarding program

Challenge: Once you’ve hired the right candidates, the next step is to assimilate them into the company culture. However, what builds corporate culture are people and that is exactly what’s lacking with a virtual workforce. Telecommuters don’t have colleagues who can introduce them to the company culture nor can they take face-to-face training sessions which can help ease them into their roles.

Solution: Ensuring that new hires are smoothly integrated into your organization is essential to building a positive team culture. While face-to-face training and onboarding of telecommuters may not be possible, you can always make up for it by creating online presentations, training courses and assessments with interactive content such as videos, images, PDFs, and more. You could also organize a Skype meeting to give remote workers a sense of real-time connection with their colleagues.

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Tip #3:  Don’t just communicate over email

Challenge: The email is a great communication tool but if that is the only tool you use to communicate with your team that is spread across the globe then the burden of a bottomless inbox becomes too great a load for your teams to carry. This becomes a problem especially if the bulk of their time is spent in reading and replying to emails. Also, communication at times becomes disjointed when people only read a part of long email threads, while tracking tasks and projects becomes a nightmare.

Solution: The answer is not to give up on email but to use tools that help you communicate effectively. For instance, let’s say you want to give feedback on some new web pages designed by your distributed team of web designers. Instead of sending the feedback as an email, which could result in miscommunication, you could use a tool such as Notism which lets you add feedback directly on the images making it easy for everyone to understand your point of view.

Similarly, you could try out other collaboration tools such as, from the obvious Google docs to more specific one such as a knowledge base software – which helps you record and share files, documents, and project-related information in a central place so that it’s easily searchable and not lost in a heap of emails.

Tip #4: Track performance & work output 

Track performance & work output

Challenge: Employees failing to meet expectations is not just because they lack accountability or motivation, but also owing to poor management and supervision. While tracking employee performance in an office environment is not easy, with telecommuters it becomes even more difficult as you cannot actually see whether the employees came to work, how long they worked and what were they working on. The situation becomes worse if employees are not self-motivated and lack self-discipline.

Solution: While you could ask telecommuters to email their daily work report, this will only give you an idea of what they are working on. On the other hand, over-zealous, micromanagement of your workers’ time such as tracking every minute they spent watching a website or using an application could produce negative results. The trick is to create a fine balance by staying away from micromanagement but still ensure you get the desired work output and productivity. You can always work out a system such as a status sheet for tracking project deadlines, weekly or monthly goals sheet for prioritizing work and or even use a time tracking software that will give you an idea what’s being worked on. You could also use project management tools such as Hubstaff Tasks to keep everyone on the same page when it comes to tasks and projects.

Tip #5:  Give positive feedback frequently

Challenge: Telecommuters often lack awareness of their own progress, which is a sure-shot recipe for failure to meet work expectations. This happens because they work mostly in isolation and have no point of reference to which they can measure their performance and understand where they need to improve. 41% of them also have problems staying motivated.

Solution: With mobile workers, you must find ways to give regular and positive feedback. This doesn’t mean getting on a phone call every day. Feedback can be given on email as a reply to the daily report or as part of a task such as comments in Google Docs. The idea is to clearly communicate praise for something they did right and constructive criticism on their areas of improvement. While daily feedback is important, you should also organize a quarterly review process where you do a more detailed performance review. This helps to manage expectations of employees as they get time to improve their performance if they get an under par review for a certain quarter.

Tip #6: Prevent information from being scattered

Challenge: With a remotely-located workforce comes a plethora of mobile devices that are used to access corporate information. While the BYOD culture saves companies IT-related costs what it also results in, is the scattering of information in different personal devices as well as security risks such as loss of critical business information.

Solution: While there is no getting away from telecommuters using their own devices, you can ensure that corporate information is never lost or compromised. The simple solution to achieve this is by embracing the Cloud. You can share files, docs and more using Dropbox and Google Drive; you can also ensure that company information is searchable in a centralized knowledge base. With a boom of Software-as-a-Service providers, you can find a ton of collaboration software that allows you to create and share information securely in the Cloud.

Tip #7: Use each other’s time effectively

Use each other’s time effectively

Challenge: A globally-located team of remote workers means different conflicting time zones, where ensuring everyone is there for an online meeting or a call can be difficult. The other time-consuming process is of projects that need the collective approvals and reviews of different teams.

Solution: Nobody likes to get a call from the boss at midnight to discuss a project or task. The fact that telecommuters work from home doesn’t mean they are always available for a quick call or meeting. You need to respect their time and schedule meetings or calls during hours that are convenient for everyone. As for handling projects that go through multiple review cycles, you can set-up processes to eliminate repetitive and redundant feedback. For instance, you can create guidelines and templates that every team must follow internally before submitting the project for review. This ensures that the final output is free of major errors and omissions.

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Tip #8: Create a common vision & goal

Challenge: A work-from-home experience is one that makes many feel lonely and isolated. A number of reasons, from the lack of face-to-face communication to the proverbial water-cooler breaks with colleagues, can be a factor that makes telecommuters feel like they work on an island. The biggest challenge often becomes the lack of culture, where mobile workers have no common ground to feel they are part of a larger team or company.

Solution: Organizing virtual meetings and long phone calls, on a daily basis, is not enough to build a mobile team that feels connected and motivated. What you need to ensure is that every employee, whether working from an office desk or from home, has imbibed the company’s larger vision and mission statements. This is possible only with time, but you can speed up the process by offering regular feedback, which springs from this larger idea about what your company is and stands for. Also reinforcing key mission statements of your company during online meetings, review process, and even in general conversations is important to drive home your ideas.

Managing from a distance gets easier with experience

Building a mobile workforce, managing from a distance, and ensuring productivity are all big challenges. But the benefits are by far greater than the initial time and effort you need to put to train your mobile team.

Remember that communication, which is frequent and transparent but not overbearing or excessive, is key to making a successful shift from a traditional workforce to a mobile one. However, with all said and done, the only way to know whether telecommuters are right for your company is by hiring a few. Bonus: Discover key takeaways from the State of Productivity and Management Report 2018 here.

This is a guest post by Sameer Bhatia of ProProfs.

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Category: Management, Remote