Managers of remote workforces have a particular challenge: extending influence to people they may rarely see and may barely know. In 2016, 43% of all U.S. employees work off-site at least part of the time and that number has surely increased.
A Stanford University study found that the productivity increase among remote workers is equivalent to an extra day per person per week. And remote workers are, on average, less likely to burn out and in many ways more engageable than in-house workers. To leaders, this indicates that remote workers contribute too much value to overlook their unique management needs. To get the best collaboration out of a remote worker, managers must take the four following steps:
1. Consider the Individuals
Some remote workers feel isolated by working alone, while others feel liberated. Some love 24/7 access to work; others need to have a real boundary between office and home. Some do their best work in the middle of the night, while others keep strict office hours. Accepting a remote worker's method and reasoning helps managers coach to the individual on behalf of the company, promoting the corporate benefits that characterize off-site work. Individualization helps remote workers "feel cared for as a person," which is a fundamental element of engagement.
2. Set Clear Expectations
People learn a lot from context, and the less time they spend in the office, the less context workers have about their manager's expectations. So managers need to be explicit about what the remote worker must produce. The parameters, deadlines and metrics of tasks must be crystal clear, but so should the manager's personal feelings. If a manager needs weekly progress reports, for instance, or prompt replies to emails, the manager must say so and hold the employee accountable.
3. Establish Trust
Managers build trust through individualization, keeping their promises and frequent conversations. A good bit of face time during onboarding helps, as well as annual in-person meetings once the worker is established. These meetings can be more social than not, but there's always a business case to be made for face-to-face conversations. Building lines of sight for the remote worker builds trust too. Knowing whom to turn to for help enhances productivity and aids development, but remote workers lack that perspective. Managers who make themselves a proxy in their remote worker's network prove themselves both trustworthy to the worker and indispensable to the worker's success.
4. Talent is Key
More than any other trait, talent is the key to performance. It may take diligence, creativity, resourcefulness and a great deal of conversation to develop talent over a distance. Assignments aligned with the employee's talents help the individual develop talents into strengths while improving business outcomes. And while managers should always seek out the opinions of remote workers - distance often offers valuable perspective - asking opinions informed by talent can yield especially useful feedback.
If your team is working remotely, your management style will look a little bit different. However, if you rely on the steps that we’ve listed above, the freedom of a flexible work style will be smooth and successful.