Telecommuting is a pervasive workplace trend with no sign of going out of style anytime soon. According to US Census Bureau data, there has been an 80 percent increase in telecommuting in the United States since 2005. Companies like Automattic, jetBlue, American Express and Upworthy are known for embracing telecommuting and offering work from home options to their employees, or even operating with an entirely remote workforce. So what’s the big deal about telecommuting?
Why Allowing Telecommuting Is Good Business
Telecommuting is an employer- and employee-friendly work solution. Working remotely allows employees to save time commuting and achieve an improved work-life balance while working the same number of hours. According to a 2011 study by Staples Advantage, workers that are allowed to work from home reported 25 percent lower stress levels. 73 percent also said that they ate healthier working from home. 80 percent of respondents reported a better work-life balance and all of that converted into 76 percent of employees feeling more loyal to their company.
Unsure if your employees want a telecommuting option? They probably do. According to an analysis of over 500 telecommuting studies by Global Workplace Analytics, two-thirds of people want to work from home. The same analysis found that 36 percent of people would even prefer the option to telecommute over getting a raise.
However, remote working skeptics aren’t typically concerned that employees won’t like the freedom of working from home. Instead, many managers worry that allowing their employees to work from outside of the office will be detrimental to their company. The data says that’s an unwarranted concern.
In a 2016 Vodafone study, 58 percent of US companies reported increased profits after implementing flexible working. Employees are happier, healthier, and grateful for the opportunity to work as they like, where they like. In return, they work harder and focus more, in order to not lose the privilege. The absence of office distractions, like noise, white noise, movement, chatty employees, and environmental factors like the office being either too chilly or too hot, doesn’t hurt, either. The results speak for themselves — 86 percent of companies reported increased employee productivity after allowing workers to telecommute.
Telecommuting also leads to increased profits by decreasing employer spending. Remote teams save employers money on expensive office space costs, electricity bills, office supplies, and equipment. According to Global Analytics Statistics telecommuting data, the typical business would save $11,000 per year if they allowed employees to work from home just half of the time. Increased staff morale, observed in 77% of companies following implementing flexible working in the 2016 Vodafone study, also leads to lower turnover rates and tens of thousands of additional dollars are saved there.
How to Manage a Remote Team Effectively
1. Remember that managing a remote team is still managing a team.
Just because your team isn’t physically with you doesn’t mean that you need to do any less to effectively manage them. “Managing remote teams is similar to managing regular teams, but will require greater emphasis on building trust, fostering communication, implementing team processes, and utilizing technology,” says Steve Lemmex, Managing Partner at Lemmex Williams Training Inc. “Keeping your finger on the pulse of the team’s progress and individuals’ work will be essential to knowing whether or not your team is on track.”
Many traditional management skills convert directly to managing remote teams and others are more heavily emphasized. Do not fall victim to ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
2. Emphasize communication.
According to a 2005 IBM whitepaper, one of the biggest challenges remote teams face is communication. Overcome this challenge with regular check ins, use of telework communication tools, and clearly outlined expectations, goals, and conflict resolution strategies.
In addition to purely work-oriented communication, leave a little time for team building. "The inability of being able to have team breakfasts, lunches or even drinks is missed" says Elisette Carlson, founder of SMACK! Media. "We make up for it with Skype or FaceTime.”
3. Have virtual face time with the team.
From Skype to Google Hangouts to subscription video conferencing services, there are so many options out there for having face-to-face meetings with employees in different physical locations. Take advantage of them! “Meetings serve dual purposes on remote teams: talking about work, and also reminding everyone that they are on a team” says Stella Garber, VP of Marketing at Trello, whose team meets virtually three times per week. “This time together keeps us connected as a team and fosters the kind of relationships that more naturally develop in an office setting.”
Regular video meetings are especially important while onboarding a new remote employee, in order to foster strong, open communication and relationship building between the new hire and the rest of the team. No employee should feel any less a part of the team because of their physical location. To keep things fair for international teams, vary meeting times so that no one has to consistently wake up early or stay up late for meetings.
4. Use an instant messenger.
Email is a time-tested form of professional communication, but instant messengers are much better at achieving the real-time efficiency of being able to ask a question and immediately receive a response, without lag. Slack is a popular way that companies with remote employees stay connected through real-time conversation, even if they’re separated by thousands of miles. “This slightly more productive communication tool will help ensure that constant communication is as possible remotely as it is in the office” says Christian Lanng, CEO and co-founder of Tradeshift.
5. Have some overlap in work hours.
Especially with geographically dispersed teams, employees on a 9-5 schedule may have little to no overlap with their coworkers. Being online at the same time for at least part of each work day can go a long way towards promoting effective communication, speedy issue resolution, and collaboration.
“Regardless of what time zones your team members are in, it is recommendable to have at least three to four hours a day where most of the team is online at the same time.” says Rocco Baldassarre, founder and CEO of Zebra Advertisement. Even if that means that some employees are working from 10-6 and some are working from 7-3, try to arrange for a few hours of overlap every day.
6. Lay out clear expectations.
Part of setting up clear expectations is preparing a written policy that remote employees can refer back to, as needed, to inform their work practices. “A telecommuting policy is a much-needed way to make sure that everyone is on the same page in terms of expectations” says Sara Sutton Fell, founder of FlexJobs.com.
The more specific you are, the better you will be able to avoid misunderstandings or misaligned expectations. “Include specifics such as when employees can work remotely, the types of tasks that can be completed remotely and the expectations regarding how reachable by phone or email a remote employee should be” says Lanng. “Setting up clear expectations is key to avoiding miscommunication and abuse of policy.” Also include your requirements for internet speed and connectivity, as well as any other technology or equipment that remote employees will be responsible for.
7. Have a daily or weekly written work plan.
Deborah Mitchell, founder and CEO of Deborah Mitchell Media Associates, recommends preparing a daily or weekly written work plan for remote employees. A written work plan serves as a tool for accountability that can both help employees stay focused and help managers assess the success of an employee’s telecommuting experience.
Mitchell also recommends using a project management system. Project management systems allow employees to receive updated assignments, ask questions, flag assignments, and mark assignments as completed. They also allow for greater transparency, because all employees can see what is being done, what has been done, and what still needs to be done.
8. Measure employees by the work they produce.
It can be tempting in a traditional workspace to judge employees by when they come in and when they leave, whether they’re friendly and well-liked, how they dress, and other metrics that aren’t actually tied to your bottom line and the work you hired them for. With telecommuting, especially when employees choose to work in blocks or at untraditional hours, it is both easier and more important to judge your employees by the work they produce.
“Really focus on their goals and deliverables,” says Fell. Think about the job you hired the employee to do. “What are the key indicators of success for each job?” Rob Rawson, co-founder of Staff.com, asks managers. “Get transparency around this so that you will know quickly (in a couple of weeks, not 6 months) whether each team member is being productive or not.” After all, if an employee is producing excellent work, it shouldn’t matter if it’s in pajama pants and spread out over a longer day, with breaks between.
9. Be aware of team expectations.
Just as a traditional employee will be put off by career stagnation, a remote employee wants to be rewarded for producing excellent work consistently. Remote employees should not be overlooked for promotions and raises. “Similar to working in a traditional office, a virtual office should offer an employee the opportunity to grow” says Mitchell. “Be clear and know what you have to offer them moving forward.”
10. Know which workers are cut out for telecommuting and which aren’t.
Not all employees are cut out for telecommuting. Some remote-only teams hire specifically for people who have worked as telecommuters or freelancers in the past, to make sure that the employee has the necessary skills and personal qualities to thrive as a remote worker.
Alternately, teams that are part-remote and part-office-based can offer trial periods for employees who want to work remotely. In such cases, working remotely is a privilege that can be revoked if results are subpar. Generally, very social employees are less likely to be happy as remote workers and easily distracted or unmotivated employees are less likely to successful without a manager there to hold their hand. The ideal employees for remote working are those who enjoy working independently, are motivated to do their work, and are often self-directed.
“When done right, managing a remote team is deeply rewarding” says Garber. “It presents a different set of challenges for a new type of manager who understands the pros and cons of remote work, but is able to get a team productive and happy.” Taking on the challenge of managing a telecommuting team can be intimidating at first, but can pay off both financially and in employee satisfaction.