Techniques and Digital Tools for Managing Remote Employees Effectively
With governments' official COVID-19 advice, encouraging employees to work from home where possible, businesses have had to quickly adapt and embrace a new way of working.
The concept of working from home is not new; many businesses have already been successfully operating with remote employees, with benefits that include:
- Improved productivity
- Cost savings
- Lower staff turnover
- Greater diversity in the workforce
Individual employees can benefit from a better work/life balance, more time with family and friends, greater control over their work schedules, less work-related stress and more happiness.
For an organisation to unlock the benefits available by hiring remote teams, its managers must help individuals to achieve the benefits open to them. In this article, I discuss some of the management techniques that will help do this. I also highlight the type of technology that can help manage remote teams more effectively.
Reviewing the Challenges Affecting Management of Remote Teams
Managers of remote teams face unique and additional challenges from those faced by managers of on-site teams.
For example, while team meetings are facilitated by communication technologies, employing workers across different geographies creates time zone issues. This can also be true of teams working on time-sensitive collaborative projects.
There may also be problems because of language and cultural differences, and tracking of workflow, progress and performance can be achieved in real time, but often managers must rely on self-motivation of remote workers to stay on track with their allotted tasks.
How you overcome such challenges is likely to define your success as a manager and your organisation’s success in the future.
5 Tips for Managing Remote Teams Successfully
Unique challenges must be tackled with unique management techniques, though many of these will mimic the techniques that you might use with teams and employees in the on-site workplace. For example, should there be a lack of cohesion between two employees, a manager will need to establish why there is stress and what needs to be done to negotiate conflict. While this is more easily accomplished in the on-site workplace, managers will need to consider time zones and communication methods that enable difficult conversations to be conducted and compromise to be agreed.
Here are our top tips to help managers manage their remote teams.
- Integrate Cultural Conversations in Your Team Planning
Culturally diverse teams work more effectively when their members understand each other. It is therefore important to introduce the cultural discussion in your team management activities. Including such conversations in team building exercises and team conferences will help. Managers must lead the way by inviting remote employees to share their views and opinions with others, and by admitting their own misunderstandings, too.
- Manage Scheduling Issues
Scheduling workflow and meetings is one of the remote manager’s biggest challenges. This is especially true of those managers who run globally remote teams. However, for many remote teams, meetings can be scheduled to coincide with the end of one group’s working day and the beginning of another group’s day.
You should bear in mind factors such as time zones and national or bank holidays when scheduling all meetings. Other ways that you can navigate scheduling hurdles is to record meetings or instructions for tasks, and ask for and provide feedback via email.
While it is impossible to avoid all scheduling issues, and an emergency team meeting that is not convenient for all may be impossible to avoid, by always trying to avoid creating scheduling problems for individuals or geographically challenged groups a manager’s request for an emergency team meeting which must be attended on video call will be more readily accepted.
- Set Clear Expectations and Boundaries for All Remote Employees
Even remote employees – who are likely to be among your most motivated – need a guiding set of policies and procedures. Good managers make sure their remote team is aware of what is expected of them. This may include:
- Work hours or work that is needed to be completed
- Scheduled team meetings and one-to-ones
- Updating of deadlines
- Systems of communication to be used
- Email response times
Such policies and procedures will enable remote employees to better organise their work/life balance, and organise their working routines with teamwork in mind. They will understand when their emails will be read, and when they can expect a response, and schedule their work diary accordingly.
Setting expectations will help your team members know that you care and understand their needs, and help to build better working relationships.
- Monitor Performance and Mentor Effectively
Though a manager is not visible to remote teams, remote employees should be able to rely on their manager for support. You will need to find new ways to monitor performance, encourage feedback, and offer coaching and training when needed. Managers may need to brush up on their emotional intelligence skills, improving their observation of symptoms that evidence difficulty with work, working relationships, or time management, for example.
As a manager of a remote team, you won’t have the opportunity to have ad hoc meetings or conversations with your employees. It is therefore important to schedule time to check in, with one-to-ones, preferably on video calls. You should also ensure that you provide a scheduled time when you will be available for your employees to raise issues with you, which is outside your scheduled one-to-one sessions. An hour a day keeps workplace strife away.
- Use Communication Time More Effectively
As you have probably surmised by now, communication skills are critical as a manager of remote teams. You’ll need to be a good listener, and when you relay instructions or other information you will need to do so concisely. You must express yourself in language that all can understand, and invite any misunderstanding to be discussed. It is essential that managers of remote teams have good written and verbal skills to enable every member of the remote team to work to the same goals and with the same expectations.
Technology for More Effective Management of Remote Teams
Remote working has been enabled by technology, so it is only fitting that managers have a range of technology at their disposal to help them manage their remote teams more effectively. Let’s look at the type of tools available to help managers of remote teams.
- Project/Task Management Tools
Project management and task management tools help individuals and teams to work more effectively toward deadlines. They allow progress to be tracked, and can be set up to automate routine tasks – such as moving a project from one employee to another upon completion of the first employee’s tasks on the project.
Work can be diarised, problems and issues discussed, and files shared in one central location. Advanced project management tools enable managers and their teams total transparency on project work, utilising Gantt charts and task reporting features.
- Communication Interfaces
Rather than use several different tools to communicate, organisations can utilise communication clusters that bring together different tools in a single interface. Such an interface allows teams to maintain all communication records in a single place, with easy access to all forms of communication used by the team – including video, instant messaging, emails, etc.
The communication interface can act as the central exchange for knowledge relating to projects and other work, enabling fast access for all work-related queries.
- File Management Applications
While there are security issues that must be mitigated when working in the Cloud, the technology has enabled remote teams to share files and documents more easily and in real time. This helps collaboration and boosts productivity. Centralised data storage also helps teams who work with external vendors, suppliers and customers – files no longer need to be downloaded, uploaded and sent via email, saving hours when working collaboratively with a range of stakeholders.
To mitigate some of the risks associated with cloud computing, managers are able to set access controls, enable password protection, and lay out guidelines for use in the expectations and boundaries they set their remote employees.
- Meeting Schedulers
Setting meetings can be one of the most infuriating tasks of management. The frustration level can ratchet up by several notches in remote teams, as emails and messages are batted back and forth to establish a mutually agreeable time for a telephone conference. It can take days to arrange a five-minute video call.
AI technology has led to the development of meeting schedulers. These enable managers and employees to arrange meetings without becoming involved in the to-and-fro messages required to do so. This eliminates the need for time-wasting email exchanges, and sets meetings automatically when requested, using access to remote employees’ diaries to arrange mutually convenient meeting times.
- Employee Evaluation Software
Remote teams are even more difficult to appraise and evaluate than on-site employees. Many companies are coming round to the view that more is better when reviewing employee performance. Regular and often is replacing the annual review, and applications such as project/task management software enable effective regular reviews.
In addition, employee evaluation software allows continuous feedback to be provided by all those hooked up to the system. This ‘real-time’ feedback enables colleagues, supervisors and others to provide constructive feedback that can then be used to help managers mentor their remote employees, identifying development needs and providing work that takes advantage of a remote employee’s strengths and talents.
- Employee Engagement
A common difficulty experienced by managers of remote teams is identifying when an employee has ‘switched off’. On-site, managers are more able to notice the signs of an employee who is disengaging from work. While some of the technology above can help managers spot disengaging employees – for example, an employee who begins to miss deadlines whereas before they met each one meticulously – employee engagement tools help to gather such information in a centralised location for more effective analysis of engagement data.
Such tools also gather feedback at predetermined times, to better monitor the ebbs and flows of engagement with their work, their colleagues, their managers and the organisation. The real-time nature of such feedback enables managers to tackle employee issues promptly, and this helps to improve employee retention.
Remote Working Is Here to Stay
Remote working is here to stay. It is likely to become the new normal for employees who work in a range of jobs that lend themselves to remote working. Several surveys and workplace studies have concluded that today’s employees want to work from home or remotely.
For example, the RICS and Macdonald & Company Rewards and Attitudes Survey 2019 found that flexible working and the ability to work at home was valued by more than half those asked about factors that influence decisions to take a new job.