Take a look inside the offices of the world’s biggest corporations, and you’ll likely see a distinctive theme: a lack of workers. Or at least, that’s how it might first appear, as more companies than ever are taking advantage of remote workers, who could be telecommuting from their home office around the corner or an internet cafe halfway around the world.
The benefits of using remote workers are myriad, both for companies and workers themselves, and it should come as no surprise that as many 10% of all US companies were using remote workers back in 2009. Remote workers tend to be self-starters, leveraging their flexible work style to get more done. Along the way, they reduce the cost of overhead, allowing companies to grow without having to invest in more space.
However, working remotely does have risks both for the employer and employee. Many remote workers, for instance, report feelings of isolation — a disconnect that often manifests itself in being passed over for promotions, and can, in the long-term harm motivation and performance at work. In order to grow a truly thriving remote workplace, company managers will need to think strategically about ways to support remote employees and include them in the corporate culture. Here are a few ways to do just that.
1. Invest in the Cloud for Seamless Collaboration
Whether it’s remote workers or that lone office worker finishing up a presentation on a tablet on her train ride home, today’s workforce operates in an increasingly decentralized fashion. This is all the more so as the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomenon spreads in popularity, and more workers are operating not just from physically disparate locales but also on platforms that may not be compatible with one another.
By far, the simplest solution for bridging hardware, software and geographic gaps is the cloud. For the uninitiated, who might find a good guide to cloud computing by Xero Accounting useful, the cloud in its simplest form is the idea of storing data on remote rather than company servers, and accessing that data through the internet. It is this access point — cloud software — that can help companies control how users work and where their data goes, allowing for tighter control over data and seamless collaboration among employees.
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A few essential cloud collaboration tools include:
- Basecamp for Project Management: With Basecamp, project managers can create project boards and easily assign tasks to teammates with clear due dates and reminders. This will create high visibility so that everyone on a remote team stay on top of their teammates’ tasks as well as their own.
- Google Drive for Storage and Collaboration: When a worker is located halfway across the world, it’s hard to feel like you’re working on something together in real time. Except if you’re using any one of the Google Drive products, including Google Docs, Spreadsheets or Projects. With these tools, just add a collaborator via email to the file, and they’ll be able to make edits at the same time, as well as adding comments in a smooth conversational chain. Remote workers will feel like they’re right there.
- Dropbox for Storage: Remote team members often operate in a variety of time zones. This can be a real problem for productivity if, say, a team member in China needs a document from someone in San Francisco to proceed with a task. The online storage service, Dropbox, helps reduce this wait time by encouraging all team members to store files in their cloud. Just grant all team members access to the relevant folder, and they’ll always have what they need.
Thanks to the popularity of cloud computing and remote working, there are many more cloud-based solutions than just this. We recommend taking a good look through this collaboration guide for more tips.
2. Use Video Streaming to Hold Inclusive Meetings
Just because your remote team isn’t in a room together, doesn’t mean they can’t be in a room together. In fact, the effective manager of remote workers will hold more meetings than their in-person counterpart, as a means of keeping their remote team constantly in the loop. It would be best, for instance, to have regular status update meetings once a week, if not more. Some teams will actually benefit from quick virtual stand-up meetings once a day.
While conference calls can be somewhat effective, remote workers often find themselves ignored on the line, or drifting off, which can be a factor in creating feelings of isolation. Video technology is particularly effective at eliminating this feeling. While there are good paid options like Gotomeeting, a Skype call can be just as effective (and free) for one-on-one meetings, and Google Hangout is great for group meetings, as it toggles between speakers.
No matter what, it’s important that the remote worker also have an in-office mentor or liaison — that one person they can reach out to should the going get tough. Even a ten minute weekly mentor meeting should be an effective way to keep the remote worker feeling cared for and in the loop.
3. Set Clear Standards
One risk inherent with remote workers is adopting an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, in which the manager either loses track of their remote employees or fails to see the harm in making last minute requests to this unseen, highly productive entity. That’s why it’s important to set ground rules and standards from day one. These might include rules about just what a remote worker’s role is and who they are and are not allowed to contact, regular performance assessments, a discussion of team standards, and training on all relevant technology. You may also want to establish a probationary period to see how things go. Many of these standards are similar to what you would apply to an in-office worker, but they become all the more important in the remote setting, where you can’t just pop into someone’s office to see what’s been getting done.
4. Hangout on Social Media
Every company lives and dies by its corporate culture. But it can be difficult to have those team-building, water cooler exchanges when, well, there’s no water cooler. There is, however, social media. Savvy companies will benefit from embracing tools like Google+, which has easy to limit sharing circles, to foster informal conversations. This could range from social status updates about what an employee did last weekend, to the announcement of a new client win or even an intellectual discussion about industry-specific innovations. Closed Facebook or LinkedIn discussion boards or groups are also great for this, as are inside joke email chains that include remote workers on the recipient list. Company blogs are also an effective way to both establish expertise publicly and foster camaraderie in comment chains.
5. Hangout in Person
All of that said, sometimes, there’s just no beating a little in-person interaction. Whether it’s a yearly company retreat somewhere fun or you pay for your remote workers to attend a conference together, it’s important to get everyone together once in a while for those impromptu exchanges. Nothing glues a team into one solid whole like being able to reminisce about hilarious/cheesy/miserable/ridiculous/you-name-it moments together.
Today’s workplace is becoming increasingly remote, and it seems primed to become all the more so in coming years. This is an overwhelmingly good development, as remote workers increase flexibility both for companies and workers as a whole. However, to make the most of a remote workforce, it’s important that companies think out their management strategies strategically and take full advantage of cloud technology.
Work from home photo courtesy of Shutterstock.