This year is turning out to be an increasingly bad one for physical locations. In April, Amazon announced that it’s hiring 5,000 new customer support staff to work remotely, hot on the tail of companies like Xerox, Allergan, and Dell who have all launched similar programs. At the same time, The Wall Street Journal estimates that 8,600 retail store locations will close within the U.S. this year thanks to ecommerce.

The shift is clear: The ubiquity of communications technology and the Internet make it possible to work, sell, and support customers from nearly anywhere. But as many brands are finding, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

The challenge of managing remote support teams

Remote workers come with their own set of challenges. Just as ecosystems in nature are complex, fragile webs of interdependence, so too are office dynamics. Companies frequently fail to account for the value of in-person information free-flow, tribal knowledge, and camaraderie. In fact, companies like Yahoo! and IBM have tried and then reversed their remote worker initiatives after missteps.

Should support organizations then fear remote working? Hardly. There are challenges, but they can be overcome, and to great gain. Workers increasingly demand remote working and in many cases, it can cut costs and increase productivity:

  • 77% employees report being more productive because they took shorter breaks and used less sick leave – Inc
  • 88% of HR managers report that employees have quit because of a lack of teleworking flexibility – Inc
  • Millennials, who prefer remote work, will make up 75% of the workforce by 2020 – Forbes

With concerted effort, support organizations that turn these challenges into a massive opportunity.

How to manage remote customer support teams:

1. Foster a sense of self-discipline

The first barrier that organizations run into is that most support agents aren’t used to managing their own time. They are people, after all, and escape from the 9-to-5 can take some getting used to. To help them, you must offer structure. “Set clear, deliberate expectations in advance and establish ground rules for how interactions will take place,” says Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a management consulting firm, in a Harvard Business Review article. Otherwise, “things will break down.”

Ferrazzi recommends setting parameters for email response times and periodic, predictable check-ins. Your employees will appreciate this framework. However, don’t go too far: Remote employees can be sensitive to receiving unequal treatment or being measured by different metrics, and it’s important for them to feel trusted as equal members of the team. Within these constructive confines, allow them to do as they please.

Set parameters for email response times and check-ins.

2. Keep them engaged with clear performance metrics

The biggest fear of most employers is that remote employees will fritter away their time on social media, but with clear and consistent communication, this becomes a non-issue. In fact, a Gallup Poll found that remote workers can be even more engaged than onsite ones if expectations and goals are properly set and if they feel valued.

How can this be? What happens is that employees are suddenly free to take care of family, errands, or personal issues as they come up, and in the long run, are happier and freer to work without distraction.

The way to achieve an environment like this is to establish extremely clear, numerical performance metrics including monthly, quarterly, and yearly reviews, and then trust remote workers to manage their lives so long as they perform. This trust will blossom into goodwill and engagement.

3. Keep up the communication

“When you don’t give people information, they assume the worst.” – Arvind Sarin, CEO of Copper Mobile

To prevent communication collapse, have a central management platform that provides you insights into what employees are doing. Otherwise, you’re left checking in by email or chat which is both time consuming and can start to feel like micromanagement. Platforms like Conversocial, for example, feature hierarchies, role-based permissions, and team management to allow managers to monitor unobtrusively and step in where need be.

At the same time, remember to engage for non-work related issues. Make an extra effort to get to know what’s happening in your remote workers’ lives and build the bonds that will keep you accountable to each other.

4. Create a fertile bed for culture with “water cooler moments”

The conversations that typically occur in the office around the proverbial water cooler transmit valuable information around the company. They’re how junior employees learn war stories from more tenured ones, how they meet cross-functional teammates, and how they establish bonds of trust. This is possible to facilitate remotely, but it takes more work.

Management must create a fertile environment for these types of interactions via chat platforms, dedicating the beginning of every call to chit-chat, employee summits, and even, as Ferrazzi recommends, setting up uninterrupted video links between offices. As he puts it, the video link “brings us together and connects us, increasing the intimacy of our relationships with one another.” Whatever your method, make it easy for people to casually interact.

Through a willful application of structure, consistent communication, opportunities for connection, and trust, support organizations will find that they can evolve into the age of remote working peacefully, and become more effective at supporting in the process.