Introducing flexible working can result in a 45% reduction in HR costs and a 38% reduction in real estate costs. It can improve retention rates and employee satisfaction and attract emerging talent. It can help to eliminate down time and improve customer service.
For these very reasons, remote and mobile working has become a reality for all sizes of business and forecasts show that by 2015 there will be 1.3 billion remote workers around the world.
On a more personal note, we built Turbine using remote workers, mostly found via Elance. So, this article is also based in part on a direct experience of tapping into the global talent pool, which requires new approaches to management and a new way of thinking.
Managing remote workers is very different to traditional 9-5, on-site monitoring. You need to trust that your employees want to do their job. Performance has to be measured by results rather than presence. Good Elancers are motivated by clearly defined targets and regular feedback. Ultimately, the traditional hierarchy of management is replaced by a collaborative atmosphere, in which the manager’s role is to maintain the “context for success”, as author Don Tapscott terms it.
For salaried remote workers, the employer is responsible for providing the right kit, ensuring good connections and enforcing security and other employment policies. A good contract, a discussion about security and clear expectations about communication are essential up front. Overcommunication is one of the essential stages of starting a new business relationship.
All workers, remote or office-based, require a certain amount of administration: time-off requests, expenses claims, and appraisals. Switching to an online HR management system, like Turbine, eliminates the need for paperwork and lets remote workers make time off, purchase and expense requests. It also gives you tools for appraisals and feedback. Tools like Kayako make it easier to give remote IT support and I use TeamViewer a lot for the same purpose.
Switching in, switching out
In: Keeping remote workers engaged is difficult. Tell them how their work is tying into wider business goals and let them know what their colleagues are working on. As Bill Quirke wrote in Making the Connections, “When employees understand their overall role in the business, 91 per cent will work towards that success, but the number plummets to 23 per cent if they don’t.” At Turbine we try to give everyone a view of the big picture and also try to share some of the little pleasures of running a successful business. I don’t mean perks but things like positive feedback from customers or good reviews. Also just saying thank you and recognising good work is essential
Out: On the other hand you need to make sure that remote workers can switch off. Remote workers are more likely to put in unpaid overtime simply because they are always connected. Implement working practices to avoid this: Volkswagen, for example, decided to switch off their email servers at evenings at weekends. Be fair to remote workers and they’ll be fair with you.
How: Email and IM is quick and easy for day-to-day exchanges. For one-on-one video conferencing, free services such as Skype are great. If workers are likely to need regular virtual client meetings, or you need conferences with multiple workers, a business specific service such as GoToMeeting may be more suitable.
When: Managing remote workers requires a balance between contact and autonomy. Do not fall into the trap of bombarding remote workers with emails in order to compensate for the inability to physically oversee them. Schedule regular chats and set out from the beginning when you expect your employees to be available for contact: just don’t forget they need time to get the work done. On Turbine, we have a big ‘stand up’ meeting via Skype every Monday morning and this is a great way to start the week – everyone knows what the priorities are and it’s an invaluable chance to discuss issues and uncertainties.
Cloud-based apps and software make it easy for remote teams to collaborate, share files and socialise. Scribblar is an example of an online whiteboard where teams can brainstorm on projects and interact on ideas. Pivotal Tracker (which we use for some aspects of Turbine) or Basecamp provide comprehensive project management tools for more formally structured teamwork. Using business-specific file sharing software reduces the risk of data loss and allows to you implement restrictions on access to sensitive files.
There is no question that remote working means adapting expectations and management style and not all staff will want to work away from the office. Knowing how to support and encourage those who do, however, means your business is ready to reap big rewards. For a small and agile business, it’s an essential management skill.
This article was first published on the Elance blog.