‘Where are you?!’ Managing a distributed workforce effectively

The distributed workforce is a top challenge for HR. But with the right approach and tools, you can build a more effective team that’s easier to manage.

Distributed workforce using telepresence

At a time when most work doesn’t happen at work, but rather on the road, at home and across various time zones, frantic ‘Where are you?!’ emails won’t cut it.

You need a smarter way of managing schedules and knowing where your employees are.

The distributed workforce

Mobile, flexible working is not the panacea it’s sometimes made out to be and it’s not suitable for everyone, but it does have undeniable benefits. You can fish from the global talent pool, you don’t have to pay nearly as much in office overheads, and it permits a greater degree of freedom for those who want to fit their work schedule around their personal life.

This very flexibility and freedom, however, can get in the way of proper planning and collaboration. A bane for HR manager and CEO alike. How can you keep track of where everyone is, what they’re doing and what their schedules are for the coming weeks and months, if they’re all over the place?

It might be easy in a company of remote-working writers and coders, where there’s little need for synchronous teamwork, but what about other industries, like logistics and hospitality? Where multi-office mobile working and shifts are the norm, you don’t want to spend your time scrolling through your inbox and ringing up colleagues to find out where so-and-so’s got to.

Either way, the central challenge remains the same: getting full visibility of your team to plan and collaborate more effectively across different sites and time zones.

So how do you solve it?

Crossing borders

Where different time zones are involved, Basecamp’s Jason Fried and David Hienemeier Hansson suggest aiming for at least a four-hour overlap of synchronous working a day between team members.

This time allows you to check in, prioritise and focus on the tasks that have to be completed together and it gives everyone a good balance between collaboration and solitary focus, something that famous management guru, Socrates, also advocated.

You also need to designate a ‘master’ or default time zone for scheduling meetings that everyone sticks to in order to avoid confusion.

Are you there?

Whether your workforce is spread about the globe or working out of one office, knowing where someone is and what they’re doing is also vital.

Rather than asking around the office or firing out emails, you can use apps like Turbine to track everyone’s holidays and sick days to avoid unexpected absences and keep a database of employee information so you know which teams they’re part of, where they work, their main skills and how to contact them, making resource planning much easier.

Similarly, software like Lync lets you see not just someone’s status (available, away, busy, etc) but also their location and their schedule. So, rather than just knowing that John is busy, you know that John’s working on a beach in Hawaii, trying to finish up his report, so it’s best to IM him. Good for John.

Let’s talk

Of course, effective collaboration and planning takes more than just knowing where your colleagues are and what they’re doing; a distributed workforce, in particular, needs to over communicate, so you need the right tools for the job.

After a brainstorming session over Skype, for instance, share your notes with everyone who’s involved on that project with something like Basecamp, and update it if a couple of you then revise your ideas over chat. It means everyone’s singing off the same hymn sheet.

  • Project management: Apps like Basecamp and Asana give you a way to quickly break down projects into manageable tasks and divvy them out; set deadlines; share notes and files; and collaborate efficiently.
  • Meetings: You can complement this with a daily or weekly check-in meeting with a softphone, or a video conferencing app like Skype or Google Hangouts, to see what’s been done, who’s doing what and to ensure that no one’s bearing the brunt of the work.
  • Chat: In between the check-in meetings, software like Campfire and Colloquy provides a more immediate, informal medium for everything from requesting urgent help for a small task to sending funny gifs.
  • File sharing and storage: Cloud-based apps like Dropbox and Google Drive allow you to share and archive files and they ensure that everyone is always working off the latest version of a document.
  • Customer support: Keeping up with customer support can be much harder with a disparate workforce, not knowing who’s replied to what, but apps like Zendesk and Help Scout let you stay on top of customer feedback, allowing you to assign support requests to each other, preventing duplicate or delayed responses.

For everything else, there’s email.

From admin to leadership

The challenge, therefore, for HR managers dealing with an increasingly mobile and distributed workforce is not just knowing where your staff are and what they’re doing, but also encouraging a culture of collaboration.

With a smarter approach and the right tools you create a more effective team, moving from admin and management to strategy and leadership.

Hat tip to Tech Cocktail for the image

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