The Cat-Herding Joys of Managing Remote Workers

April 18, 2018 | Stephen Jackson

One day, while sipping a coffee in the backseat of a driverless car, we might look back on the present day and remember it as the waning period of the office job. Between reliable video conferencing, messaging tools like Slack, and cloud-based software like Google Drive, the argument for needing to physically come into an office is becoming increasingly toothless.

In fact, a recent survey found that in 2016, 43 percent of Americans spent at least some time working remotely. Not going to an office saves money for a company, and in many cases, is preferable to the modern worker. With this sort of across-the-aisle agreement, it’s likely that this percentage will only increase with time.

Remote working allows companies to hire workers from pretty much anywhere in the world. “The major benefit to having remote workers is that you get access to the global talent pool. For instance, you no longer have to live in Silicon Valley or Boston to have access to high-quality engineers,” says Greg Digneo. He’s the content manager at TimeDoctor, a time-tracking tool created to manage remote workers. In addition to giving managers a clear picture of how much time is being spent on tasks, this sort of software also generates reports that are helpful in determining budgets — handy for determining the value of far-flung workers.

You can hire remote employees through a traditional hiring process, using Skype in lieu of an in-person interview. You can also find talent via the many online marketplaces that are out there.

However, managing remote workers is hard. While you may judge productivity by milestones people achieve, it’s still a challenge to make sure employees aren’t taking you for a ride. In addition to the obvious challenge of monitoring efficiency, one of the biggest drawbacks to relying on remote workers is establishing an “office culture” — because people aren’t in an office. But for better or for worse, remote working will only become more common in the future. Let’s take a look at some best practices when using remote teams.

Conduct a Weekly Meeting

It’s important to maintain the structure of an in-person work environment, even when your employees are spread across the country, or even the world. Communicate with your team on a regular basis, and continue to be an involved and responsive manager from mission control.

“Make managers communicate with members of their team once a week on Skype, or some other form of video chat, if possible,” Digneo says. “That human interaction is important to make sure all members of the team feel included in the company mission.”

There are tons of products out there to help you do this. The most popular messaging app these days is Slack, and there is a free version available that, depending on your needs, often works well enough. There are also video conferencing products such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Skype. Seeing a human is always nice and it’s handy to be able to share screens when working on something together.

Encourage Camaraderie

“Try to encourage team members to get to know each other on a more personal level outside of the business,” Digneo says. “At Time Doctor, we’ve set up a Slack channel called “chill zone” where people can share their life experiences, like a recent vacation, having a baby, or getting married.”

Beyond that, encourage remote workers in the same areas to meet up at shared workspaces or coffee shops. When I was in the depths of solo freelancing, what I often missed shooting the breeze with coworkers. It’s also easier to collaborate on certain projects in person, so if meeting up from time to time is possible, encourage people to do so.

Use A Remote Time-Management Tool

While most people I know are honest about the time they spend working from home, if you hire someone you’ve never met in person and who will never actually come into the office, it’s hard to get a sense for how well they might respond to the lack of supervision inherent in working remotely.

“Not everyone is cut out to be a remote worker. It requires someone who’s a self-starter, is OK working in isolation, and responsible,” Digneo says.

It’s important to build out your remote teams carefully, set clear expectations, and do everything you can to manage your team as closely as you would if they were sitting a few desks away from you. Running a remote office brings many benefits if you can pull it off, so make sure the distance between you and your employees doesn’t come back to bite you in the end.