A Quick Guide to Working with Remote Employees

By Elizabeth Harrin | Posted November 20, 2013

These days your small business team could easily include a virtual assistant in Vancouver and a marketing specialist in Madrid, even if you are running your company from a shed in your garden. You don’t have to be a big firm to use a global workforce.

Closer to home, your finance manager and your social media specialist may work just down the road, but if you don’t share an office space with them, they're still remote employees. In fact, according to research by SugarSync, 20 percent of small businesses have a work model where all employees work from home.

Working with remote staff can be challenging. If you can’t see what they're doing, it’s tempting to either think they aren’t contributing effectively or just take an "out of sight, out of mind," management approach. Here are five tips to get the best out of your remote workforce.

Tips for Managing Remote Workers

1. Set clear objectives

What do you want your remote workers to accomplish? Without clear objectives they will find it hard to deliver what your business needs. Give them targets and goals that stretch them, but are not impossible. Also, make sure they fully understand what’s expected of them.

2. Check in regularly

Use a system like 15Five to keep in touch with your employees. It lets your team members spend no more than 15 minutes writing a report that takes you 5 minutes to read. Alternatively, get them to email you bullet points of progress for that week. Make sure you do the same in return, and keep them up to date with news and the status of other projects.

3. Use technology

Make the most of the technology that’s available. Cloud data storage systems, like Box or Dropbox, let you store your files securely in a way that makes them accessible to your team. Then you can put an end to sending hundreds of emails back and forth.

Set up Skype, instant messaging or other collaboration tools so that you can talk to each other as well—it helps if you can see when the rest of your team are online so that you can collaborate when you need to.

4. Don’t micromanage

Don’t micromanage your remote team members. You wouldn’t do it to someone sitting at the desk next to you, so don’t do it to your colleagues working remotely. There’s no need to constantly phone or email them to check up on their tasks (unless you notice a performance problem, which is a different matter). Let them get on with what you pay them to do.

5. Involve them in the team as much as possible

If you have a team meeting, make sure that your remote team members can dial in and connect with the rest of you. Don’t assume that because they are remote they’ll never want to take part in any activities organized with the rest of the staff. Involve them in things like the annual picnic. They may not attend, but they may be able to make arrangements to join you.

Working with a remote workforce can be very rewarding. You foster a good work/life balance in your employees, and you can take advantage of skilled workers regardless of geography—that's a real advantage if you can't source local expertise. Treat remote workers like any other member of the team, and you’ll create a working relationship that could last a very long time.

Elizabeth Harrin is director of The Otobos Group, a project communications consultancy. She has a decade of experience in leading IT and process improvement projects in financial services and healthcare. She also is experienced in managing business change. Elizabeth is the author of three books and blogs at GirlsGuideToPM, for which she won the Computer Weekly IT Professional Blogger of the Year award in 2011.

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