managing the remote workforceAs more and more companies are embracing remote working, managers are finding that they need to acquire new skills to manage remote workers effectively and support collaboration at a distance. Remote workers need to be flexible, self-disciplined, transparent and good communicators, but what skills do managers need in this new remote world?

Much of the work of managing remotely is similar to managing co-located workers. Good management demands focus on results and outcomes, not on ‘being in the office’, and remote management even more so. Learning to delegate, and then trusting people to perform, is a key management skill, and one that many people find hard. When you can’t just look over someone’s shoulder and see what they’re doing, it can be even harder, and managers need to find a way to cope with that.

Communication is essential

First and foremost, those managing remote workers need to be good communicators. We all know that most of communication isn’t verbal, it’s in tone, look and body language. So when your main tools for communication are telephone, email and video-conferencing, you need to work harder to get your message across. Managers also need to think about what needs to be communicated, as well as how, since good communication is key to engagement, and you will need to communicate a whole lot more when there is no office gossip to do it for you. Your buzzword should be ‘transparency’.

You need to provide feedback on work done, and you also need to be clear with everyone, separately and together, how each individual’s work fits into the team, and how the work of the team fits with the business. Called ‘strategic alignment’, research suggests that it’s crucial for motivation.

Making sure that remote workers are motivated and engaged is crucial. Part of this is communication, including hearing what they are saying and not saying. Their communications will tell you whether they are engaged. Signs of disengagement include reduced output, reluctance to engage in chat or video, and abrupt emails. Pick up on the signs, and you can address the problem. Miss them, and you could be in a world of trouble.

Like communication, team building is harder with a remote team, but is worth doing. As well as regular one-to-ones, make sure that you schedule time for team meetings too, whether by teleconference or video. It’s crucial for supporting collaboration. Team meetings may be work- or task-based, supporting collaboration, or may be about relationship-building and finding out who’s doing what.

Tools of the trade

Of course all managers need to find their own way of working, that works for them and their team. But one tool which many managers are using is to set a defined contact time each week. This doesn’t mean that you can’t phone and talk the rest of the time, only that you have an agreed time when you certainly will touch base. And don’t just phone: schedule a video call and make it ‘face-to-face’.

Those managing remote teams also need to be on top of the technology. You need to have a rough idea of what’s out there that you could use. If you don’t, how will you know how to solve an emerging problem? If you’re not a techy person, maybe you could delegate keeping on top of apps and options to another member of the team, and have them make recommendations about what tools to use to do the job.

The final tool in any manager’s armoury is reward. It’s no different for those managing remote workers: you need to find suitable rewards for work well done. Whether financial, increased responsibility, or perhaps some free time, find the best reward for that person and hand it over.

Looking ahead

Managing remote workers might perhaps be described as ‘management plus’. Everything that you do has to be better and more thoughtful for remote workers, because you can’t see the effect on them at first hand, whether it’s communication, engagement, feedback or reward systems. Because it will take longer to build relationships and trust, you need to make it as easy as possible. Fortunately, there is now lots of technology out there that will help you to do this. Many companies report that remote workers are more collaborative and more engaged than those in the office. Their very remoteness means that they want to reach out more to colleagues. As we’ve said before, making person to person connections is a very human need, and one that means that remote working is likely to have a long and successful future.

Image credit: Dancer and shadow, Kris Arnold

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