With more companies allowing their employees to work remotely and some forgoing a central office entirely, managers are increasingly tasked with overseeing workers scattered across cities, states, and time zones.
In just a few years, the challenge of managing a team of remote workers might be the norm for many companies. The number of work-from-home employees has been rapidly increasing in the U.S, with their ranks swelling 79.7% between 2005 and 2012, according to the latest data from Global Workplace Analytics. At last count, that amounted to some 3.3 million people working remotely (not including the self-employed or unpaid volunteers), or 2.6% of the U.S. employee workforce.
“The technology is here; it’s never been easier to communicate and collaborate with people anywhere, any time,” write entrepreneurs Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson in new book “Remote: Office Not Required.”
Remote work has yet to overtake the traditional office and 9-5 workday, but its ever-growing following has nonetheless created an entirely new subset of employees, with their own habits and routines. In “Remote,” Fried and Heinemeier Hansson draw on their own experiences with remote work at their web-app company,
37signals, along with data from other companies, to compile a list of the best practices for managing remote workers.
Here are their five most essential tips:
1. Hire for the work people do, not the items on their résumés.
Heinemeier Hansson says the single most important thing for remote work to succeed is creating a culture where the work itself matters. Employees need to be hired on the merits of what they produce, not the flowery lines on their résumés. That might mean giving potential hires a sample project to complete or another test of their abilities before making a final decision.
“When you’re not seeing people every day, the only thing you’re in constant communication around is the work itself, so that baseline has to be there,” Heinemeier Hansson says.
2. Make remote working more than a one-off.
It’s perfectly OK to have a mix of employees at your company — some who work in the office and others who work off site. What’s less feasible, Heinemeier Hansson says, is hiring one or two remote workers into a company where the predominant culture is built around the physical workplace.
If everyone else at the company comes into a central office, while the single remote worker is left on his own several states away, it’s just not going to work. “He’s going to have a bad time, everybody’s going to think he’s a crappy employee, and the whole thing is going to just fail,” Heinemeier Hansson says.
3. Watch out for overwork, not underwork.
Employees working out of their homes or local coffee shops will inevitably have a harder time setting boundaries between their work and personal lives. Some might prefer to roll out of bed at 2 p.m. and work until 10 or 11 at night, while others might like to rise early and intersperse chunks of work throughout the day. Many fear this lack of separation will lead to employees slacking off. But Heinemeier Hansson says the greater danger is for employees to overwork themselves and burn out. It’s the boss’s responsibility to guard against this outcome and make sure employees take enough time for themselves, even if they really love their jobs.
4. Schedule regular one-on-one check-ins.
At least once every few months, managers should make time to check in with their remote workers. This could be a quick phone call, Skype exchange, or video chat — the important thing is to make it more conversational than the normal project updates or briefings you might conduct over IM or email. Fried and Heinemeier Hansson suggest keeping the tone casual with questions like: “What’s up?” and “How are things?” The goal is to maintain an open line of communication so that any potential issues get addressed and don’t have a chance to pile up.
5. Establish a culture of trust and respect.
Trust, of course, is essential to just about all work environments. When you’re working away from your colleagues, however, it becomes even more important. “When you can’t see people every day, you really have to trust them,” Heinemeier Hansson says. One technique for establishing strong relationships among remote workers is to arrange period meetups. They could be as infrequent as once or twice a year, but putting a face to the name at the end of an email goes a long way.
If most of these tips sound like ones any office manager should follow — you’re right, they do. The truth of the matter is that great managers of remote workers do everything that great managers of physical offices do. There’s just a little more distance between the two.
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