Companies with fully remote workforces are becoming more of a norm in the tech industry, as a widespread workforce allows managers to find skilled talent across geographic areas. However, managing such a widespread workforce and keeping remote employees engaged can be a challenge for leaders.
"Working remotely within a team has its freedoms and its challenges. For many, it's a great way to minimize your carbon footprint, ease the commute, and sometimes jump right to work without a shower," said Aaron Vick, chief strategy officer for Cicayda. "However, a remote team is at a disadvantage compared to a collective team all located in one place. Mainly, because you can't grab everyone for a quick chat in the conference room when something needs to be addressed."
Here are 10 tips for leaders to better engage their remote workforce, from those with experience in the matter.
SEE: Telecommuting policy (Tech Pro Research)
1. Communicate constantly
Communication is crucial for all employees, but particularly remote ones, who may feel forgotten if they are left out of meetings and conversations, said Neelie Verlinden, founder and editor of Digital HR Tech. Organizations with remote workforces should have an internal chat system in place, like Slack, Skype, or Microsoft Teams, so team members can easily message or call one another. Regular team meetings are also key, Verlinden said.
This communication should take a number of forms. Having remote team members start their day by giving the team a brief overview of the tasks they are working on can help everyone stay on the same page and encourage accountability, said Jon Hayes of Authority Hacker.
"We think this is a great way to get everyone to really think about what they hope to achieve and how they'll go about it," Hayes said. "It's also a great opportunity for different team members to get an insight on the various projects our company is working on."
For a globally distributed team, managers should rotate the times of calls or meetings so that no one time zone is always inconvenienced, said Josh Waldman, director of professional services at Mendix.
If you sense something may be going wrong, the best thing to do is pick up the phone and call the employee, said Patric Palm, CEO and co-founder of Favro. For example, Palm said he tends to communicate with remote workers via Slack in short, military-style sentences, which can sometimes come across harsher than intended. "When I feel that something's gone wrong, or I feel the other person isn't getting me, I just push the call button," he added.
SEE: Remote access policy template (Tech Pro Research)
2. Get in some face time via video
Communication should not stop with email or chats, said Yaagneshwaran Ganesh, director of marketing at Fiind Inc. Regular video conferences with employees can go a long way in making relationships more human and effective.
"This reminds staff there is a real person on the other side of an email, and builds stronger relationships that motivate staff," said Mikko Tamminen, chairman and founder of Taskeater.
Since much of communication is non-verbal, video chatting with employees instead of chatting online or on the phone can help managers detect problems, Verlinden said. Tools like Skype, Google hangouts, FaceTime, and Zoom are all solid options for remote workers and managers, she added.
3. Create spaces for employees to get to know each other
Managers should create some kind of space, like a Slack channel or a Facebook group, where employees can share non-work-related information and build community. This could include jokes, memes, new songs or videos, or any other topics that brings some fun to the workplace, said Stuart Ridge, CMO of VitaMedica.
"Traditional offices naturally have this outlet by nature of being in close proximity, so provide the same opportunity for remote workers through virtual means," Ridge added. Leaders will need to model appropriate use of the channel to ensure it doesn't become a distraction, but overall, it can make remote team members feel more included, Ridge said.
A virtual book club or sports bracket are other options for fostering remote relationships between coworkers, said Alix Hagan, manager of product marketing and collaboration products at LogMeIn.
4. Ask for feedback
Managers of remote teams should ask employees for feedback regularly, said George Kuhn, president of Drive Research. "Ask if there is anything else you can do better to help with keeping them engaged," Kuhn said. "Listen to ideas and make changes if needed."
You should also keep an eye out for virtual body language clues that could signal disengagement, like missed meetings or deadlines, silence on team calls, or unanswered messages, said Kathleen Pai, vice president of HR at Ultimate Software. Follow up with these employees and find out if there is anything you can do to help.
5. Establish expectations and goals
Expectations and accountability are key for a remote workforce, said Jason Carney, HR director at WorkSmart Systems. "The team has common guidelines and it's necessary to establish expectations about the productivity of remote employees from the start," Carney said. "To keep your employees on track and accountable, consider having them log start and finish times for the day, attend required meetings, or perhaps have them copy you on emails when submitting their work."
6. Be accessible
As a manager, you must be accessible to your remote employees on different channels and at different times, Carney said. "Let your team members know that they can contact you about projects or the direction of the company, and also when they have quick questions or concerns that are best addressed in a low-key fashion," Carney added. "Make sure they have different ways to contact you, from scheduled phone meetings and responsive emails, to quick IM chatting or texting."
7. Give praise when due
Managers should make a conscious effort to make their team members aware of their individual and group accomplishments, said Steve Pritchard, founder of Cuuver.com. That might mean sending group emails around whenever the team does a great job, and praising individual team members if they do something that goes above and beyond expectation, Pritchard added.
"With a team of remote workers, it can often be easy to forget to recognise good work and reward the team for it," Pritchard said. "Because they are not in front of you, it's not as simple as just looking up from your computer screen to say 'good work.' Therefore, you need to make sure your team feels valued and is aware that they are doing a good job; this will keep them going in the right direction."
8. Hire the right people
Not every worker is cut out for a fully remote job, Verlinden said, and may lack the self-discipline to succeed in that environment. When hiring a remote employee, managers should look for past experience with that working arrangement, do a video interview, and ask them to do a test assignment, Verlinden recommended.
A standardized remote interviewing process with consistent questions and interviewers can help determine the best employees, said Dave Smith, vice president of engineering at DigitalOcean.
9. Avoid micromanaging
Remote workers need space to get work done without a manager virtually breathing down their neck just because they cannot see them, said Adam C. Conrad, founder of Anon Consulting.
"The key here is to set expectations for when we communicate, such as designated meetings or stand ups/check-ins," Conrad said.
Even if there is a certain way you like to get work done, you need to place some trust in your remote employees to do the job in their own way, said Omar Faruque Simanta, market analyst at CodeRex. "Part of the appeal of outsourcing work is to let other talented individuals approach problem solving in their own unique manner," Simanta said. "What matters most is results. Give a remote team the chance to perform and you just might be pleasantly surprised with the results."
10. Budget for in-person gatherings
"Virtual workspaces are great, and are getting better all the time, but there's no substitute for face time," said Peter McKay, co-CEO of Veeam. "Employees need to see one another face-to-face on occasion to cement a more personal connection."
Remote workers should also be flown in for big office events, like a summer outing, if possible, McKay said. "Foster a culture of collaboration that includes everyone, so that no one is left out because they work remotely," he added.
Budgeting time and money for all workers to meet in person can also reduce remote coworker friction, since relationships over a platform like Slack are different from those in real life, said Jason Morjaria, founder and CEO of Commusoft.
If managers or team members go to conferences or meetings in different locations, they should hold meetups with remote workers in the area, said Michael Alexis, director of marketing at Museum Hack. Flying remote workers to company headquarters for visits is also beneficial, he added.
- 10 signs that you aren't cut out to be a telecommuter (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
- Companies that support remote work experience 25 percent lower employee turnover (and other findings) (ZDNet)
- Slack: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
- How remote work can make your small company global (CNET)
- How to manage remote workers: 5 tips (TechRepublic)
Alison DeNisco Rayome has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.