CXO

How to manage remote workers: 5 tips

Work from home policies and remote companies are becoming more common in the tech industry. Here's how to successfully navigate the new office dynamic.

Work from home policies and fully remote companies are becoming more of a norm in the tech industry: IT and development roles are typically in the top 10 career fields for flexible and remote jobs, according to Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs and Remote.co. And employees in computer and mathematical fields work remotely much more frequently than their peers, according to a report from FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics.

Flexible schedules and remote work policies topped the list of workplace perks tech employees want the most. "Flexibility is very important to employees," said Jennifer Deal, senior research scientists at the Center for Creative Leadership and co-author of What Millennials Want From Work. "If they can work remotely at least some of the time, that gives them that flexibility—especially if managers are good and make sure they're meeting all of the timelines and deliverables."

Remote work has also been shown to improve worker retention, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and improve the health of workers overall, Sutton Fell said.

However, "the biggest benefit of allowing tech workers to work remotely is the ability to recruit more talent in different locations, and not limiting hiring to just their local geographic areas," Sutton Fell said. "Given how competitive the market is for highly-skilled tech workers, companies can broaden their talent pools significantly when they hire remotely."

SEE: Telecommuting policy (Tech Pro Research)

The FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics survey found that telecommuting at least half time increased 115% over the last 10 years. "Done well, remote work helps companies be more competitive, do great work while reducing expenses, and succeed," Sutton Fell said.

With the new workplace paradigm comes the need to shift management styles to include employees who work from home part time or full time. Here are five tips to more effectively manage remote workers.

1. Start small

When determining how to best implement or manage remote work policies, it's important for companies to first define exactly what they mean by "remote work," according to Jason Fried, CEO and co-founder of Basecamp and co-author of Remote: Office Not Required. For example, companies may take a hybrid approach, where employees come to a physical office part of the time, and work from home the other part. Or they might take a fully remote approach, where employees work all over the country or globe and never come to one location.

If you're considering opening up your company to remote work, do not start by hiring people that live far away, Fried said. "Let your existing employees work from home for a bit before hiring others from far away," he added. "Take safer risks. You already know these people—see how you work remotely with them."

Once you get comfortable, you can try hiring your first remote employee, Fried said. However, this approach does not work well if you're a small company looking to hire one remote person, he added. "It's not going to work, because the culture of the company is local," Fried said. "That person will feel neglected or left out. If you do it, encourage at the same time local people working remotely as much as they want. Relax the requirement for everyone, so that they have to work as a remote company, versus having one remote employee."

2. Hire the right people

Basecamp has operated with a hybrid approach for 18 years, Fried said. Some people come to a physical office in Chicago each day, while most others work in 30 cities across the world.

A large part of the success of remote management is the hiring process, Fried said. "You have to hire people who are comfortable working remotely—who have done it before, or who have a good sense of discipline and motivation," Fried said. "It's often more about hiring than managing."

If a candidate does not have remote work experience, certain other factors can act as proxies for that, Fried said. For example, if you're looking for a programmer, someone who has done open source work and collaborated with other people on the same code base could be a good bet.

Basecamp sometimes narrows down a list of candidates, and hires five for a one-week project. "When the project is done, we sit down with them in person or over video, and walk through their thought process," Fried said. "You can get a sense of the person, and how organized and thoughtful they are, or if they procrastinated or didn't manage their time well. It's pretty easy to tell once you've been doing it for a while."

SEE: 10 signs that you aren't cut out to be a telecommuter (free PDF)

3. Keep in touch

Remote managers need to shift their management styles to rely less on visuals and more on proactive communication, regular check-ins, goal-setting, and results-focused management, Sutton Fell said. "But really, all managers can benefit from relying less on facetime and more on processes and results," she added.

Remote.co surveyed 125 company leaders on their favorite tools for remote work, which included those for instant messaging (such as Slack, Skype, and Google Chat), project management (such as Trello, Pivotal Tracker, and Basecamp), and team collaboration (such as Slack, None, and Yammer).

Regular meetings with remote workers can ensure both parties are on the same page about assignments and deadlines, Deal said. It's also important to check in to find out if there is anything the employee needs to better do their job, she added.

In physical offices, managers sometimes manage by walking around, and can see when someone is frustrated or having difficulty or doesn't have access to resources. "If not face to face with a person, a manager needs to deliberately have those interactions at a distance," Deal said. "It also means establishing trust with employees, so that employees will tell them what they need."

4. Avoid micromanaging

Though meetings can be useful, be careful not to micromanage remote workers, Fried said. "If you don't trust them, there's an implicit 'I can't see them so I have to stay on top of them,'" he added. "You have to trust and be willing to let people do their work, and remember that if they can only do work if you're helping them, then you're a bottleneck."

Whether or not you can look at someone should not affect your management, Fried said. "You have to judge the work, which is visible from anywhere," he added. "The idea that you have to be physically sitting across from someone to judge their work isn't true."

Fried video chats with employees only when necessary, he said. The majority of work is done through the Basecamp platform, and employees interact throughout the day there. "It's good to catch up socially on video chat, but not regularly," Fried said. "If you schedule it frequently then you're relying on it and saying it's necessary to see people's faces. It helps in moments, but it's not necessary."

5. Create connections

Employees that work from home exclusively can sometimes feel isolated, Fried said. "If people don't have good time management skills and personal discipline, they can become procrastinators, which leads to stress and anxiety," Fried said. "If most people are local and a few are remote, there will be two cultures, and the people working remotely will feel left out. You have to be careful about that."

To avoid this, Basecamp builds in ways for its employees to create relationships with one another. For example, once a month, five employees across the company are randomly chosen to join in a video conference together. The only rule is that they cannot discuss work. "It's a very casual personal catch up so people can get to know each other," Fried said. The conversation is transcribed and shared with the rest of the company as well.

Every Monday morning the platform asks employees, "What did you do this weekend?" and encourages them to share photos and updates with coworkers. And once a month it asks "What books are you reading?" and employees share lists or reports.

Overall, work from home policies can benefit both companies and employees, Sutton Fell said. "Remote work is clearly trending upward and smart tech companies understand that a strong remote work program, tied to overarching business goals and strategies, with clear objectives and metrics, can be incredibly beneficial to the company's success, bottom line, workers, and community," she added.

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Image: iStockphoto/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

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About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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