Leadership & Productivity

Distance working can be more productive, but only if you manage your remote employees right

7 min read

27 February 2019

We are constantly hearing about how remote working can be more productive than office attendance. But for this to be the case, you must ensure that your managerial skills are up to scratch. Make use of IT technology as well as a culture of transparency to get your remote office team to the highest level of productivity.

Remote work is no longer just for independent entrepreneurs, distant employees or gig-economy workers. Smart companies are realising they need to go where the talent is, even if that means hiring someone away from their offices.

Additionally, remote work does not exclusively refer to independent employees based away from the main office; it also includes employees and teams who communicate and collaborate across multiple company offices – a reality that global companies have embraced for a long time. Having this physical distance between teams requires companies to adapt and learn how best to manage and motivate when everyone is not in the same building.

With 49% of employees 50 years or older and 70%  of millennials spending some time working away from traditional offices already – and an ongoing uptick in these trends – HR leaders need to rethink people programmes and strategies to ensure productivity and engagement are high.

Make use of IT tools to keep employees thinking like a team

A partnership with IT is key. Technology will make a huge difference in ensuring human connections are made in the absence of the physical watercooler.

For example, video conferencing tools can make distant employees feel as if they’re in the same room. However, everyone needs to play ball; if a meeting consists of a mix of in-person and remote attendees, everyone should turn their cameras on and those in the room should make sure to specifically address those who aren’t so that all participants are equally included and involved.

Maintain modern understandings of responsibility: Physical presence doesn’t always mean hard work

Shifting away from the old school mindset of “you can’t manage it if you can’t see it” is another key element of effectively managing a remote workforce. The person in the cube next to the manager may spend 10 hours a day in the office, but are they catching up on sports, shopping online or planning their next vacation?

“Managers can’t assume that employees they can see are working, or that employees they can’t see aren’t. Therefore, they need to set goals for each employee and have regular check-ins to compare goals with results. This allows managers to focus on each employee’s results and business impact, regardless of where they’re based.”

If an employee’s results start to slip, managers need to start by exploring why. Is it a skills or training issue, a poor hiring decision or is there something else causing the employee to struggle? It’s not likely to be caused by working remotely; in fact, most people perform better in this setting, as they can escape all the noises and distractions of the office.

How to keep remote workers engaged and productive

According to a report on UK productivity, Britain is 15% less productive per employee than the average of its EU competitors and productivity has grown only 1.4% over the last decade. The message for HR managers is clear – keeping employees engaged is essential for their productivity and the business’ success. There is no question that managing remote workers can be more challenging. Managers have to plan interactions and they miss the rapport-building “how was your weekend” moments that naturally happen when in the office together.

Managers need to plan ahead

Issues that remote working can create for businesses

However, with a little forethought, it is not difficult to create opportunities for engaging with remote employees. In addition to the individual performance check-ins, managers should coordinate regular virtual team meetings to help people stay connected with their teams. These meetings are also a great opportunity for recognising individuals’ accomplishments and for team building.

“Additionally, managers should coordinate occasional in-person team activities, which will further strengthen the bond between employees (suggestion: Escape Room. A little competition goes a long way!).”

During these in-person gatherings, managers should find ways to connect with remote employees on a personal level to strengthen relationships and make it more enjoyable working together from a distance.

Regular communication is key in continuing to build on the relationships built in person

Having access to a solid virtual collaboration platform will help make this communication seamless and effortless. The platform needs to be reliable, of course, but it should also work the way employees want it to work. This means offering a variety of options to collaborate, from real-time messaging and file sharing to audio and video conferencing.

The ability to see colleagues, partners and customers on video – rather than just reading their messages or hearing their voice through a conference call – helps employees connect with them on a more personal level, and also allows them to pick up on the many subtle, nonverbal cues, and guide the conversation accordingly. This is critical, as effective listening involves so much more than just hearing the words being spoken.

Video technology helps remote workers better understand what is said and not said

It also keeps them more accountable, because having the camera on encourages focusing rather than multitasking. Furthermore, seeing the other people in a meeting makes it easier to stay engaged and retain the information being discussed. Many companies enable remote working for its productivity benefits; others do so to attract the best talent out there. Whatever their motivation is, companies shifting to a remote workforce need to change the way they measure performance and focus on keeping employees engaged, and they need to ensure they have the right technology in place to support seamless collaboration.