As the benefits of remote work continue to reveal themselves to employees and executives alike, more teams are debating the best ways to take advantage of the trend.
Inside all these conversations, though, is at least one common concern: How do remote teams embrace flexibility without sacrificing productivity?
The seven questions below are designed to help any team manager answer the one above.
How often should we work from home?
While some employers have embraced an entirely remote workplace, most still have a central office space where an employee can report to. But even the introduction of flexible and work from home schedules can carry unexpected complexities.
Many offices have a company-determined schedule for remote workers. However many workplaces give teams, managers, and individual employees the ability to determine their own flexibility.
A recent Stanford study found that employees who worked from home 100% of the time were more productive, but also more prone to loneliness and isolation. Alternatively, those who worked in the office 100% of the time felt frequently distracted.
A happy medium of 1-2 days a week at home, and the rest in the office seemed to work for many. But even if it takes you a little while to find your team’s balance between collaboration and concentration, experimentation is almost certainly better than a declaration in this case.
Do we have the right tools for the job?
If you’ve ever tried to force open a tin can with a knife, then you know that the right tools make all the difference. The same goes for remote work.
Your instruments of choice have the potential to either boost productivity or bring injury.
Tools built for remote collaboration have become more accessible. Project management software, for example, isn’t just for specialists overseeing sprawling initiatives. Anyone can learn to use apps like Monday.com or Trello to keep track of their work process and help teammates gauge progress.
Similarly, time management apps like timedoctor, paymo, toggl, and timecamp can make it fun and easy for everyone on the team to accurately track their time and progress on tasks. It also makes it easier for managers to follow up.
When you see an employee struggling on specific tasks or taking much longer than usual, you can easily use a messaging platform to step in and start a conversation –even while working from miles apart.
Is our communication effective?
Communication is the key to remote team productivity. However, it is difficult to communicate with someone when they are simply not there.
In fact, a lot of communication in the workplace happens in very informal settings. Asking a colleague about an email while grabbing a cup of coffee, or learning about a new feature release while chatting in the hallway is not unheard of.
In fact, these informal collisions and random meetings are common and useful for delegating quick assignments, following up on miscellaneous items, or even brainstorming new ideas.
“Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
– Steve Jobs–
While it’s easy to brush these off as one-off or unimportant, they add up and contribute to your knowledge of the workplace. Making sure that you’re including remote employees in these discussions to loop them in is important, as sometimes they’ll get skipped in larger meetings.
Team collaboration tools like Slack can quickly help coworkers touch base with each other, without all the formality of an email. Just a quick message can help employees who are working remotely continuously be part of the workspace, even when they’re not there.
Video conferencing can also help everyone be on the same page during meetings. Actually seeing your teammates helps foster a sense of connection and adds layers of communication through body language cues. Screen sharing capabilities let everyone visually participate in the same presentation and have the same experience. All of these add up to create more effective communication and a much more productive team.
Are we setting relevant goals?
Setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely) is vital. It lets you and your team both be on the same page about the outcomes you’re working towards. When goals are actionable, employees can track their progress, follow through on deliverables, and know where they stand without feeling lost and confused.
Remote teams especially tend to be result-oriented, and need clear deliverables within their work. Prioritizing production-focused goals rather than performance focused goals, at least initially can help teams get tet their footing.
How often should we measure progress?
The traditional office model allowed managers to keep track of employees and follow up easily often during the workday. However, when your employees work remotely, this task becomes a bit more complicated.
Learning how to manage from afar and still be effective is one of the biggest factors in having a productive team. Knowing when to back off and when to stay involved- and how much- can be a touchy subject. As most managers will tell you, finding the right balance between holding people accountable, and being annoying is tough.
While minimal check-ins can work for some teams, it most often leaves people feeling isolated and unimportant to the team workflow. Not being able to connect regularly as an entire team can throw some people out of the loop, and ultimately lead to miscommunication. Things that could easily be cleared up in minutes can spend weeks in limbo.
Despite not being around each other a lot, making sure that you’re touching base and following up with your team when things come up (or better, before they are an issue) is the best way to ensure that your team stays on track.
Management and Micromanagement
However, too much oversight can easily become micromanagement. Not only is trying to be on top of everything with a remote workforce is next to impossible, but it can quickly destroy the motivation and morale of your team. Independence and decision making skills are vital to remote workers. Hovering over their every move erodes that trust and will lead to disengaged employees in a heartbeat.
The best thing to do is find a middle ground that both you and your team is comfortable with. Offer support and let your employees feel like they can check in with you when things come up. Set up a regular time that works to spend time with people and follow up on goals and projects. Stay involved by having a face-to-face meeting (or even virtual meetings) if possible, to get ahead of any situation before it’s too far gone to address.
Setting that expectation to meet on a predictable and frequent basis reduces the chances of festering issues going unresolved, uncompleted projects, missed deadlines, and colleagues going too long with no interaction.
How are we training and developing our employees?
Learning on the job sounds nice, especially if you’re a busy manager. Not having to take the time you don’t have out of your hectic schedule to train a new hire is great. After all, if you’re hiring an independent adults– surely you can just trust them to jump in and pull themselves up by the bootstraps.
Except that doesn’t really work.
The problem with learning on the job is that it is an extremely inefficient way to learn, and will cost you more in the long run.
More often than not, subpar training leads to poor performance, increased mistakes, employee churn, and even legal consequences (lawsuits, fines, criminal negligence). Don’t let that happen to you and your team.
Leaving a new hire on their own to “figure it out” leaves them with no direction and leaves you with a high chance of creating a resentful employee.
However, once the onboarding and initial training for your team is done, that does not mean you’re good to go.
Employee development is an important part of making your team work better in remote environments. Without the usual office camaraderie available to your team, training takes a more important role in ensuring employees remain engaged.
Follow up with ongoing training and courses will help your team keep up with industry standards. Committing to learning new tools, and finding better ways to collaborate as a team will help put you ahead of the pack, and motivate everyone to grow and improve.
However, working on outdated technologies and systems because nobody is encouraged to keep developing in their role is detrimental to your team, and the business as a whole.
Are we recognizing achievements?
People love rewards and recognition. It’s part of who we are. Taking the time to make employees feel appreciated is much more important than just an ego boost. It has been shown to increase everything from individual employee productivity and job satisfaction to employee loyalty and tenure.
However, it’s easy to get bogged down by the daily stress of the workplace and daily duties, that we often forget to recognize those who are doing a great job at work. This should be a big concern to managers. Lack of recognition creates disengaged employees who will not only drive down the morale of the rest of the team but the productivity as well.
Recognizing and praising employees is a skill that takes time to learn, but is vital in every manager’s toolbox. Kind, timely, and constructive feedback is crucial for building productive working relationships. It could be something as small as expressing a genuine “thank you” or as big as an organizational award. When it comes to recognizing your team for their hard work, a little bit goes a long way.
Remote work comes with a lot of freedom and benefits, but also a lot of responsibility. It takes a flexible mindset to re-think the traditional workplace. But asking the right questions when structuring your distributed team will help keep the most common pitfalls at bay and help your team grow in their productivity.