Managing Remote Employees Requires Time and Attention, Says the Harvard Business Review

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Managing remote employees requires different techniques than managing on-site workers.

If you want to reap the rewards of employing a remote workforce, you’ll have to make sure your virtual office door is always open. That’s the message from recent telecommuting research published in the Harvard Business Review.

After polling more than 1,000 employees, both remote and in-office, researchers found telecommuters were more likely to feel “left out” of office life and politics than their on-site colleagues. That hardly seems like a breakthrough given the fact that, at least in a hybrid office setup, remote employees are a step removed from the people sharing halls, staff rooms, and a physical world outside the corporate walls.

What is interesting is that the researchers didn’t feel the results were a sign to abandon telecommuting, but rather an indication that different approaches are needed when it comes to managing remote employees.

That’s a sentiment we at VC Daily can endorse. Telecommuters are the same as any employee; if you treat them as a part of the team, they’ll feel like a part of the team.

Managing Remote Employees

What the HBR team suggest as best practices for dealing with telecommuters isn’t even that different from traditional management practices. It’s just that the communications format has shifted from speaking in-person to speaking over a video call. Look at these suggestions and you’ll see there’s little here that requires a major rewriting of the business management handbook:

  • Check-in frequently: Establish regular, consistent online meetings
  • Meet face-to-face: Use your video conference connection, not an email or the phone
  • Make instructions explicit: The best, most basic advice any manager can heed
  • Be comfortable with the technology: This one takes some effort, but most video calling apps have intuitive click-and-call interfaces
  • Prioritize relationships: Spend some time talking about the broader, “water cooler” moments in life and show an interest in your employee as a person
  • Be available: This is key, in our opinion. If your remote staff is working they should be able to contact you, face-to-face, whenever the need arises.

There’s nothing in that list to give the most stubborn of technophobes any trauma.To pursue those objectives though, you do need to have the right video conferencing software as a foundation. And perhaps, with the rise of all-in-one collaboration platforms, you need something that’s about more than just video calling.

Building a Video Conferencing Workflow

The creators of Slack set off a workplace digital arms race when they released their workflow collaboration product several years ago. Dubbed an email killer, Slack is more host than provider, as it offers a communal space where colleagues can link all their projects and communications in a single platform. It’s a bit like a Facebook social media site, with threads of conversation, shared files, and external apps all flowing through a personalized page on each employee’s desktop. That includes native video calling, so that each linked staff member can call any other with a single click.

It has earned the envy of Skype and Facebook itself, and both have since launched their own versions of the app–Teams, by Skype and Workplace, by Facebook–in a competition which has turned confrontational at times.

These backbone networks are the type of broad connection that can make the HBR telecommuting aspirations a reality. They link everybody–be they located at home or in the office–under the same structure, and put everybody within a single click of a face-to-face video call. With that kind of instant connection possible, it becomes very easy to keep your virtual office door always open. And, being on the same platform as the rest of the company can be a lot like being in the same building as the rest of the company. Like having a common physical location, a common virtual location can build shared experiences and help bring commuters and virtual employees closer together.

Communicating with Remote Employees

The point is, you don’t have to create a new office culture to accommodate telecommuters–you just have to create the means for them to be a part of it.

So, each morning under your newly established workflow video conference setup, each employee will fire up their device and log on to the network. Depending on your management style, you can call them all to a quick group video chat to discuss the agenda for the day, or you can just drop in on a few individuals and check their progress. Similarly, each employee can start up a video conversation across their own team, or across other teams if your business is lucky enough to need multiple groups.

If you take the advice of the research above, you’ll find a few minutes during the day to spend some company time on idle banter. No one has to leave their desk and hang out in the staff room to recount their night at the Knicks game, and no one has to shout across the open plan office to get the attention of a colleague, but that doesn’t mean you can’t video chat like you’d chat in person, asking about kids, pets, and weekend activities.

Most importantly, as long as your status on the network glows green with availability, any employee can hit you up for a quick video chat. There are many benefits to employing remote employees–they’re actually cheaper, more productive, happier, and more likely to stay with your company, according to research–and if the cost of keeping them happy is their manager making themselves available for a video call, it seems a very small price to pay.

Image Sources: Flickr CC Users David Martyn Hunt 

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