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Best Practices to Manage a Remote Workforce

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[fa icon="pencil'] Posted by Heidi Van Anderson [fa icon="calendar"] April 25, 2019

We've made some exciting changes recently at Lewan, allowing more of our sales and service team to work from home to improve efficiency and to leverage more of the cutting edge technologies which we provide to our customers. But it has also been a big change for us, and while working with our team during this transition I've identified the best practices that have helped make our newly remote workforce successful. Considering the statistic below, it sounds like a lot of business have or are considering making this shift much like we did.

43% of employees work remotely in some capacity, meaning they spend at least some of their time working in a location different from that of their coworkers.

—2017 State of the American Workplace Report, Gallup 

When managed effectively, survey results show these individuals are more productive and more loyal to their employer.

Employers, while embracing a remote workforce, also need to recognize the changes needed to successfully lead their teams. Employees who have worked in a traditional office setting in the past will encounter some challenges when shifting to a work from home environment. Feelings of social isolation, missing being on a team, and challenges with productivity are common roadblocks, but also possible to overcome with the right leadership.

As leaders and managers, the words we speak are only a small part of the total message that we convey whenever we interact with someone. In fact, it’s only 7% according to a famous UCLA study. The way we say something – tone, volume, with or without emotion – accounts for 38% of the message.

That leaves what people see—body language, facial expressions, eye contact and so onas 55% of the message being received.

7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication

Photo Credit

Therein lies one of the biggest challenges in managing remotely.  Communication can easily deteriorate to only e-mail and an occasional phone conversation. It is almost impossible to build trust and solid connections with employees if you’re not finding other ways to communicate.

To counteract that, here are some best practices for leading from home, and working from home.

Leading a Remote Workforce Best Practices:

  • Setting expectations relates to both specific job expectations and also to a variety of expectations regarding working remotely. Identify your expectations around work hours, communication, etc.
  • Remote employees may feel isolated from the team and cannot build trust with their colleagues as easily. Hold frequent face-to-face meetings initially and ensure everyone participates. After that, hold as many virtual meetings as possible and set the stage for employees to share their opinions and ask for help.
  • Over-communicate and use different methods. Phone, e-mail, text, video conference, video chat, etc. See more tips on communication next...

6 Communication Tips to be an Effective Remote Workforce Leader:

  1. Be available. In an office setting your employees may be used to an open door policy, meaning they can swing in at any time and ask for help. Continue to project your availability to your employees so they still know you are there when they need you for a quick question, escalation or someone to talk to.
  2. Make time for small talk. Rapport comes from paying attention to your employees as complete people. It's easy to jump right to business when you are on the phone with an employee. Take the time to slow down and personally engage.
  3. NEVER cancel a one-on-one: Since you don’t have the opportunity in the office to build rapport and talk about issues as they come up, make up for it by setting aside more time for your one-on-ones with your remote employees and NEVER cancel one. Cancelling is one of the quickest ways to create resentment, create a sense of being left out, and to start the employee down the path of disengagement. One-on-ones in a remote working environment are the lifeline that ties the employee to you and the organization. If you absolutely can’t make a scheduled meeting, then reschedule.
  4. Use animation. This may sound too informal and not a natural habit for a lot of us when communicating with our teams but use GIFs, emoticons and memes that show the emotion behind your words to inject humor and authenticity into daily communication. This is another non-verbal form of communication and when done appropriately, should be utilized more in the professional world.
  5. Video! We know that most communication is non-verbal, so getting a remote employee to join a meeting via video conference allows them to engage at a deep level. Both formal and on the fly video communication channels are important. Calling your employee with an unplanned quick question through a video message app recreates the in-office stopping by your desk experience.
  6. Get together in person. It's extremely difficult to maintain a strong relationship with remote employees unless you get together in person periodically. Try to do this at least once a month, if not more often. Schedule events where all of your remote employees can regroup and reconnect, have fun, and be reminded they are part of a team. And get creative! This isn’t about spending money, it’s about spending time. Try a library conference room, coffee shop, shared work space, restaurant or park. These places give you a forum to simply work side by side and engage in team communication.

  See more great ideas for team interaction next...

Creative Ways to Build a Connected Remote Team

Try these virtual activities to boost team communication and bring humor into your virtual team interactions. Do not underestimate the power of ‘non-work talk’ and how it impacts trust in a positive way.

  • Try “Question Fridays”. Someone on the team presents a question that allows the team to get know each other on a deeper and more personal level. Some questions like, “What was your first car?” allow the team to have fun. “What accomplishment are you most proud of in your life?” elicits deeper answers and builds emotional bonds. It’s a way of bringing the break room and the water cooler into a remote work environment.
  • Assign one employee per week to present 10 facts about themselves at your weekly team meeting. Input and questions from the rest of the team are strongly encouraged. Encourage the employee to show photos of family, vacations, hobbies, etc. as part of their presentation also.
  • Schedule a “virtual coffee meet-up”.  This one requires a bit of planning.  First, send a $5 gift card to each employee for his/her favorite coffee shop (someplace where the employee can sit down at a table). Have everyone arrive at their coffee shop early and order the drink of choice and when the time for the meeting arrives, everyone can use video conference and spend time chatting over a cup of coffee.
  • Another idea is to have the team write a story. Type an opening sentence to a new story then take turns (e.g., alphabetically) to add a single sentence or paragraph to the story, and see where your team takes it. Go around as many times as it takes to complete the story or set a time limit and keep going until you reach it.
  • For a more formal activity, have each person write down the five most important things in their professional lives. It can be personality traits, characteristics of a good team, elements of the company, etc. Give each person a chance to share their list. It's a great way to find out what makes each person tick and learn more about their preferences, foibles, strengths, and work habits.
  • Acknowledge the little things. Simple things like singing “happy birthday” to employees adds to the fun and good feelings of a team call.  And, of course, there’s nothing like frequent employee recognition during a team call to build morale and commitment.

Finally - Give Your Remote Employees Guidance on Best Practices they can use to stay Productive and Engaged

  • Act like you are going to work. Consistently get up and mentally and physically prepare for a day "in the office". You should be able to attend a client meeting within 15 min from your current state.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of a commute. Even five minutes in the car can help you mentally prepare for the day. Just rolling out of bed and sitting at your computer can impact your productivity greatly. Instead, create a new morning routine to get you into the day.
  • Stay social. Use your organization's messaging app or other means of communication to check in with the team. Let them know about your morning and what your're working on, then ask them how they are doing. 
  • Create a work area for yourself and set boundaries. Think about what your space doing to support you while you are working and what is it projecting to those who are viewing it on a video call. What is in the background, how is the lighting?
  • Think about what makes a good work space for you to be productive. Do you need a comfortable chair, or a place to stand up? An extra monitor? Plenty of desk space to lay out files? A closed door so you don't get distracted? Be prepared to teach your loved ones that you are working when you are home (they forget the boundaries!).
  • Set expectations with your manager and teammates for when you are working. Put arrival, breaks and departure times on your calendar. Think about it—when you arrive in the office, everyone knows you are there and when you leave, they know you are out. That doesn’t happen as easily virtually, so think about how to get that message across.

A remote work environment is a great way for today's businesses to operate as long as they pay attention to the important communication and collaboration changes it creates and build positive best practices to keep everyone productive and engaged.

Topics: How To Guide, Unified Communication & Collaboration

Heidi Van Anderson
Written by Heidi Van Anderson

Heidi manages Lewan's client success team. She is responsible for the success of the Lewan PM organization and Lewan client engagements ranging from business/IT assessments, complex IT project management for multi-national corporations, and many infrastructure deployment projects within the Lewan portfolio.

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