One in five people now work from home (me included). Many, of course are entrepreneurs or solopreneurs as it’s now trendy to say. But most others are just part of a work team, all of whom are colleagues working together on various tasks and projects on a regular basis. Remote teams are becoming more and more common, especially since businesses are increasing their global presence.
And I’m a huge fan of the “work from anywhere you like” idea, so today I’d like to share some pros and cons of having a virtual office and managing a remote team.
Advantages of Virtual Offices
There are big pluses for both management and employees in this work environment.
1. Basically non-existent overhead: Without the need to rent space, pay utilities, and supply an office with equipment and furniture, a manager has significantly reduced overhead. This of course increases profit margins and the ability to pay team members more.
2. Team members are typically people who like to work on their own. They are highly skilled and creative introverts who function extremely well in their own home offices, non-distracted and without pressure to socialize with the office staff. The “cost” of working is less too — no more business clothing, paying for restaurant lunches, and no more hassles of transportation costs and rush hours.
Challenges of Virtual Offices
Not having a team in close physical proximity has it challenges as well.
1. It is difficult to develop a “team spirit” when people do not have the chance to eat together, to socialize together, and to work around a table face-to-face, meaning people often come and go with no strings attached.
2. Communication is always somewhat a challenge, considering time zones and the technology necessary to do it effectively.
3. Project work that must be coordinated with everyone meeting their task obligations and deadlines successfully is a significant challenge — a manger cannot just walk into a team member’s office and see exactly where he or she is in the progression for task completion.
4. Scheduling work hours and having systems in place for reporting and feedback requires some creativity and flexibility.
Remote teams and management of such teams can be highly successful, if a manager has the skills and tools to pull it off. Here are nine tips (and some tools) for managers that will make a remote team function successfully.
1. Employ Carefully
People who can work remotely have certain skills and personality strengths. They are self-starters who also have work ethic to produce with little supervision. They can take initiative and have a perseverance that motivates them to continue until tasks are completed successfully. Usually, they have high expectations for themselves and for others. They also prefer to work on their own.
Managers who work well in this environment have to have great organizational skills and the ability to delegate tasks efficiently and effectively. People who have difficulty delegating and then allowing people the freedom to determine how tasks get completed, will never make successful remote managers.
The other key personality trait for a remote manager is the ability to establish relationships with people without having ever met them face-to-face. In general, they must be extroverts who enjoy communicating with others, no matter how that communication occurs. If these are your strengths, then you are probably a good fit.
2. Schedule Work Hours and Have Systems for Reporting and Meetings
Give definitive work hours to all team members — you need to know when you can reach them at a moment’s notice and that you can pull them all together at the same time, for both scheduled meetings and in emergencies.
Set up a specific reporting schedule for everyone if needed. A daily conference call is a must, and it must honor everyone’s time zone. If, for example, you have team members in the U.S., the U.K., and Eastern Europe, you have time zones that vary by eight hours. Your 6 a.m. in Chicago will be their 2 p.m. You must set a common time for meetings and conferences, and team members must be happy to have their work days be a bit abnormal.
3. Have Technology and Tools All Team Members Are Comfortable Using
Obviously, laptops, tablets, and smartphones will all be utilized, but it will be important to give team members the choices to use devices with which they are most comfortable. A “BYOD” (bring your own device) practice is good for everyone. They can use what they want and you save overhead costs.
Management tools are a huge factor in getting things done and in communicating effectively, and you will need several of the newest apps and programs.
- Use cloud computing for everything — team members can access each other’s work at any time.
- Use Skype, GoToMeeting, or Google+ Hangout for video conferencing
- Have excellent project management tools that allow team members to brainstorm, collaborate, and that allow you to track everyone’s progress in one place. Basecamp and Workzone are great platforms for these functions (along with dozens of other platforms out there).
- Use current tools that allow sharing of visuals — Jing allows you to take a desktop screenshot and add arrows, notes, and labels; Teamviewer.com and Join.me are screen-sharing tools that allow remote access among team members and you, in order to add notes and suggestions for changes.
- HR functions may best be contracted out for greatest efficiency. Team members can all submit their hours, timesheets, etc. to a central firm and paychecks can be generated and deposited directly into bank accounts. This is especially helpful when team members are in different countries, and deductions may be very different.
4. Set Clear and Specific Daily, Weekly, and Monthly Objectives and Performance Expectations
There is no room for misunderstandings when deadlines must be met. Setting very detailed objectives and ensuring that each team member understands his/her role and tasks is absolutely critical. And set benchmark times and dates for reporting back to you.
5. Have Systems for Team Members to Communicate Privately
In a traditional office setting, employees have the opportunity for private conversations with co-workers. They may need to “let off some steam;” they may need to ask questions or seek advice without coming to you. This helps to reduce the feeling of isolation that remote team members can have. While you may need to be always in the loop on work tasks and issues, you do not need to micro-manage every conversation — it’s too intrusive.
6. Give Regular Feedback to Each Team Member
Offer advice and suggestions for improvement privately. Recognition for jobs well done should be public, however, because people to be praised openly when they achieve. Send out promotion e-mails as often as possible — it keeps morale up. Monetary rewards and gifts work very well too!
7. Be Available
When football players are on the field, the coach is always present. For your business, you are the coach. You need to be available during all work hours. Foster the attitude that no question is too simple or silly. Encourage contact for whatever a need may be and respond quickly. And contact each team member daily and ask them how things are going. If you have been able to establish good relationships, you will know something about them personally. How is that daughter doing her first year in college? How is the husband’s new job coming along?
8. Let Your Team Members Know You Trust Them
The worst thing you can do is micro-manage every task you assign to everyone. This means you are not a really skilled delegator. Pass out the tasks, give deadlines, and let them work. Remember, these people value their independence and working on their own — this is why they have chosen this type of workplace. Until they give you a reason not to trust, just let them go to work.
9. Promote Team Bonding as Much as Possible
During your video conferencing, set aside a certain amount of time for personal conversation; set up an intranet among your team members and encourage them to use it as well as video conferencing tools, so that they can see one another as they talk.
Virtual offices of remote teams may be a relatively new phenomenon right now, but it is the way of the future. Technology, globalization, and the need to keep the costs of doing business down are all contributing to virtual offices, and, if the right people are in place, they are more productive workplaces.