Technology, communication, inclusiveness and productivity: Entrepreneurial tips to manage remote employees

Technology has changed the way we work, enabling employees to do their jobs without the need for a brick-and-mortar office.

“It’s the way a lot of companies are going,” notes Lynn Brown, a human resources advisor and managing director of Brown Consulting Group.

While remote employee arrangements have advantages — today’s workers put a premium on flexibility, and businesses with off-site staff don’t spend as much on office overhead — a mobile workforce also presents a challenge for employers: how best to go about managing your team when there’s limited face-to-face interaction?

We asked Brown and other leading HR consultants how to create a cohesive office culture in the absence of an actual office.

1. Communicate regularly

Good communication is essential when managing employees from afar. Whether it gives workers guidance on a project or lets them vent frustrations, off-site staff need to know their manager is available.

“It’s important for managers to be a sounding board for remote employees and to check in to see that they’re not getting burned out,” says Brown, who recommends regular virtual meetings via video-conferencing applications like Skype or GoToMeeting. “It needs to be built into these managers’ job descriptions that they’re not just managing people in an office, but also reaching out to their virtual workers.”

Be sure your remote team isn’t being managed only from the top down, however.

“Managers should be asking (off-site employees) what they need to be successful,” says Else Pedersen, owner of Perceptive Edge, an HR consultancy.

2. Monitor productivity

Some managers find it nerve-wracking when they can’t monitor the work remote employees are doing. But micromanaging simply isn’t an effective way of dealing with a mobile workforce.

“(They) need to be internally motivated,” Pedersen says. “If you don’t have internally motivated people, it doesn’t work so well.”

At the outset, be sure you’ve provided staff with clearly outlined goals and expectations, and that they know they’re responsible for reaching and demonstrating certain achievements.

“You can ask for daily updates, or a weekly or monthly status report,” says Michelle Ventrella, HR director with Pivotal Solutions, an HR consulting firm. “Or as long as the work is being done on time you may not ask at all — if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

And, she adds, if you feel the constant need to know what someone is doing throughout the day, that lack of trust means the employee may not be suited for remote work.

3. Ensure inclusiveness

Just because team members work off-site doesn’t mean they can’t be a part of the office culture. Indeed, inclusion is a vital way to keep them engaged and motivated.

Technology plays an essential role here. E-mail bulletins that keep remote workers in the loop regarding company successes, policies, goals and initiatives are a valuable tool, as are social networking tools like Yammer, which lets co-workers engage in real-time conversations, collaborate on projects and share ideas, regardless of location.

Be creative with your employee engagement. For example, Ventrella notes, this past Halloween, Pivotal Solutions — which itself has a remote workforce — ran a contest inviting staffers to submit photos of themselves or their families in costume, with the best ones winning prizes.

“Stuff like that makes people feel like they work somewhere fun,” she says.

4. Instill passion

The key to ensuring your team stays passionate is the same in the virtual-worker world as it is in a real office environment: inspire your staff and let them know they’re valued.

“Employees need to feel they have opportunities for advancement, that their work is challenging and that they’re making a difference,” Brown says. “You can say yours is a great company, but if you’re not treating people well, not recognizing their achievements, not paying them well, or working them to death, then they’re going to get burned out.”

Online employee surveys are a good way to garner feedback and track employee sentiment.

“You can check in with people to see if what you’re doing is working, or to learn from your mistakes,” says Ventrella.

5. Come together

While technology makes it easier for remote employees to stay connected, there’s still no substitute for an in-person get-together.

“There are tons of tools out there, but they won’t replace face-to-face interaction from time to time,” says Ventrella.

An in-person meeting facilitates employee mentoring and top-up training, and provides an opportunity to evaluate worker motivation. It can also help remote staffers strengthen connections with fellow employees and managers, which can prove invaluable when they need counsel and guidance down the line.

“My team is located all around the GTA, but we meet twice a month,” Ventrella says. “Those check-ins are really key.”