Millions of people now work where they live. This is no longer a perk or a budding trend but a ubiquitous, normal workforce model – and we're not going back to the old days any time soon. In fact, a majority of small businesses intend to continue operating remotely after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The transition to remote work hasn't been without its challenges. Most organizations have needed to go virtual by necessity; they haven't had the opportunity to really consider their options or optimize their remote work arrangements. As a result, many business owners, especially small business owners, have faced uncertainties and challenges around remote workforce management, engagement, and productivity.
How do you make sure people are doing their jobs when they work from home? How do you keep your team motivated?
As CEO of the world's foremost virtual contact center company, I think about these questions all the time. Here are a few tips, from experience.
Start with people.
I'll readily admit that I failed at my first remote job. This was before Slack and Zoom when many people were still using dial-up internet. But the issue wasn't entirely due to technology.
Looking back, I can see that I hadn't adopted the right mindset for remote work. I was expecting one-to-one replacements for in-person meetings and quick check-ins. I didn't fully understand that I was responsible for my own productivity. As a result, I became the kind of silent killer managers fear: the disengaged at-home employee squandering time, money and opportunity.
It wasn't just about me. My inability to perform well was a consequence of a working environment that was built for a particular kind of employee.
Any working arrangement – remote, in person, or a flexible mix of the two – succeeds when it empowers all people to do their best regardless of company size. The model you use needs to serve every member of your workforce, not the only way around.
This is good news for small businesses. It means your advantage lies in your people, not in an expensive virtual toolset. But it also means that you need to tailor your model to your people, and more fundamentally, that you have to have the right people – the right employees, contractors or both – to begin with. In other words, the question of who’s working matters more than where, when or how they're working.
Consider which people in your company are best suited for remote work. Whenever possible, this evaluation should begin during the recruiting and hiring process.
FlexJobs recommends asking candidates and new hires questions such as the following:
- Have you ever worked remotely before? How was the experience for you?
- Do you prefer to work independently or as part of a team?
- How important is face-to-face communication to you?
- How do you manage your time and deadlines?
- How comfortable are you using remote technology?
- What does your home office setup look like?
- What do you do to unwind from work?
In general, people who succeed at remote work share certain skills and personality traits. According to Entrepreneur, characteristics to look for include self-motivation, self-discipline, strong communication skills, tech-savviness, a high degree of responsiveness and prior remote work experience. I'd add to that curiosity, adaptability and entrepreneurship. Remote workers need to be capable of running their own businesses in changing circumstances while keeping an open mind and a positive attitude.
Fortunately, these competencies can be taught and improved upon. The issue is that management too often assumes everyone has the same needs and comfort level.
Find the right balance for your business and workforce.
Ideally, a workplace should be neither completely remote nor completely tethered to a single physical location. People should have the freedom to work in the way that's most productive for them, to work remotely some days and collaborate in person other days.
Of course, it isn't always possible to adopt a flexible model. You may be stuck managing everyone and everything remotely due to, say, health and safety concerns during a pandemic. In that case, the key to success is to, again, build the model around the needs of your workforce.
As discussed above, identify the employees who are well suited for remote work, and give them the tools and space they need. Then, recognize the people for whom remote work is a learning curve, and provide them with extra coaching and help. For both groups, communication is pivotal, especially in a small business setting where teams are accustomed to unobstructed communication across the organization. The learning curve may be a bit higher, but the reward is just as great.
Implement a robust communication framework.
Effective remote workforce management hinges on a combination of the right tools and the right mindset. You can have an extraordinary, self-motivated team, but if you don't set them up for success, they'll feel lost and unsupported, ultimately becoming disengaged.
This is the time to consider your technology. You'll need to leverage virtual collaboration, project management and communication software. You'll also need to ensure that every remote worker has access to a computer equipped with a webcam, high-speed internet, a high-quality headset and any other hardware necessary to do their job.
Just as important is your communication strategy. You can't micromanage in a virtual model, another reason to find people who are disciplined and driven to begin with. It just isn't feasible to check in with every team member multiple times per day.
Instead, you'll need to develop a recurring meeting format that balances visibility for managers with space for employees. There should be ample opportunity for group discussions and one-on-one conversations, but (depending on the size of your workforce) something more frequent than a weekly or twice-weekly call may be overkill.
Be mindful of meeting fatigue, which remote technology can exacerbate. Rather than conducting all conversations over the phone or video, create a channel for ongoing, incidental work chat – tools like Slack and Khoros Communities are great for this. Small businesses that may not have needed these tools previously now find themselves in a position where that third-party tool is needed to do something as simple as sending a quick "How's your day going?" to a colleague. Make sure that your teams have the resources they need to maintain your culture, even while working remotely.
Remember that communication is about more than managing people and projects. For a dispersed team, it's also essential for maintaining morale and organizational culture. Consider how you'll celebrate achievements, recognize workers and have fun remotely. Over the internet, these things don't happen automatically the way they do in a conventional office.
Tie workforce management to quantifiable performance indicators.
Remote work tends to have a honeymoon period. For the first couple of weeks or months, workers feel energized and empowered by their newfound independence. Productivity stays the same or improves. Communication channels remain abuzz with both work- and non-work-related conversations.
And then things start to go quiet. People stop responding to emails and calls as quickly. Work slows down. Before you know it, engagement dips and attrition rates creep up.
To prevent this from occurring, you need to measure productivity and take proactive steps to encourage it. Success in a remote work environment needs to be clearly defined and results-driven. A manager and worker should be able to get on a call and look at an objective scorecard that ties individual efforts to key performance indicators (KPIs) for the business.
KPIs should be relevant to the individual or department in question. For a call center agent, for example, a good KPI may be customer satisfaction scores, customer lifetime value, response time or customer retention rate. For a marketing or salesperson, perhaps it's customer acquisition or conversion rate. Other professionals will track things by deliverable, deadline, hours, cost or profit.
In any case, the more quantifiable, the better. Productivity can't be a matter of guesswork. After all, remote managers can't walk around the office and read body language. They can't look at timesheets to determine who is and isn't working hard. And remote workers can't always correctly gauge their own productivity. Left to their own devices, they may slide into lackluster performance or, as happens more often, push themselves too hard and burn out. On smaller teams, these metric-driven conversations may not have been necessary prior to work from home, but providing as much clarity as possible across your organization for expectations in both work and communications is crucial.
Keep in mind that no matter how you measure and encourage productivity, there will always be some challenges in managing a remote workforce. Know your workforce. Establish trusting relationships with your employees. Realize that some people will need more support than others.
This isn't to suggest remote workforce management is any more difficult than "normal" workforce management. It's just different. As a matter of fact, if you nail these essentials, it can actually be easier. Do it well, and you'll never miss the old days.