Working remotely—whether from home, a café, a coworking space, or a satellite office—is becoming increasingly popular as people seek out flexibility and balance in their work environments. In fact, data from the U.S. census indicates that over 8 million people worked from home in 2017, and current workplace trends suggest that number will continue to grow.
There are plenty of benefits of integrating remote work into your organizational culture. When your talent pool is unrestricted by location, you’re better equipped to recruit the very best talent, with a better chance to increase diversity in the workplace by hiring people from different locations and backgrounds. Offering your employees flexibility can also reduce your business’s carbon footprint and help your employees cut commuting costs, too. Studies show that when employees have the option to work remotely, they feel a stronger sense of work-life balance, which can boost productivity and overall well-being, ultimately saving the company money in the long run.
But managing a remote team comes with challenges. Without face-to-face contact, it can be more difficult to establish personal connections and build trust with employees. With remote employees, managers have less insight into their teams’ day-to-day tasks, and may have to experiment with different types of communication practices to help the team function at its full potential.
With so many people seeking out flexible opportunities, managers have to learn to adapt to this new format. With the right tools and tips, managers can ensure their virtual employees are supported, productive, and engaged.
How to successfully manage remote employees
1. Use visual and chat tools
There are countless communication tools at your disposal, and taking advantage of that technology is essential for managing remote employees. Set your team up with the right tools that will help you communicate effectively and help your remote employees feel part of the team.
Not all tools serve the same function, though. You shouldn’t have a conversation about performance, for example, via a chat tool, as the conversation can be emotional and requires a more personal connection. Instead, a performance review should be conducted over a video chat in the event that you and your remote employee can’t meet in person.
Tools like Slack and Gchat are best for quick communication and casual conversation, and virtual meeting tools like Zoom or Google Hangouts are most effective when used for team meetings, so your remote workers feel like they are in the room. Most virtual meeting software allows you to share your screen, so your team can view the same material, no matter where in the world they work.
2. Set expectations and deadlines
It’s not possible for an employee to succeed if you are not clear about your expectations. This can be particularly hard when your team is remote, because you have less insight into what your employees are working on throughout the day. Setting clear deadlines for projects is helpful, because saying something needs to be done “quickly” is subjective—does this mean within the hour? Or by end of day?
Set expectations for your remote employees about response times, working hours, and cadence of communication. You’ll want these expectations to align with the ones you set for your in-office employees to ensure there isn’t a double standard of some kind.
3. Have regular 1:1 meetings
Having regular 1:1s allows you to connect with your employees, check in on projects, and develop a rapport. Unlike direct reports who work in the same space with you, there is no opportunity for impromptu office run-ins, so keeping these meetings consistently on the calendar is an essential way to stay up-to-date on what your employees are working on. Having a regular meeting cadence also helps build trust and create space for support. Make sure to hold 1:1s via video conference whenever possible.
4. Squeeze in some face time
If you have the opportunity, a face-to-face meeting can build morale and help your remote workers connect to the company culture and the team. If you’re in the same area, it could be helpful to schedule a weekly or biweekly in-person meeting. If your remote employees are spread across the world, a yearly team off-site or teamwide conference can help build a stronger team connection.
Make the most of the time that you do have with your remote employees. Talk about work, but also use this time to build personal connections. Going out for lunch, or doing something fun outside the office can help break down barriers.
5. Be mindful of schedules for employees in different time zones
You wouldn’t want your manager scheduling a weekly meeting at 9 p.m. Be mindful of which time zones your remote employees are in and be respectful of working hours when scheduling meetings, sending messages, and checking in. If you’re operating in time zones in which working hours never overlap, alternate who will have to take meetings outside of their scheduled working hours. One week, you stay online late; the next week, they hop online early.
Even if you send a message and don’t expect them to respond until the following morning, they may feel pressured to be online and available even if that isn’t your intention. Being explicit about expected working hours and response times can help alleviate this issue.
6. Make sure virtual employees feel included
One of the trickiest challenges managers of remote teams face is making sure that their remote employees feel included in meetings—particularly when part of the team is not remote. “It’s important to make sure people are making eye contact with the person on the screen and to position all participants so they feel they have a seat at the table,” says Lakshmi Rengarajan, WeWork’s director of workplace connection. It can be easy to schedule a last-minute meeting to hash out a problem, plan a project, or brainstorm an idea, but remote workers are often left out of these impromptu meetings because they aren’t included on the invite, there is no video option on the invite, or the meeting is outside their working hours.
To combat this challenge, do your best to make all meetings remote-friendly. This means including a call-in option for every meeting invite, and doing your best to plan ahead. If you do need to call a last-minute meeting, be sure to take detailed notes and follow up with your remote employees afterward to relay the information and see if they have any questions.
7. Establish professional trust and flexibility
When you’re managing remote employees, you won’t have as much oversight into their day-to-day, so it is important to build professional trust. Making an effort to see your employees in person from time to time can help build trust, and regular 1:1 check-ins give you an understanding of your team’s workload.
It’s also important to be flexible. Many remote workers seek out virtual jobs to maintain flexibility in terms of location and hours. That doesn’t mean that they should be working from their phone while attending a concert, but it does mean you should help your employees determine working hours that work for them and trust that they’ll get their work done during those hours.
8. Nail the onboarding process
Starting a new job can be scary for anyone, but this is particularly true when you are not physically in the same space as your coworkers, or on the same work schedule. The onboarding process sets the tone for what’s to come, and if done well, can make your remote employees feel excited and motivated. If possible, set up some in-person time during the onboarding process, as it will build trust and will be logistically simpler. If that’s not possible, make sure you have robust training documents and a standard onboarding process. Checking in with your new employee at the end of each day, schedules permitting, can give you some time to sync up and answer any questions they have during the first few weeks.
9. Find ways to collaborate
It’s easy to give your remote workers tasks that can be done in a silo, but promoting collaborative projects is a great way to build team morale and keep your remote employees inspired. There are easy ways to brainstorm and problem-solve as a distributed team, like using a Google Doc for ongoing ideas or hosting a Slack brainstorm.
10. Use a project tracker
Managing projects over email can leave you and your employees with an exploding inbox that is difficult to keep track of. Instead, a project management tool, like Asana, Airtable, or Trello, helps keep you and your team aligned on next steps, expectations, deadlines, and ownership. Most tools allow you to comment on tasks, reassign them, set deadlines, and attach documents or content. A lot of details can slip through the cracks when you’re coordinating a project over email, so moving your project to a project tracking tool can remove some clutter and confusion from your inbox while giving your remote employees a visual way to see where projects stand.
11. Set goals
Along with setting expectations and guidelines, you should set goals with your remote employees. It is easy for any employee, remote or otherwise, to lose steam and do the bare minimum if they don’t have long-term goals that they are working toward. To keep them engaged, productive, and feeling included, make sure they know what success looks like for their role and that they understand how their goals make an impact on the team’s goals.
12. Communicate overall company and team goals
Remote workers, and all workers for that matter, should have personal goals they’re working toward, but being open and clear about company-wide or team-wide goals can help your employees understand how their personal goals ladder up into larger goals. For remote workers, this is particularly important because it reminds them that they are a valuable part of the team and are not forgotten. As a team leader, you may have heard large-scale company goals so many times you could recite them backwards, but that information doesn’t always trickle down to remote employees.
13. Institute a buddy system
If some of your team is remote but others are in the office, pairing your remote employees with an in-office employee can ensure that your remote employees feel supported and connected to the company and that no information slips through the cracks. Of course, this in-office employee shouldn’t fill in for you, the remote worker’s manager, and you do need to be cognizant of the extra work that in-office employees are taking on. But overall, this strategy builds more productive teams by preventing lapses in communication.
14. Create watercooler moments
Having casual conversations about non-work-related topics can create intimacy and build relationships across your team. Of course, with remote workers, there aren’t watercoolers or office snacks to bring the team together. If many of your virtual employees work in the same satellite office, you can set up a webcam between your office and their office to make it feel like you are working together. This might feel weird at first, but after a week or two, your employees will adjust and it will feel natural. Just make sure that the webcast goes both ways; that way it won’t seem like you are spying on them.
If a webcast is not doable for your office situation, or if most of your employees work from home, find ways to encourage non-work chatter. For example, have everyone check in before each meeting to say how they are feeling or to share something about their weekend. Or, as Rengarajan recommends, “You can reach out to a long-distance colleague and say, ‘Let’s just have a chat on video over lunch together.’”
15. Offer praise
Remote employees can often feel like their work isn’t seen, recognized, or praised, so make sure you are vocal when they do a good job. Shout them out to the whole team via email or in a meeting to show them that their work is meaningful and impacts the goals of the team. Positive feedback will encourage them to keep up the good work.
16. Hire the right people
Not every worker is cut out for remote work, and that’s OK. Remote workers need to be more independent, take initiative on their own, and have an environment that allows them to be productive. When you are hiring an employee who will be working remotely, make sure to ask them questions that show they can work independently. Ask them where they will work—do they have a quiet place they can take phone calls? Access to consistent WiFi? You won’t be able to sit by their side for on-the-job training to teach them the skills they’ll need, so make sure they are confident in the skills required to succeed on your team.
Jenna Wilson is a senior associate on the social media team at WeWork and a writer for Ideas by We. She writes about impact, sustainability, and WeWork’s employees around the world.