More and more businesses are employing remote workers, and for good reasons: the practice broadens the pool of talent that owners can draw on, and saves money that would otherwise be spent on office space and supplies.
However, if you've managed remote workers, you know that the situation presents challenges. You can't all meet in the conference room, you can't easily grasp things like body language or tone, and language barriers and cultural differences are trickier to navigate.
The good news is that we live in an age where most of these negatives can be overcome by solid communication. In fact, good communication, in my experience, is 85 percent of what you need to successfully manage remote projects and teams.
While the steps suggested here might at first seem daunting to the time-crunched business owner, they are worth the work. Your current and future teams will not necessarily come from the same culture—professional or personal—that you come from. The more you spell things out, the less confusion there is, and the more productive the team can be.
1. Set specific expectations. Be extremely clear about the timing and format you desire in communication. These expectations should be laid out in the hiring process.
Timing: When do you want your team to communicate with you? Weekly, or daily? If daily, how frequently and at what times?
Format: In what way do you want your team to communicate? Email alone is not enough. I highly recommend project management tools that have comments built in; some also integrate with email. This leaves a trail that team members can look at to track the progress of a conversation and view the documentation.
Ideally, these expectations would be published in an employee manual or handbook. (If a complete handbook is out of the question you can use a wiki, or simply create a downloadable PDF.)
A sample section of the instructions you give could read,
Employees and contractors are expected to update their manager on a daily basis before stopping work. A manager can be updated by commenting on tasks in our project management software suite. Please simply comment on all the open tasks that are currently assigned to you. This means that if three tasks are currently assigned, you will make three separate comments on a daily basis.
2. Define the tasks. In order for your remote worker to do an excellent job, he or she needs to fully understand the job. You can vastly increase the success of a project by clearly defining the what, how, and why of a task.
The what of a task is simply what you want done—the
bones of what you are asking the team member to do. This is usually best described in a flowchart, a detailed document, or a video.
The how of a task defines the details. What kind of quality are you looking for, and what does a finished product look like? This is often best communicated through the use of examples.
The why of a task is in many ways the most important aspect, because it explains the big picture. For example, instead of simply stating that your team needs to write blog posts, explain that blogging helps bring new leads into your business and helps your website's SEO ranking. The why helps your contractors add value to your organization because they will understand on a deeper level what your company is trying to accomplish.
Put these definitions in writing. The end result of documenting tasks is that you create a library of processes for your business. This library can help you replace employees more easily when they leave your company, and it can help you take a step away from your business when you need to.
3. Do your part. The adage that
communication is a two-way street never holds more true than when you're managing a remote team. It's imperative to the success of your projects that you are actively involved in the work that your team is doing.
For example, when an employee provides an update to you, it's your job to go check it as soon as possible. Is it correct, or do you want something more? Prompt feedback shows that you care, and it also pushes the project along.
Don't be afraid to be stern with your employees. If an employee forgets to update you, call him or her on it immediately. Remote workers will appreciate your attention to detail and ability to effectively communicate what you need to have done. More importantly, these qualities can be the difference between the success and the failure of your project.
Dave Nevogt is a consultant and co-founder of Hubstaff, a time-tracking software suite. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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