Employing a remote workforce can bring major benefits to your business. You can attract and retain a wider pool of global talent, boost team morale, and save significant money on rent and office expenses.
But letting employees work remotely requires both trust and discipline. If you thought sticking to a diet was hard, try writing an 8000 word whitepaper with no-one watching, while Netflix and the fridge are just a few metres away.
The routine is impossible without serious time management skills, and this responsibility isn’t just on individual employees. There are plenty of things managers can do to support their mobile staff, empowering them to achieve their work goals in a timely and efficient fashion.
Here are 8 best practice tips for managing a mobile workforce, supporting their time management and increasing their productivity.
1 - Have fixed working hours
If your remote workers are based in the same time zone it’s a good idea to enforce regular office hours. Have a contractual requirement that they log on from 8.30am - 5.00pm, or whatever hours your regular staff work.
A good way of knowing they’re online is by using a team chat platform, like Yammer or Slack. This approach is beneficial to both managers and remote employees. Your staff can ask questions whenever they want, and they’re more likely to feel supported and part of the team.
Fixed online ‘office hours’ also helps your remote staff to cultivate that psychological distinction between work and play. It creates the feeling of ‘being at work’ even if you’re not physically there. When 5pm rolls around it’s their own time again - when they sign out they’re leaving work just like everyone else.
This means your remote staff are more likely to work productively during online hours, and less likely to procrastinate or let projects slip into personal time.
2 - Use online time tracking
Creating this regulated environment is harder if your remote workers are spread around the world, living in different time zones. But it’s not impossible. You can still encourage regular working hours (and monitor time spent on projects) with an online time tracking tool.
Time Doctor is perfect for boosting remote worker productivity, with app and website monitoring, screenshot capability, and detailed breakdowns of time spent on projects.
An all-in-one project management system like WorkflowMax can pull this information through to invoices, and generate reports showing your business profitability. You can see at a glance how much money your remote workers are generating for the business.
These tools also make life more convenient for your remote workers. Integrated mobile apps let them track time from whenever they are - whether they’re working in a dimly lit cafe, on a hectic construction site, or racing to their next job in an Uber.
Bonus Tip: Explain your reasons for implementing time tracking to your employees. Don’t enforce it without explanation - they need to understand the business value of transparency. Otherwise it may be taken as a sign of mistrust. Get everyone on the same page
3 - Supply their equipment
Having dedicated work gear has played a huge role in my own productivity. My personal laptop is littered with distracting memories, photos, games, half baked short stories and shopping wishlists. My work laptop is just for work.
If budget allows, try to supply essential work equipment for your remote workers. Depending on their role, this may involve a laptop, charger, protective bag and subscriptions to any online tools like the Adobe Suite. In some cases they will benefit from a work phone.
There are also a number of co-working office spaces popping up around the globe. These are specifically designed for remote workers and offer attractive corporate memberships. Sign your staff up and they’ll have the perfect place to do focused work, with meeting rooms, strong wifi and even free coffee thrown in.
This isn’t just a luxury - it can have a huge impact on remote workers’ productivity, by reinforcing the psychological distinction between work and personal time.
Bonus Tip: Send your remote workers some company swag too. Something as simple as a branded shirt can make your remote staff feel connected; like they’re part of a family.
4 - Hold weekly video meetings
As human beings we communicate with a lot of non-verbal cues. When your primary method of talking is email and online chat, you miss these subtle signals.
This is dangerous territory - because you can’t effectively manage a team without being aware of their emotions, job satisfaction and morale.
For remote teams, video calls are the best way of bridging this gap. You can see when your staff are overworked and frustrated, or the excitement in their eyes when they discuss a certain project.
Not only does this strengthen working relationships - it helps you allocate work, manage project deadlines, and lead with empathy. By addressing roadblocks and challenges face-to-face you’ll naturally improve time management and team productivity.
Bonus Tip: You don’t have to spend a cent - there are dozens of FREE video calling apps like Skype, Google Hangouts or AnyMeeting. Try to hold a team conference at least once a week, and one-on-one sessions every fortnight.
5 - Experiment with online tools
The popularity of remote working has skyrocketed in recent years. Now there are online tools to help you manage almost every aspect of virtual teams - time tracking, screen monitoring, productivity, group chats, co-ordinating schedules, video meetings and more.
Bonus Tip: Check out the Ultimate List of Apps for Working Remotely. Many of these tools offer free trials, so don’t be afraid to experiment until you find a combination that works for your team.
6 - Send a digital newsletter
Even when you’re using the best online tools, working remotely can still be a lonely experience. You miss all the impromptu office meetings - and sometimes it feels like you’re permanently out of the loop. This sense of purposelessness can make remote workers more inclined to procrastinate.
A weekly (or fortnightly) digital newsletter can go a long way to addressing this. Send it out to your whole team with a list of current projects, accomplishments, celebrations of hard work, and social notices like birthdays.
Be sure to share the successes of your remote workers too. You’ll soon discover that praise is a powerful motivator.
Bonus Tip: Don’t just send a bland, text heavy email. It’s easy to whip up an attractive staff newsletter with email marketing tools like MailChimp. They’ll put your in-laws Christmas letters to shame!
7 - Set clear expectations
Not knowing when tasks are due can create anxiety, confusion and procrastination in your remote workforce. Be as direct as possible about deadlines.
With time tracking software you’ll accumulate plenty of useful data about time spent on projects. Use this information to make accurate forecasts about future work, and set realistic timeframes.
It’s important to be open and willing to communicate about workloads. If your remote employees are struggling to meet a due date, find out why. Address any challenges or concerns as soon as they come up, and empower them to do their best work.
Bonus Tip: An online workflow tool like Trello or Taskworld can give your whole team transparency on projects and due dates. See at a glance what each person is working on, what projects are delayed, and what’s coming up in the pipeline. For inspiration check out these 8 creative ways to manage your team with Trello.
8 - Make time for banter
“If you can laugh together, you can work together”
- Robert Orben
If you want to build a strong, cohesive team (and retain them long-term) you need to cultivate good working relationships with all your staff. This can be tough with remote workers, because the social aspect of office life is missing.
As a manager, you need to replace these missing social elements. Try to make time for banter and small talk through your digital channels.
Ask your remote staff about their weekend plans, their thoughts on the latest Game of Thrones episode - anything you’d usually chat about with your team in an office environment. Pretend you’re gathered around the coffee machine or water cooler when you log on in the mornings.
Once you build this rapport, trust and loyalty will follow. Employees will feel committed to your company and strive to produce the best results. They will also feel more comfortable asking for help if they encounter challenges. And you’re more likely to retain staff when they feel a sense of unity and closeness.
Bonus Tip: Try to get your whole workforce together in person at least twice a year. Global staff parties are a wonderful chance to celebrate your successes as a team; throw a shindig that justifies the long distance travel, and make it a night to remember.
A remote team can be a powerful force, especially for small businesses who can’t afford the overheads associated with office environments. But it’s important that you instil a sense of team unity, loyalty and camaraderie in your remote workforce. When properly managed, you’ll be amazed at how smoothly this new way of working can go.