Today’s technology means that we can do our work anywhere and at any time. Teams can be built across all sorts of boundaries that were unthinkable just a few years ago and having everyone in the same physical office is no longer a necessity.
There are a lot of upsides to virtual work environments. Companies can hire the best staff regardless of physical location and attract talent that needs more flexible schedules. A recent Stanford study showed that well managed virtual workers can be more productive and stay in jobs for longer. (Of course, not all jobs can be remote nor are all employees suited to, or wanting to, work remotely.)
These benefits are only possible, though, with good management practices. Without the proper processes, resources and support, managing virtual employees can be a drain on an organization. To make sure your organization is consciously aware of and integrating the practices that make for good remote employees, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Technology makes it easy to communicate. It also makes it easy to miscommunicate (especially on email.) To foster trust and camaraderie right from the start, new hires should be in the physical office for a set amount of time when they begin their jobs. Whether that’s 3 days or 3 weeks, it’s an important time for learning, bonding and getting a sense of how people in the office (and other remote workers) keep in touch with each other. It also lessens the chance that employees will “silo” themselves when working remotely. People who know each other are more likely to feel comfortable asking questions and collaborating.
It’s also important to schedule times during the year when the whole company comes together so that personal connections are ongoing. Retreats, for example, are a good time to talk about company wide issues and bond teams. They are especially important for virtual employees who miss out on the downtime conversations, familiarity and friendships that happen in offices.
Communicate a lot, and then some more. A lot of information that gets communicated in offices is done casually – a passing comment over coffee, a lunch meeting. Remember that remote employees aren’t in on these moments.
Project meetings, team meetings, supervisor meetings. They need not be every day, but they should be consistent. Have an employee set a weekly check in with her supervisor. Do you have a multiple remote employees in the same position, but who don’t work together? Have them speak once a month so that they can bounce ideas, thoughts and yes, frustrations, off of each other. Does your office have a communications director? Have your virtual people hear what he has to say, even if they don’t ‘need’ to be in touch all of the time.
Communication goes both ways. Have your virtual employees let other staff know when they’re available and if they work out of the office part time, what those days are. They should feel free to ask when they have questions, and should be comfortable with colleagues reaching out to them at unscheduled times. (Asking people how they prefer to be reached is a good idea – some people only check email at certain times of day, but hate the phone, some prefer video chats.)
Technology is what lets the virtual office exist, so use it. Make sure that all of your staff has access to the same things. Shared documents and calendars, for instance. Do keep in mind that something that seems small, like saving files in a ‘cloud’ rather than on a desktop can feel like a shift in culture to those people who aren’t remote.
There are all sorts of tools for videoconferences and IM-ing between networked staff that will make the ‘office’ run more smoothly. Be sure that wherever they are that your employees not only have access and know how to use these, but that they have support. Whether it’s IT support when something isn’t working or a strong enough internet connection, technology only works when it works.
If your organization has virtual employees, a strong infrastructure with good communication and the right tools will help them – and you – thrive.