In this age of constant contact, the question is no longer whether to let employees work remotely, but rather how to manage a remote workforce. And new research from the Society of Human Resources Management bears this out.
Nearly one-third of organizations have seen requests for flexible work arrangements increase over the past year, while the majority of HR professionals expect telecommuting and other flex work options to increase over the next five years, according to SHRM’s 2014 Workplace Flexibility survey, the results of which were released earlier this month.
Many respondents found flex work benefits the company, not just employees. More than half reported flexibility “had a positive impact on attracting and retaining employees, turnover, absenteeism rates, productivity, quality of employees’ work, quality of employees’ personal lives, employee health, company culture, company public image, and employee morale and job satisfaction,” the report says.
And yet, the majority of respondents reported top-level managers aren’t necessarily supportive of offering employees more flexibility in terms of when and where they work.
With that in mind, we pulled together a few tips for those managers stuck in the middle:
Set Clear Expectations
It’s super important for remote workers to know what is expected of them in terms of their workday, availability and deliverables. According to the SHRM report, only 43 percent of respondents reported supervisors established specific goals or parameters with their telecommuting employees.
"Flex work programs only function seamlessly when boundaries are communicated early on,” says Maren Donovan, CEO of Zirtual, a virtual service that matches busy professionals with personal assistants. “If you are able to establish an understanding from the beginning, you will avoid any future misunderstanding or resentment.”
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
Out of the office doesn’t mean on an island. Regular contact via email, instant message, phone or even video conferencing is crucial for employee engagement. Nearly half of the organizations that offer telecommuting reported managing/measuring productivity based on responsiveness, such as responding to emails or returning phone calls, according to the SHRM report.
"You must be able to constantly communicate with your team,” says Joel Frisch, co-founder of ReadySetWork, a mobile scheduling app that allows managers and employees to schedule work hours. “The key is communicating in an organized fashion: random emails and calls can get lost.”
Read about Work Perks That Boost Employee Engagement
Realize Working Remotely is a Different Animal
Don’t assume that managing your remote workers will be the same as managing your in-house staff. Get acquainted with the process and make sure that both the employees you tap for remote roles and their managers have training to adapt to and thrive in this more autonomous arrangement.
“Training is essential to make sure managers are equipped to support their virtual employees," says Sara Sutton Fell, founder of Flexjobs, a website for telecommuting and flexible job listings.
To reiterate: Out of the office doesn’t mean out of the company. If you’re going to have employees working remotely, then make sure they continue to feel as though they are part of the company culture. Make sure managers include remote employees on calendar invites, and use video or phone conferencing options to include your out-of-office staff in team or company meetings. Invite remote employees to company-wide social events, like holiday parties and summer outings -- and encourage them to organize their own as well.
"Try to be transparent about the company’s goals, strengths, and weaknesses," says Donovan, “And always share all of the company’s successes to ensure remote employees understand they are part of the bigger picture.”
Don’t allow just anybody to work remotely. Establish a screening process, even if it’s just a short meeting. Use your best judgment to decide if particular employees would benefit from the responsibility of working independently, or whether they’d need more of a guiding hand. Before you approve a remote arrangement, ask about their personal organization strategies and cover communication plans to get a sense for how they’d keep themselves engaged and active within the organization.
The more you can do up-front in terms of identifying strengths and potential challenges, the easier management responsibilities will become once the remote or flex work arrangement is in place.
If your organization has flex work options for employees, following these five steps should help ensure your remote workers remain productive and engaged employees who might just improve their work-life balance as well.