With more workers wanting to telecommute, it’s time to address the ins and outs of managing remote employees.
By KRISTINE BLENKHORN RODRIGUEZ |
What does the typical telecommuter look like to you? You
most likely envisioned someone quite young, headphones on,
Starbucks at hand, dressed for lounging instead of business, right?
While you might be right sometimes, you’re also oh-so-wrong.
The typical telecommuter is 50-plus years of age — a salaried, college-
educated, non-union employee, according to Global Workforce
Surprised? Don’t be; already roughly one-in-four workers telecommute,
and half of the U.S. workforce holds jobs that are at least
partially compatible with remote work arrangements.
In 2016, 1.5 million Illinois residents worked at home at least half
of the time, not including the self-employed. And GWA says regular
work-at-home arrangements among the non-self-employed
population have grown nationally by 115 percent since 2005,
nearly 10 times faster than the rest of the workforce.
It’s not just worker preference or work-life balance trends fueling
the rush towards remote work; business benefits include happier
employees, employee savings of $2,000 to $7,000 annually, and
annual savings of $11,000 per person for a typical business,
according to GWA.
While remote work promises big benefits, it also brings new business
challenges, changing the way teams interact and deliver results.
Moving from the traditional face-to-face work environment to a
remote model has its nuances, but handled skillfully, the benefits
far outweigh the challenges below.
Many seasoned leaders will have to rethink
and change their management styles to be successful in remote
working environments. “They’re used to managing face time and
now they must instead manage productivity without it,” says Janice
Aull, owner of performance improvement facilitation firm Aull
About U. “In remote working environments, the emphasis is less
on relationships and more on outcomes.”
Trust is a major predictor of managerial success in remote work
environments. “Some leaders are naturally trusting; others are distrusting.
It’s a continuum. But we’ve found trust, more than anything
else, predicts distributed leadership success,” says Dr. Laura
Hambley of Work EvOHlution, an industrial psychology firm that
develops assessments and profiles for distributed work situations.
“Distrustful types micro-manage, which wreaks havoc in any
working environment but particularly in a remote one.”
While distrustful managers worry their outof-
sight employees are slacking off, the opposite is often the problem.
Because home has become “the office,” many managers, and
even their employees, take advantage of that fact.
Sending weekend or late-night emails with expectations of immediate
responses is inappropriate, Aull says, unless that has always
been part of the job. “Management needs to set expectations for
hours of work availability. Otherwise, it’s far too easy for work to
bleed into personal time, which makes most employees less productive
instead of more productive.”
Even if a company provides each employee
with a basic at-home technology package to ensure consistency,
usability is not guaranteed. “As an employee, you have to create
self-directed learning for the technology that will make it easier for
you to do your job from home or wherever you may be,” Aull says.
Continuous learning and a continuous growth mindset are key to
success, and sometimes so is a contingency plan.
“Having a Plan B is essential for day-to-day success,” Hambley
adds. “Technology can be iffy. What if connectivity breaks at the
start of a conference call? Where does everyone reconvene virtually?
These are the kinds of issues many team leads still don’t plan
for — and they can reduce productivity.”
“In a remote environment, if you don’t
have the right tools and policies, people can become really good
at getting their stuff done but not very good at collaboration. Team
effort still matters,” says Kevin Eikenberry, owner of The Kevin
Eikenberry Group, a leadership and learning consulting company
that provides training, consulting and coaching services to organizations.
He emphasizes it’s not just a matter of choosing the right
collaboration technology tools but also encouraging communication
amongst team members.
The ability to choose the right communication medium at the right
time is a skill worth teaching employees, according to Hambley.
“Remote working promotes an over-reliance on email. But, there are
times when picking up the phone is better. Or, when a video call to
see body language and facial cues trumps just audio,” she explains.
“The better teams get at discerning what works for different types of
situations or personalities, the better the team dynamic.”
While expert observations are helpful, nothing beats hearing from
those in the field trying to make remote work, well, work.
National Equity Fund.
Gaylene Domer, VP of Facilities Management,
notices less stress amongst employees during her company’s
usually very hectic March through November deal-making timeframe.
Employees say it’s because they can now work from home a
couple of days per week: they save time commuting and are better
able to keep work-life balance despite the frenzied pace of business.
“Turnover has gone from 8 percent to 4.3 percent in four years,
and we’re attracting new employees at a better rate,” Domer
explains. “People admit that they’ve been offered more money
elsewhere but took this job because of the flexibility remote
work offers them.”
What’s more, with 93 of 176 employees now participating in the
work-from-home program, Domer says National Equity Fund was
able to save $2.5 million over the course of its office lease.
Domer admits that winning over senior managers was crucial to
making the program successful. “I urged our senior managers to
take their work-from-home days because otherwise team members
wouldn’t. It wasn’t so hard once our CEO started to do it. He has
been a champion from day one.”
Joe McCann, founder and CEO, says he had an
epiphany about remote working arrangements while sitting in an
Amsterdam café. “I was working for a large software firm as a
developer on a contract basis. I was in a great café in Amsterdam,
enjoying life and work, and I thought, ‘This is the way it should
be.’ Something had to give. People are fed up with long commutes,
lack of time with their kids, inflexible schedules. I went from Wall
Street and corporate America to a life that included work — but
was not all work, all the time.”
McCann turned his epiphany into NodeSource, a completely
remote company from inception: “We are distributed by design.
If you start decentralized, your DNA is there. You don’t have
all the issues of transforming large centralized systems into
workable, agile systems.”
“A nine-to-five workday is irrational and archaic,” McCann continues.
“Some of my software developers do their best work at 2
a.m. I am most productive at 5 a.m. I hire people who deliver —
in part because they do their yoga midday, have brunch with their
uncle every Wednesday, whatever. They get to design their day as
long as they continue to deliver.”
BroadPath Healthcare Solutions.
A whopping 96 percent of
CEO Daron Robertson’s roughly 1,400 employees work from
home. Robertson says BroadPath went “all-in” on a remote model
not only to help employees, but because it allows the company to
better serve clients.
The company uses Beehive, a self-developed remote management
and collaboration technology that allows employees to see and
interact with each other. “A big problem with hybrid deployments
is that remote workers feel left out,” Robertson explains.
Beehive also is used to also facilitate the workplace fun remote
workers would normally miss. “For example, we are launching a
remote instructor-led fitness program with yoga classes for
employees. Think fitness challenge for at-home workers, but they
do it together in real-time. Lots of brick-and-mortar companies
have these onsite, but few seem to offer them to home-based
workers,” Robertson says.
Pizza day — where pizzas are delivered at the same time to workers
on a team — allows workers to still have face time together
during lunch, joking and laughing despite being miles away from
each other. Crazy hat day is another employee favorite, according
to Robertson. “It’s about developing connection, in the end. And
it helps my leaders better manage their teams,” he says.
Broadpath’s results so far? Attracting higher caliber employees,
producing higher quality work, lower attrition, and lower costs.
Telecommuting’s growth is unlikely to slow, let alone stop, if
recent history is any indication — employment growth for
telecommuters has outpaced non-telecommuters year-over-year
for more than a decade. Remote working arrangements are not a
fad, but rather a way for companies to maintain productivity and
profitability in an era where workers simply don’t want to be tied
to a traditional office environment.
At its best, telecommuting forces “leaders and employees to
focus on accomplishment, not activity,” Eikenberry says. But the
millions of dollars saved in office space and higher retention rates
don’t hurt either.