Small Business Services

Managing Mobile Workers: 3 Tips

Two significant events occurring almost simultaneously triggered a sea change in the makeup of the U.S. workforce several years ago. Individuals and businesses were feeling the impact of the 2008 economic recession. Meanwhile, hardware manufacturers, website creators, and application developers were providing the tools that would make entrepreneurship and telecommuting not only possible, but desirable and – sometimes – lucrative.

Whether you’re managing a remote team because you chose to or as the result of downsizing, you’re probably learning that it’s a very different process than it was when you were sitting six feet away from your team. It is possible, though, to create a virtual atmosphere that encourages individual excellence while making your staff feel like they’re operating as a part of a cohesive team. Here are some suggestions.

Create a 24/7 virtual office.

Telecommuting doesn’t agree with everyone. Some people revel in the independence, the flexible schedule, and the absence of co-workers. Others feel isolated. And not everyone has the same capacity to be self-motivated.

There’s no shortage of cloud-based tools that can be of help here. You want to be able to see each other sometimes, so make sure that everyone has a way to make that happen (iPad, webcam, etc.). Online screen-sharing applications like WebEx and GoToMeeting help you literally stay on the same page. And if staff will need to collaborate remotely on documents, spreadsheets, etc., consider sites like Box and Google Drive.

Beyond using technology to make your staff feel connected, be available to your team for informal conversation. If they don’t initiate it, you should. The anxiety level for mobile workers can be higher than the average full-time in-office employee because of the lack of face time, so make an extra effort to get to know them. Set up an online message board where staff can interact about business or pleasure, and encourage them to get to know their co-workers.

Make sure that your remote workers always know what your expectations are.

Your virtual employees want to do good work, and they want to do it on time. They know that there may be more pressure on them because they’re on their own, and they want to perform in a way that pleases you. So give them that opportunity. Do everything you can to ensure that they know exactly what’s expected of them. You don’t have to bend over backward or coddle them, but give them the opportunity to shine in the distance.

  • Put assignments in writing. Your employees should do the same, but be very clear about what’s expected, and when.
  • Set up shared calendars.
  • Send friendly reminders before big deadlines or milestones.
  • Drop in on them via email or social media and just ask how a particular project is going when they’re not under the pressure of a deadline. You may catch problems early that could have resulted in a substandard project.

Trust your independent workforce – and let them know that you do. You may be tempted to micromanage, but give your remote workers your trust, unless they prove unworthy of it.

It’s a delicate balance. You want to communicate frequently enough that both you and your employees feel that you actually have a business relationship, but you don’t want to hover. As the manager, you certainly need to know that things are humming along in Boise or Greensboro or Boston, that your deadlines will be met. But you also want them to see that you recognize their ability to work well independently.

Long-distance criticism can be tough. If a remote employee does an assignment badly or seriously blows a deadline or does something that angers a customer, you’re headed for an uncomfortable conversation. Try to have it over the phone or in a video chat, like you’d do if you worked in the office together.

A Boon for Employers

Being able to hire remote staff can be a very good thing, depending on your staffing needs and your company’s products or services. You have the freedom to bring in the candidates you want, whether or not they happen to reside in the same area code as you.

And there’s something to be said for having workers who see their jobs in terms of the actual work they produce, and don’t just put in their allotted hours in an office. If you’re all conscientious and keep communicating, your virtual staff can function as well or better than a local team.

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