As remote work continues to be a normality for business owners and their employees, many companies have been making lasting adjustments. According to an S&P Global Market Intelligence survey, 67% of organizations foresee the expanded or universal work-from-home policies implemented in 2020 remaining in place for the long term or permanently.
Working remotely has introduced new stresses for both managers and workers. Not physically seeing employees working, for instance, can create anxiety for owners, and many staffers are dealing with feelings of isolation, or finding it hard to focus amidst distractions at home.
While a remote workforce presents its challenges, the benefits far outweigh the difficulties, said Moe Vela, chief transparency officer at remote work technology provider TransparentBusiness, in a phone interview with The Balance. He cited research from consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics that estimates a typical employer can save an average of $11,000 annually per half-time telecommuter. The savings primarily come from increased productivity, lower real estate costs, reduced absenteeism and turnover, and better disaster preparedness.
Eliminating office commutes gives workers extra time in their days, and reduces carbon emissions. Vela noted potential economic perks as well—the free time could now be used to spend money and bolster the economy. He added that a remote workforce is more welcoming to single parents, people with physical disabilities, and those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and have difficulty affording transportation to the workplace.
So, keeping these advantages in mind, how does one exactly manage a remote workforce successfully for the long term?
Re-Conceptualize Remote Working Principles From the Ground Up
“Using the ‘emergency remote working’ that most of us absorbed during the pandemic as the ‘ideal’ remote working conditions will not last,” Sahin Boydas, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based RemoteTeam.com, said in an email to The Balance. For longer-term sustainability, small businesses need to sit down, assess their employees, and launch a remote working environment that satisfies everyone.
Boydas recommended equipping employees with the needed training to work in isolation, any necessary tools to work and connect to the group, and team-building activities to keep them engaged.
Trust Is a Two-Way Street
The close supervision that has become a workplace normality in a brick-and-mortar setting doesn’t translate to a remote working environment, Boydas said. Instead, remote managers should give employees space to work, and trust that they’ll get their tasks done.
For employees to be accountable, they’ll need to be given responsibility and opportunities to prove themselves. Showing employees that you trust them builds team confidence, and, in turn, workers will trust that the decisions management makes are for the benefit of all.
Figure Out Where You Can Use Tools and What Needs a Human Touch
There are tools available for almost every remote work component, from meditation apps for mental health to communication platforms like Zoom for virtual coffee breaks. However, it’s important for small business owners to differentiate between what those tools can solve, and what issues need to be addressed by management personally—perhaps through regular phone check-ins or one-on-one virtual meetings.
While companies should acquire the remote work tools they need, they aren’t going to fix everything. Boydas said that managers should plan properly, always look out for their remote teams, and prioritize the “human touch.”
Involve the Team When Problem Solving or Turning the Chapter
Communication is crucial in remote-working environments. Therefore, management should involve the whole team when problem solving, or turning the chapter in a business, said Dr. Lynda Ulrich, founder of “good news” media outlet Ever Widening Circles, in a phone interview with The Balance. She suggested starting with four “we-based” questions that shift the focus away from the problem, and towards collaboration and finding common ground.
1) What do we all want more of?
2) What do we care about?
3) What is possible now?
4) What is really working well?
Put People Before Process
“The best thing we can do as business owners is to appreciate the things that people bring to our businesses, as far as their gifts and their talents and their ingenious ideas,” said Dr. Ulrich. “Put people before process, and then people will bring the great ideas to the table. People will work in new ways that are more meaningful to our customers, and business will grow from there.”
Empathize with your employees, and be very cognizant of the challenges they’re facing, Vela at TransparentBusiness recommended. If possible, let workers take advantage of the flexibility remote working allows—maybe they’ll need to take a family member to the doctor during the day and make up the hours later that evening. If you see an employee constantly looking off-camera during a video call to check on a child, ask to meet the kid, and involve them in the conversation. Find little ways to connect and foster mutual respect.
Spend Extra Time Customer Facing
If the transition to remote work has freed up any staff time—like for an employee who no longer has to drive to work—dedicate that time to the customer. If you spend five extra minutes to make a customer feel heard or to solve their problem unhurried, people can feel that and it can really change customer relationships, said Dr. Ulrich.
Respect Employees’ Work-Life Balance
Encourage your team to create healthy boundaries between work life and home life. Working remotely tends to blend barriers between an employee’s time on and off the clock.
Don’t make workers feel like they should always be on call—respect their home life and don’t contact them outside of work hours unless it’s absolutely necessary. Wherever possible, managers should try to make sure their processes aren’t dependent on a single person for success. That way, they can resolve issues without having to contact workers after hours.
Actively Create Connection
“Don’t leave your remote workforce to their own fate when it comes to building connections. You need to, as a small business owner, set the pace for the entire team to follow,” said Boydas from RemoteTeam.com.
Small business owners should create an environment that supports workforce cohesion. Things like virtual breakout sessions, happy hours, game nights, coffee breaks, and guest speakers can help boost company morale. As can team-building activities like playing online games together, or sharing experiences virtually.
Take Time to Familiarize Yourself With Nonverbal Cues
Video conferencing doesn’t have to hinder creativity, Vela at TransparentBusiness said. There are things managers can do through what they say or how they act that help break down barriers and foster a more creative exchange. Be aware of what might be stifling someone’s creativity and give them the space, support, or affirmation they need.
Vela encouraged managers to familiarize themselves with nonverbal cues, and take a training course on body language, or how to connect with people virtually. While virtual nonverbal cues are likely the same cues you would pick up on in person, he stressed that it’s more of an awareness aspect, a reminder that those cues are there, and that maybe you didn’t even realize you were picking them up when you were face-to-face.