Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past ten years, it’s clear that technology has dramatically changed how the workplace looks, feels and runs.
Professionals across many disciplines can telecommute and effectively work with colleagues all over the world. But it isn’t just workers enjoying the fruits of this change. Employers are also benefiting from remote teams, as they can choose from a larger pool of skilled workers and avoid the costs and complexities associated with keeping everyone on-site.
Due to the numerous benefits of creating a virtual workplace, HelpScout, the provider of a platform for overseeing remote teams, predicts that remote teams will be the future:
“It is apparent that remote teams are going to become far more commonplace as companies are increasingly beginning to conduct business online… In many ways, remote work is an ongoing experiment in business, as it has only been fully embraced by some companies in the past decade or so, showing healthy growth with an 80% increase in “telecommunicating” employees from 2005 to 2012.”
However, building remote teams introduces some unique challenges as well. You’ll need to do your due diligence to be sure you’re hiring talented employees, invest heavily in training your remote staff and work hard at building remote employees’ morale.
Image by Mr. Sourcing Co Ltd.
Remote teams were almost unheard of 20 years ago, but they’re gradually becoming the norm. According to data from ESNA, 77% of virtual companies with over 2,500 employees allow telecommuting and 20% of the global workforce is part of a remote team. Remote teams exist within multinational companies such as Dell, Apple and Cisco, but they’re also a core part of the workforce in smaller firms such as Buffer, Basecamp, 10Up and Articulate.
Buffer offers one particular model that all organizations hoping to create remote teams should follow. Recently, Courtney Seiter, a content marketer and brand storyteller for the company, wrote a detailed article about the factors that made their remote team so successful. Key among her recommendations are using tools such as Hipchat and sharing pictures regularly – both for finishing work and having fun.
Remote teams wouldn’t have become so common if they couldn’t be managed successfully. However, overseeing virtual teams can be more difficult, which is why companies will need to have a clear vision and a clear plan of action to succeed.
So what does it take to create a successful remote team? Every workplace requires the following things to be successful:
These requirements are no less true for remote teams than for brick-and-mortar employees, but implementing them with workers who aren’t in the office requires substantial strategic planning. To begin on the path towards seamlessly managing teams of remote employees, you’ll need to start with some logistics.
Your employees are the core of your organization, which is why it’s crucial that you choose people that are capable of doing the job properly – whether they’re doing it from your office or their homes. Hiring remote workers is tricky, so keep the following considerations and principles in mind:
Finding the right fit for any position is difficult, but the process is considerably more challenging when you’re building a virtual team. In this case, you’ll face a couple of extra challenges, including all of the following:
Making the right hiring decisions is both the most important and most difficult step in the remote team building process. Make sure that you do the proper due diligence before making any hiring decisions.
Since there are a number of unique challenges involved in hiring remote employees, you’ll need to take a different approach to hiring them than you would traditional workers. Here are some tips to help guide you through the process.
Have a live discussion
Image by Bob Bekian
No matter where they are in the world, you should always have a live interview with candidates before hiring them. Career coach and renowned author Nick Morgan cites considerable research showing that body language communicates what someone is feeling before their subconscious mind has an opportunity to process it.
As a result, conducting live interviews will help you gauge whether someone is genuinely interested in their career and whether they are being honest about their qualifications. You can also tell how well they operate under pressure, given the stress associated with the interview process.
If possible, conduct interviews in person, as this will give you a better opportunity to study the candidate’s body language. If your employee is located nearby, hold an interview at your office or at your favorite restaurant. If not, conduct a video interview using Skype or some other video streaming service. Research from OfficeTeam suggests 63% of employers conduct online video job interviews, demonstrating just how effective they can be.
Test Their Competencies
Image by Alisdair
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell how good someone is at their job based on standard job interview questions – especially if you’re hiring for tech or strategy-based positions. As a result, you’ll need to get creative about assessing their competencies. There are a couple of things that you’ll want to do to make sure your candidates have the skills they need.
First, you can use online skills assessment tools. Elance, Odesk and other online job sites offer tools and quizzes to test worker’s abilities to make sure they’re qualified. Or, if you’re hiring your staff directly, you can try a site like Eskill, which offers employment tests for many different jobs. You can also create your own test by asking finalist candidates to complete a small task that’s representative of the type of work they’d be doing for your company.
It’s also a good idea to check references from prior employers or clients. LinkedIn testimonials and personal recommendations make it much easier to see which candidates have the right skill sets. If possible, speak directly with the references your candidate provides to determine whether or not they’re up to the task.
Business Outcomes Consulting is one firm that relies heavily on candidate testing through Eskill. According to Patty Carroll, the company’s Managing Director of Client Services:
“Clients tell us that the services we offer through our alliance with Profiles International gives them access to powerful tools and data that was only be available to the largest of companies until recently. These new products capitalize on the strength and popularity of the ProfilesXT® line and are based on the requests of clients around the globe.”
Determine their level of self-motivation
Self-motivation is an extremely important trait when hiring virtual employees. They won’t have any coworkers in the next cubicle helping keep them on task, so it’s important to ensure that they’re able to work independently before bringing them onto your team. The following tips will help you measure candidates’ ability to work on their own:
Obviously, you’ll need to use your own judgment when determining whether or not a candidate has the skills needed for remote work. Ask anybody interviewing for an off-site position if they’re capable of remote management, and they’re probably going to tell you “yes.” Look beyond your candidates’ responses and see if they’re actions line up with their assertions.
Consider time-zone and communication issues
The Internet allows you to work with people from all over the world. There are exceptionally talented people in all countries, but some of them may not be easy to work with. If employees are located more than eight hours away, you may encounter some real challenges if you need to hold live discussions as a team.
You’re also likely to run into some problems if your remote hires don’t speak your language fluently. While these factors may not overly problematic for some positions, they may mean that hiring employees for other positions simply isn’t feasible. Make sure that you’re realistic about which localities are right for sourcing remote workers, as well as your ability to cope with the potential frustrations of off-site hires (relative to the cost benefits of sourcing workers from outside your home country).
Ultimately, the success of your remote team hinges on your ability to create an organizational culture that people will be pleased to be part of.
In 2003, Walt Scacchi, a professor with the Institute for Software Research at the University of California of Irvine, stated that the sudden rise in open source software had drastically increased the number of people working remotely, which was changing the dynamics of the company culture – and not necessarily for the better.
In his opinion, employees need to work directly with one another to develop a company culture and make it successful. In the decade since he shared his case study, the prevalence of online teams has only accelerated. So whether you agree with him or not, it’s clear that the need for employees to build strong virtual cultures is more important than ever.
Unfortunately, fostering a culture for a virtual team is considerably more difficult than it is with in-person workers. Here are a few ideas for growing a great company culture – even if your workers are spread out around the world:
All of your employees – remote or otherwise – need to share a common set of principles and goals. Without them, you simply can’t have a company culture.
Communicate your vision and expectations from day one. Use tools like Google Docs, Hackpad, Podio or another cloud collaboration service so that your employees can reference your vision at any time and remember the threads that unite them.
The details of your company vision should include the following:
There should be no ambiguity about your company’s mission or the expectations of your workers. Make sure that any information you provide is clearly defined and immediately address any questions that arise if there’s any confusion.
Developing connections between virtual employees isn’t impossible by any means. John Turley, for example, was a virtual employee for Sun Microsystems before starting his own mediation group. Of the strong relationships he forged with his colleagues at Sun, he says:
“I remain friends with many of my Sun Microsystems virtual team colleagues more than ten years after our last calls. We collaborated effectively on global projects while learning more and more about each other’s interests.”
Building rapport between your employees is very important. Employees are more loyal to people they like, but it’s difficult for them to like people that they’ve never met. So, short of flying everyone in to a company retreat several times a year, you need to find ways to keep your remote workers engaged and nurturing ties with one another.
Emma Inc. is a popular email marketing company with over 100 employees throughout the United States. The company has offices in four major cities, in addition to countless employees that work from home in other parts of the country. Once a year, though, the company holds a talent contest in Nashville, Tennessee for employees to get to know each other in person.
Some organizations believe that all employees should congregate from time to time. However, it isn’t always necessary – or affordable – to meet in person. As Seiter pointed out above, Hipchat is a great way for your employees to get to know each in an informal setting so that they can build relationships without ever having to meet in person. You can also encourage your employees to try connecting with each other on SnapChat, so they can get a sense of what everyone else looks like in person to build more intimate relationships with one another. There are plenty of tools available, so there’s really no reason for anyone to feel disconnected.
Mary Sobon, a business consultant that works with the company, also argues that tradition is a very effective way to build employee relationships. “You have to go outside your four walls, literally. You won’t be able to do what you want to by bringing people into your building. It just doesn’t work.”
You don’t necessarily need to make everyone meet in person, but you do need to make sure they connect on some level. For instance, you may want to find ways for people to collaborate together on projects – even when it isn’t entirely necessary. This will help them feel a sense of commitment to each other, which will help reinforce that they’re part of a larger organization.
You may also want to hold monthly, or even weekly, check-ins for people to touch base and get to know each other better. These can be coordinated through Skype, Google Hangouts or any other virtual video service.
Besides Skype and Google Hangouts, there are several remote work tools out there that your organization can use to make these alternative work arrangements a success.
Check out any – or all – of the following, depending on your specific needs:
Companies with virtual teams are often on the forefront of innovation. But this doesn’t mean remote management is easy. Since you aren’t in the same building as your employees, you must take different steps to keep them motivated and to oversee their work.
Michael Watkins, a development coach for Genesis Advisers and a contributor to Harvard Business Review, recognizes the struggles that virtual project managers face. A couple of years ago, he raised a question in his LinkedIn group to see what steps managers needed to take to oversee their remote teams effectively. He received numerous responses from other professionals that can be invaluable to anyone trying to organize a remote team.
Here are some of the key takeaways from his survey:
Effective management is the essence of your company’s success. Follow these tips to make sure none of your virtual employees fall through the cracks. Don’t ever let your remote management approach become, “out of sight, out of mind.”
In addition to supervising your employees, you’ll also need to make sure that you have a controls system in place. Specifically, you need to designate someone to be responsible for meeting certain goals and holding people accountable for reaching them. The protocol needs to be clearly established at the very beginning and communicated to every employee the day they join the team.
Of course, few companies operate under an authoritarian leadership model these days. Employees want to feel engaged and tend to be more successful if they’re empowered to make important decisions. Delegating authority to employees to handle more mundane tasks also frees up managerial resources for more crucial responsibilities.
However, Watkins claims that it’s more difficult to empower subordinates in remote teams, because you can’t always easily measure their individual contributions or levels of productivity. Delegating power to your employees is only effective if you can adequately measure their productivity. He may be overly cynical here, though, as new models appear to be pretty effective for measuring employee contributions.
There are a number of great tools that you can use to track productivity among your staff, such as Time Doctor and Tickspot. Time Doctor is a great app for keeping track of employee time. It also comes with a screen capture tool that allows you to make sure that your employees are actually on task. Syed Balkhi, a serial entrepreneur that founded the lead opt-in platform OptinMonster is among the people that have praised the tool:
“I find TimeDoctor to be the best tool in the market for tracking time for remote employees,” says Balkhi. “It even has the option for screen capture, required work hours and everything you could want in a time tracking software.”
Tickspot is a similarly useful tool. You can use it to not only measure employees’ productivity, but also to make sure that they’re doing their work within the budget you’ve specified.
Of course, you also have to measure your employees’ ability to actually meet your project and organizational goals. There are a variety of excellent project management solutions on the market for this purpose, including Podio, BaseCamp and Asana. You can use these tools to track tasks and easily communicate to your staff if changes need to be made on any projects. You can also incorporate Tickspot, Time Doctor or other productivity analytics tools into them, allowing you to monitor employee productivity at a glance.
Using these tools will make it easier to tell whether or not employees are pulling their weight and that they understand your expectations. Review the logs from your chosen project management tools periodically to see if there are any long-standing problems that need to be addressed, such as people regularly submitting work past deadlines or failing to follow your guidelines.
Yes, this is an additional monitoring component that managers of on-site employees don’t have to deal with, but the benefits of having a happier, more engaged remote staff may make the trade-off worth it.
Managing a virtual team requires a substantial amount of time and energy. If you choose to go down this road, you simply must have these processes in place, as the success of your company depends on your ability to find the right talent, keep them motivated and hold them accountable for meeting your company goals.
Do you run a virtual team? What steps have you taken to ensure its success? I’ll show you how in my free online training here. Register now because this will be taken down soon.
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