Leading Remote And Flexible Staff

If you have been under a rock I have a news flash for you. The internet has changed some things.

  • Just a few years ago a teleconference was a big deal.. Now its all about video conferencing
  • Just a few years ago if I was sick and stayed home I lost the day at work… Now I can work from home
  • Just a few years ago “offshoring” was a new big deal that companies struggled to actually get cost savings from… Now working with global teams is normal course of business
  • Just a few years ago to get someone to deliver groceries involved hiring a household employee… Now Amazon, Safeway and countless other chains do it, or I can get a TaskRabbit to do it with a few clicks

Yes… the internet is here and it has changed things.

I’ve been managing people in other locations since 1999, back when offshoring was a big deal and I had to go to the grocery store. Over the years a lot of hard earned techniques and strategies have come my way for being successful at it. If this is something you need help with, leave a comment or send me a message.

Here I want to talk about two types of very common situations I have on my team and how I address their needs to get the best result. I’m focused here on teams, not individual lone rangers or a collection of them. If you have lone ranger management experience (service workers, sales forces, etc) I would really enjoy learning from you.

This is a particularly good primer for:

  • new managers
  • manager who now have some remote or flexible staff
  • experienced managers looking for new ideas

 

Remote Workers

A remote worker is someone who works more than 80% of the time (more than 4 out of 5 days) from a location other than where most of the team comes together on a daily basis. Remote workers may journey to the “home base” from time to time but generally they are, well, remote. Remote workers are different from Travelling Workers, which I haven’t had the personal experience of managing, though I expect many of the difficulties and strategies for success are the same. If you manage Travelling Workers I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

The primary challenges of being a remote worker, for the worker, are:

  • Culture Connection
  • Relationship Building
  • Visibility

For the manager of a remote worker the primary challenges are:

  • Visibility (aka Trust)
  • Relationship Building
  • Coaching

Flexible Workers

The Flexible Worker is someone who spends at least one day in a month working from a place other than the primary team location, and who isn’t “home based” somewhere else (that would be a Remote Worker). This could include working from home when sick or travelling for work occasionally or simply having the ability to choose to work from another location for at least a day in a month. These are the Flexible Workers.

The primary challenges for the flexible worker are:

  • Connectivity to the work environment
  • Knowing what to work on

The primary challenges for the manager of a flexible worker are:

  • Knowing when someone will be offsite
  • Determining what they achieved while they were offsite
  • Empowering them to get work done while offsite

Principles

I think it is really interesting to consider the similarities and differences between these two groups. Supporting Flexible workers as a manager is really just the foundation level of supporting Remote workers. Remote workers have the same connectivity and work coordination needs and they have a far bigger gap connecting with the team.

In both cases, as a manager, I need to be able to communicate the work that needs to be done, understand their progress or blockers to progress, and make them a part of the team.

Techniques

Connectivity
The basic techniques for connectivity is that I need to provide it. This is really the ante level for any sort of offsite work. Corporate network connectivity, laptop/desktop compute, phone, and so on.

Visibility
The basic technique for coordinating work and getting visibility is to provide an email or phone call every working day. Of course, it gets way better from here. Tools like Trelloand Slack and HipChat and Jira provide a mechanism for teams to interact and coordinate their activities around the work that needs to be done. If I want to empower offsite work on a grander scale I need to step up from phone and email to a tool that the entire team uses every day, seamlessly.

Culture
Cultural connection for flexible workers is generally a non issue since they spend so much time at the primary site interacting with the team members there. They get to build those personal relationships and contribute to the culture.

Cultural connection for remote workers is far different. As a manager I have to go a lot farther on this issue. Here’s my go-to list of techniques:

  • Whole-team meetings with video conferencing (seeing a face = seeing a person)
  • Team wide communication of wins and losses
  • Location sensitivity in planning and communication (don’t send a free-food email to the whole distributed team, for example, and communicate about the holidays in all locations rather than just home base)
  • Rotate remote workers in to home base for a time on a schedule and have them focus on culture and relationships while they are in
  • Push hard for home-base team members to use video conferences whenever they need to communicate with a remote worker (faces = people)
  • Always communicate minutes and decisions in multiple ways (in person, email, video conference, etc)
  • Talk about the team values and culture regularly and identify work and behaviors that fit the culture, regularly

 

All right, so there it is… Jeff’s guide to flexible and remote workers. The needs and challenges to manage the two types of workers are different and as a manager I have to solve different problems for them.

Take a minute and think about your experience or challenges in managing a distributed team or being on a distributed team. If you have ideas or experiences to share we will all benefit from them… I’m here and I’ll get the notification when you comment.

#LetsGo