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How to Successfully Manage Your Remote Workforce

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo

Remote workforces are here to stay. Here's how to manage one successfully.

  • Remote workforces are common amid the COVID-19 pandemic and are expected to remain so even once the virus is contained.
  • Telework requires a lot of communication and trust from both employers and employees.
  • If a remote work environment is healthy, employees thrive, productivity increases and everyone is happier.
  • This article is for business owners who are looking to successfully manage a remote workforce either temporarily or permanently.

The way you manage a remote workforce will have long-term implications for your business and its growth potential. If you do a poor job, morale and productivity will suffer; if you're successful, a remote workforce can build loyalty and boost engagement. Here are some tips to help you tackle the challenges of managing remote employees, plus the pros and cons of having a remote workforce.

The importance of remote work in 2020

Remote work happens when employees don't report to a physical office. They still work their normal hours, but from home. For years, many companies resisted the idea of allowing employees to work from home. Presumably afraid that employees would spend their time doing laundry, watching TV or taking care of errands, employers preferred to have their workers in the office. Business owners and managers also feared that collaboration would fall to the wayside and productivity would decline.

However, many of those concerns turned out to be unfounded, at least several months into the large shift to remote work spurred by COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, just 1 in 30 companies had at least half of their staff working remotely, according to research from human resources consulting firm Mercer. As of late August 2020, it was 1 in 3. Of the employers surveyed, 94% said productivity has remained the same or increased since employees began working remotely.

Key takeaway: Remote work used to be considered a perk, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it a requirement for many employees. However, many companies plan to keep remote work arrangements in place even after the pandemic.

How to effectively manage remote workers

Managing remote workers requires finesse from employers, as companies face unique challenges when employees are not together in a physical office. However, with a solid plan and effective communication, businesses with remote workers can overcome these obstacles.

"There are challenges for small businesses, but they aren't insurmountable," Moe Vela, a board member for TransparentBusiness, told Business News Daily. "Business owners have to keep the office cohesion intact, create a collaborative environment that's effective, prevent employee burnout, and have accountability and transparency." [Read related article: Communication Technology and Inclusion Will Shape the Future of Remote Work]

There is no one-size-fits-all plan for managing remote workers, but there are some standard guidelines businesses should consider. Here are three of the big ones, provided by Adam Hickman, a content manager at Gallup and the author of studies on remote workforces.

1. Treat employees as individuals.

Successful managers can identify the strengths, weaknesses and needs of the individuals who work for them. They then leverage that information to nurture and motivate each individual employee. That same insight and management style must be applied to how they work remotely.

"If you've got 12 team members, that's 12 different sets of needs you have to meet," Hickman said. "If you want performance, make sure they are engaged."

That goes for the hours they work, as well. If one employee prefers to work in the early hours of the day, encourage it; if another is more of a night owl, allow that, he said. If the work is getting done, treat employees as the individuals they are.

2. Communicate often and extensively.

The need for excellent communication is even more important when employees work remotely. For remote work to be a success, everyone has to know what is expected of them – the scope of the work, the deliverables and the deadlines. There should be no room for ambiguity.

Managers should encourage their employees to reach out through instant messaging, video conferencing or a telephone call if they have any questions or concerns.

Communication should be frequent as well; regularly hold meetings, one-on-one chats and conference calls.

3. Trust that your staff is up to the task.

You won't be able to watch over your employees when they work remotely as you could if they were in the office, but that doesn't mean they aren't getting the job done. If you can't trust them, ask yourself why you hired them in the first place or what happened that caused you to lose trust in them.  

"You've got to ditch trust issues," Hickman said. "If you don't, then you start to become a remote micromanager."

Key takeaway: It's challenging to manage a remote workforce, but identifying individual needs, increasing communication and trusting your employees can help.

What are the advantages of remote work?

Here are some of the many benefits of remote work for both business owners and employees:

Advantages for employers

Expenses go down.

Small business owners who adopt a remote work environment save money on the overhead associated with having a physical office. For example, there are no expenses for rent, equipment, furniture, office supplies and utilities. According to research from Global Workplace Analytics, close to 6 in 10 employers polled cited cost savings as a big benefit of telecommuting. [Read related article: Free Remote Working Tools to Help Your Team Stay Connected]

Productivity goes up.

When employees don't spend hours commuting to work and have less office politics to deal with, they tend to be happier – and more productive. According to a survey conducted by FlexJobs, 65% of remote workers said they were more productive when working from home.

Turnover decreases.

It can be expensive to replace employees who have left your business, both in terms of the costs to hire a replacement and lost productivity. Remote work often boosts job satisfaction, which means employees stay with firms longer. That can save companies $10,000 to $30,000 per employee, according to Global Workplace Analytics.

Hiring pools expand.

Hiring can be a big challenge for business owners, especially when your pool of potential candidates is limited by your location and hours of operation. Remote work removes some of those limitations, so business owners have a wider pool of candidates to consider.

Advantages for employees

There's no commute.

Some people dread their commute because of the traffic; others hate the risk of illness from public transportation. Either way, most employees don't like commuting.

In a June 2020 PWC survey, 83% of office workers said they want to work at home at least one day a week once the pandemic is over, and 55% of employers said they expect their workers to remain remote at least part of the time after COVID-19 is contained.

Autonomy increases.

When employees work from home, they often have more freedom to work how they want to. Sure, there are Zoom meetings to attend, but in large part, there is flexibility in how and when employees get work done.

Employees are healthier.

Health is top of mind right now; it's the reason remote work became so common. Remote workers don't have to get on crowded buses or trains, or interact with others in lobbies, elevators and offices. When employees are at home, they avoid the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus and other contagious illnesses.

Key takeaway: Benefits abound for employers and employees in a remote work environment. Employers save money on the physical overhead, see an increase in productivity and keep workers longer. Employees eliminate the commute, have more autonomy, and remain safe and healthy.

What are the disadvantages of remote work?

Despite these benefits, there are also some potential downsides of telework. Therefore, you'll have to weigh the pros and cons to ensure remote work is right for your business.

The disadvantages of remote work for employers

Collaboration is more difficult.

One of the big knocks on remote work is that collaboration suffers. A big worry is that if a team can't jump into the conference room to hash out an idea, innovation will come to a halt. That is a real risk, but it doesn't have to be a foregone conclusion. By using video conferencing, instant messaging and collaboration tools, business owners can prevent collaboration from suffering.

Team building may go out the window.

One of the reasons employees stay with companies is the people they work with. They value the feeling that they're part of a team and appreciate being a respected team member. It's more difficult to achieve that feeling when everyone is working from home. Sure, you can have virtual chats and instant messaging groups, but it's not the same as in-person team building. For some employees, that lack of in-person interaction could hurt morale and productivity. [Read related article: How to Keep Remote Workers Engaged in a Virtual Team]

You give up some control.

Many business owners have long been resistant to remote work environments because it means they must give up some control. They have to trust their employees to get the job done without constant assistance from the boss. If you've hired the right employee, it's not a problem. But in some situations, giving up control could negatively affect your business.

The disadvantages of remote work for employees

It can be isolating.

Although many employees value the autonomy that often comes with remote work, others prefer extra guidance and the company of others. Indeed, sometimes working from home is too isolating for remote employees, particularly for those who live alone.

The isolation can also hurt team building and relationships with colleagues. If you have minimal contact with your supervisor or co-workers, it's easy to feel like you're not part of a team.

Lines between work and home life are blurred.

To work from home successfully, you have to know when to shut it off. It's easy to work more than is expected when the lines between home and work are blurred. A Chubb survey of remote workers found that 42% of men and 32% of women were working at least two extra hours a week. As a result, even though workers are technically spending more time at home, they often feel more pressure to prove their productivity and may actually be taking less time for family and self-care. [Read related article: 7 Ways to Improve Work-Life Balance When You Work at Home]

Key takeaway: There are downsides of remote work for both employers and employees, including challenges with collaboration, communication, work-life balance and trust.

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo,
Business News Daily Writer
See Donna Fuscaldo's Profile
A lifetime New Yorker, I am a veteran finance and business journalist that has contributed to several national media outlets including Forbes, Investopedia, and Bankrate.com. I have spent my career providing consumers and business owners with advice and guidance to help them navigate the world of finance. As a senior finance writer, I report on all aspects of finance from managing cash flow to choosing the best accounting software.