Remote work isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017–2018, “about one-half of workers in management, business, and financial operations occupations sometimes worked at home.” The UK has seen a 27.7% increase over the last decade, according to an analysis by the Trades Union Congress.
Potential employees are looking for remote working opportunities, too. According to job search website Indeed, searches for flexible work arrangements increased 32% from 2016 to 2017. Remote work can also increase diversity, close the gender gap, and help workers over the age of 50 extend their careers (and keep their expertise in the company).
But how can you manage workers when they’re not in the office full time — or any of the time? Here’s a few things that can help.
Don’t make assumptions about what remote workers do with their time
Managers, especially those who are used to having all of their employees in one place, may still carry assumptions about remote workers, especially workers who have requested to be remote versus those who had remote work imposed upon them.
“It’s important for managers to check their immediate response,” said Colleen Flaherty Manchester, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Work and Organizations at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. Yes, remote work arrangements can help employees strike a better work/life balance, but that doesn’t mean they are slacking off.
“They may be achieving both productivity gains and able to address their nonwork responsibilities by working remotely,” she said. These two things aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive but coexisting.
Research bears that out. When Stanford University researchers studied Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, for example, they found a 13% improvement in performance from employees working at home. So even if your employee can stay on top of laundry, they can be more productive, too.
Help remote workers feel visible
One major complaint of online workers, said Manchester, is that they feel invisible.
If there are opportunities for in-person connections, take them — or make them happen. That could mean scheduling in-office meetings at the kickoff or early in working on a new project, and “strategically through the course of a project”, she said.
Remote workers may also think they’re being overlooked for promotions. “Although some homeworkers might not want to go for promotion because it might mean spending more time at the organisation’s main base, employers should ensure homeworkers generally are not disadvantaged,” said John Palmer, senior guidance managing editor at Acas, UK workplace experts.
He suggested offering time with mentors, providing training to help remote workers develop their skills, and “ensuring they are considered for key projects and opportunities for promotion in line with office colleagues”.
Use video calls — but don’t rely on them
Videoconference calls can help workers feel more present in a meeting and put faces with names instead of just voices, but Manchester said that the technology can still be limiting, especially for female managers.
“I’ve talked to some female leaders in the past who’ve said that technology for interaction often makes it more challenging to strike the right balance between being perceived as likable as well as having authority,” she said. “Technology can impede that if you are not able to have that more body-language-type communication.” That’s why having in-person meetings when possible is still important.
Chat it up
Communication apps can also help. According to Talent LMS, which surveyed 450 remote workers, three of the top four apps remote workers use are about communication. When they feel lonely, 43% use communication apps, compared with 37% who will go into the office, so these apps can be a key bridge to helping your employees feel engaged with their managers and co-workers.
Apps like Slack, Google Hangouts, Trello, and Asana can help employees communicate while working on projects. You can also create channels that allow employees to interact as they would in office common areas, getting to know one another and discussing things other than work, to build connections as people, not just as employees.
Just don’t rely on them too heavily at the expense of in-person meetings, said Palmer, and “make sure homeworkers don’t remain permanently ‘online’”, he said.
— Jen A. Miller is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.