Remote teams have been in existence for as long as companies have been spread across different locations. Multiple worksites, dispersed servicing requirements, geographically separate workplaces, and individual contributors whose talents are required but are not physically co-located are all reasons why teams may not be seated in one place. Managing remote individuals and teams has presented some unique challenges through the years, even as technology has advanced to allow for easier connection.
Largely due to technology enhancements, as well as increasingly global workplaces, there has been a growing movement toward remote work of late. In the United States, 3.4% of the U.S. population worked remotely as of February 2019 (according to a study by Flexjobs and Global Workplace Analytics). Even more telling, the past few years have seen explosive growth—44% growth in the United States in the past five years, and a 159% increase between 2005 and 2017 (according to this same study). The trend is not limited to the United States, either. Globally, estimates ranged between 50%-70% of professional workers working from home at least once a week as of October 2019. Of course, this changed dramatically once COVID-19 entered our lives.
The remote workforce, as noted above, can include individual team members working from home or a team (or teams) working in a different location than its manager. In today’s environment, when we think of working remotely, we are focused on individuals working from home due to the impact of COVID-19. Driven by the need to isolate to help contain the virus through physical separation, remote work is a business imperative most companies (those that could) have embraced and adapted. Current statistics are difficult to come by, but according to an early April 2020 opinion poll by Statista, 20% of U.S. adults are able to work from home during the COVID-19 outbreak, and are doing so.
This reality has taken on far greater significance than we could have imagined even six months ago. The shift has been sudden and dramatic. While the challenges and experiences are different for the employee, the challenges for the manager are similar.
What Remote Work Means for Managers
Regardless of whether you’re managing individuals located separately or a co-located team, many of the challenges are similar. Building and maintaining a team, aligning that team to common objectives, driving productivity, and fostering a corporate culture are some of the main issues confronting managers of remote workers. Additional challenges appear when those teams are located around the world. Then, the added complexities include time zone differences, language barriers, and cultural differences, just to name a few. Failure to do it right can result in loss of productivity and an inability to meet goals, objectives, and deadlines.
How do we address these challenges, build an effective team, and become adept at managing a remote workforce? Research shows that there are some consistent steps we can take, many of which are similar regardless of whether your team is located with you, sitting in their homes, or present in a variety of locations around the world. These steps include the following:
- Build your team
- Align to common goals and objectives
- Develop trust and professional and personal relationships
- Establish strong communications
- Evaluate performance and outcomes
- Manage team growth and development
Building Your Team
The first order of business, of course, is the need to build a team. Even though this team may now (and for the foreseeable future) be remote, you’ll still need to identify the needed roles and staff with the best people. As a strong manager, you’ll identify and leverage individual talents, but you also need to consider how they will work together and complement each other. This is especially true when your teams are located around the world, as cultural considerations come into play as well.
As a manager, it is important that you recognize and strive to understand the cultural backgrounds of your team members and celebrate those differences and the new and varied perspectives they can bring to your team. We can all learn from each other, and building a strong team means identifying the strengths of each individual member so that the team is made stronger.
Another key consideration is to assess how well team members handle being remote. There is no room for handholding with a remote workforce—each team member must be mature and responsible enough to manage their own workload. They need to ensure they have a dedicated and quiet place to work and that the remote set-up is their “office.” As a manager, you can confirm things such as internet connectivity, technology availability, and other equipment needed to ensure productivity.
Part II of this article in the August/September Global Payroll issue will focus on managing the team once it is in place through goal setting, culture building, communication, and more.
Learn more about this author in the Professional Spotlight article also in this issue.
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Catherine Honey joined Safeguard Global in 2017 as VP, Strategic Partner Relations. She leads alliances and channels for the company, developing relationships and managing both formal and informal partnerships to help enhance the company’s industry presence and build out the solution ecosystem. Prior to joining Safeguard Global, Honey garnered almost 30 years of experience in human capital and has worked as a practitioner, service provider, and consultant around the world. She has lived and worked around the world, is a veteran of two expatriate assignments, and is a published author and frequent speaker on global strategy, service delivery, and operations topics. She is active in a variety of professional organizations and holds a BA from Temple University and an MBA from Bentley University.