The Ultimate Guide to Managing Remote Workers in Small Businesses
It’s no secret that today’s workforce is changing more quickly and more dramatically than any other in modern history. At least four generations are working now, ranging from the new graduates of Generation Z to the retiring – or more often semi-retiring – Baby Boomers. In the span of their careers, these workers and their employers have seen how technology can impact almost every aspect of their job—not only how they do it, but often where they do it.
The Rise of Remote Workers
Two decades ago, remote workers were usually independent contractors or a relatively rare and privileged corporate employee. The concept of “mobile workforce management” hadn’t yet been invented. Today, however, both the size and definition of “the remote workforce” have expanded to impressive proportions.
Consider the following trends:
According to a report from Global Workplace Analytics, nearly 4 million workers, equaling 3 percent of the American workforce, work from home at least half the time. That’s up from 1.8 million in 2005, a 115 percent increase.
Advances in communications technology have streamlined the interaction between employers and workers on the road, such as salespeople, consultants or field services technicians. Mobile devices allow these employees to connect with managers, dispatchers and team members whenever they need to and from wherever they happen to be. They don’t need to find a payphone or borrow someone’s office. And perhaps more importantly, their managers and colleagues can call them whenever the need arises.
More businesses have come to appreciate the role of “deskless workers,” who range from warehouse forklift operators to truck drivers to construction laborers or retail salespeople. As mobile technology has become both less expensive and easier to use, companies can include these workers in a number of discussions they previously would have been left out of.
Business Advantages of Remote Workers
The result of these new developments is a workforce that’s more mobile and less centered on physical location. Small businesses, in particular, now have the tools they need to efficiently communicate with and manage workers, no matter what kind of role they have, where they’re located or how much they happen to travel.
This is especially important today since, with the labor market as tight as it is, workers are more inclined to switch jobs when they spy a better opportunity and often base their job satisfaction at least partly on the tools their employers provide. Employees, after all, are also consumers. They don’t see any reason why they should enjoy simple-to-use mobile apps at home and clunky, outdated products at work.
That may sound like a challenge, but in truth, it’s good news for small companies. Today, even businesses with a handful of employees can afford to make use of the latest communications tools. Consequently, they now have opportunities they never had before in terms of hiring, sales, distribution, product design and production. If the most talented product manager happens to live 500 miles away from headquarters, moving them may not be necessary. When a customer has an emergency, they can reach their sales executive right away through a smartphone. When the factory discovers a flaw in a product, production managers can huddle with the design team, no matter how far-flung the team members may be.
The Challenges of Remote Working
That same approach is even more important for so-called “deskless workers,” the employees in warehouses and delivery trucks, on production lines and retail floors or roving from site to site to maintain and repair customers’ equipment.
In many instances, these people may not even have a company smartphone or business email address. Yet, those who visit customer locations may be the most visible employees you have. Like their colleagues at the office, they have the same desire to feel connected, be part of the team and know the company’s behind them if they need information or technical support to get their job done. Without the right tools or mindset, managing this mobile workforce poses a challenge.
Seamless communications – such as mobile apps, integration with enterprise applications and click-to-call functionality, to name a few – provide business owners with a powerful advantage. By providing these tools, they reinforce the idea that employees are always in touch. A variety of mobile apps allow users not only to communicate with each other, but also to handle a variety of nuts-and-bolts issues that once required a chat with your HR person and the filing of multiple forms.
For example, a number of small business HR apps allow remote employees to submit time-off requests, check their latest pay stub and see how much vacation time they’ve banked. They can ask simple questions through a text message or participate in a video conference with their manager and HR if a more complex issue arises.
How to Motivate Remote Workers
But the key to facilitating a remote workforce isn’t technology; it’s how people use the technology. In essence, technology is only an enabler that provides more streamlined communication between personnel, regardless of where they happen to sit. But for communications systems to reach their full potential, small business owners must build their use into every process—and design every process around the people who follow it.
HR professionals like to talk about the importance of “the employee experience.” Today, that experience isn’t limited to what happens within the office walls. The programmer working from home, the driver making deliveries, the forklift operator stocking loading docks and the electrician making house calls all want to have the best possible experiences, too. By using the right communications tools in the right way, businesses can now include workers who – because of their location – were once “out of the loop” in almost every aspect of a company’s operation and culture. In addition, there’s a huge payoff when they embed a few remote working best practices into their managers’ routines.
The HR world loves buzzwords, and one of today’s hottest buzzwords is “engagement.” While a number of definitions have been applied to the term, most agree it generally describes how emotionally committed workers are to their employer and its goals. Companies can engage employees in a number of ways, but many, if not most, HR experts will tell you that communications is the secret to successful mobile workforce management.
Best Practices for Engaging Remote Workers
By “communications,” we really mean “conversation” and “collaboration.” Yes, workers at a small business may appreciate a regular email telling them what in general is going on around the company. But, what engages them is the chance to actually speak to their colleagues and managers on a regular basis. What engages them even more is the knowledge that they can initiate the conversation without “looking bad” to their boss and co-workers.
Think of it this way: If all five employees of a company worked in the same location, few people would worry about knocking on the owner’s door to ask a question or talk through a problem. But when three of those employees work from their homes in separate states, the dynamic changes. Picking up the phone to call the boss feels like a higher bar, so employees turn to email, which is rarely as clear as direct conversation and can involve a long wait for answers if the boss is out of the office.
Messaging can speed things along, but it, too, requires care to craft each line if the conversation is going to be efficient and productive. A click-to-start video call is the best solution, since it allows the owner and employee to speak more naturally than they would on the telephone and to read each other’s body language. Layering on collaboration features such as document sharing and video makes it possible for colleagues to work through issues like they would if they were in the same room.
The Secret to Remote Worker Collaboration
While we often speak about exchanging information in the cloud’s “virtual world,” nothing is more concrete than the results of effective collaboration. Just like with engagement, today’s communications technology allows small business teams to collaborate closely, unhindered by each team’s location.
But also like engagement, collaboration depends on the business owner’s leadership skills. Managing remote employees is all about making them perform as a single team even when they’re scattered geographically. You can’t put three people in a conference room with a vague goal and hope they’ll emerge with even the beginnings of a concrete plan for reaching that goal. Owners and managers have to set parameters, educate the team on the reasons behind the goal and make sure boundaries between roles and departments are clear.
How to Support Remote Workers
For growing businesses, the owner’s biggest challenge is to convince their employees they are truly just a click away. They should make it clear they don’t regard video calls as any more intrusive than they do a knock on their door. To accomplish this, small business owners must lead by example. They need to be exceptionally proactive when they rely on apps and other communications tools to foster collaboration.
First off, to demonstrate the value of the tools, managers should actively use the tools in their own work, essentially “evangelizing by doing.” The best way for employers to foster adoption of communications tools is to reach out. It’s not enough to tell everyone to “just video me.” They have to start video calls themselves when the need arises as well as schedule regular check-ins. As a result, remote workers will feel connected and recognize that management is accessible and responsible.
Second, they must ensure their remote workers have the same access to training and technical support as their office employees. In fact, going out of your way to support remote workers is even more important than providing help to your headquarters staff. In the office, employees know they can ask you a quick question in the hallway or stop by your desk. Because their remote colleagues can’t see you and have no way to judge how your day’s going, they’re more likely to hesitate before reaching out for help. The same holds true when they’re wondering whether to contact their manager or a colleague.
Best Practices for Managing Remote Workers
Another challenge for the owners of growing businesses is the ability to easily and effectively manage the performance of their remote workers. The good news is that a wave of new products lets managers provide performance feedback in (close to) real time. The old idea of managers and employees sitting down once a year to talk about goals, successes and needed improvements is quickly going by the wayside.
This can have a dramatic impact on the relationship between small business owners and their employees. By nature, owning a business requires juggling abilities, and often the ball that drops is the employee review. It’s not that owners don’t care about their staff’s desire for feedback. Instead, they have trouble carving out the time necessary to prepare for, conduct and follow up on an effective review.
Today’s integrated communications solutions allow owners and managers to provide feedback as soon as a remote worker completes a task, to praise an employee’s efforts to their team members and even enable team members to give shout-outs to their colleagues in a way that’s visible throughout the company.
When used regularly, these tools keep up a constant conversation among the workforce, regardless of where they’re located. When the Omaha sales rep delivers a new account, the news is quickly shared with staffers around the country, not just those working in the main office in Indianapolis. When the field technician in Fort Lauderdale completes an emergency repair at 3 a.m., and so allowing your customer’s store to open on-schedule the next morning, word of her good work spreads even before the rest of the company even begins their day.
How to Pick the Right Tools for Remote Workers
So far, we’ve explored how the right technology contributes to the best practices of managing remote workers. However, there’s one last thing to emphasize. These tools won’t help you manage if employees don’t use them. So, one of the most important things small business owners can do when selecting technology is to focus on the old saying, “Keep it simple.”
Tech companies love to tout their bells and whistles. Nowadays, they’re sure to emphasize their “cloud” features and “redundancy,” their approach to “cybersecurity” and their 24/7 customer support. To be sure, these are all important components of any successful product. However, they shouldn’t overwhelm the importance of usability.
“Usability” is a catch-all term to describe how simple a product is to operate. It’s an important concept because, time and again, users have shown themselves more likely to embrace tools that are simple and neglect those that are more complex. For example, workers are much more likely to start a video call with a single click than they would be if three or four steps were necessary.
“Providing a seamless, flawless digital experience for customers, be it on mobile, via web or in-store, is what strong companies are focused on,” observed the software testing expert Matt Johnston. “And that integrated customer experience cannot be tested, measured or optimized from a lab.”
Johnston believes technology tools succeed when users can make them work as advertised from the beginning. According to research by the mobile app firm Localytics, 56 percent of users will give up on an app if they can’t get it to work after three to five tries. If workers regard your tools as difficult, your job of managing them becomes difficult as well.
Focused, simple-to-use technology makes managing remote employees less of a headache. With easy-to-use products, your employees spend less time learning how to make them work and soon consider their use routine. That means you’ll worry less about training and support and spend less time chasing after people to perform everything from simple chores, like clocking in, to more advanced tasks, such as setting up collaboration calls and sharing documents. In addition, operations will run more smoothly because workers are less inclined to put off requesting vacation time or filing reports when the processes are straightforward.
Keep Remote Workers Connected and Engaged
The key to managing remote workers is to leverage technology in a way that extends the experience of being in the office. Start with robust tools that allow team members and business owners to communicate as easily as they would if they ran into each other in the hall. Then, follow best practices for managing remote employees and set a high bar for the kind of visibility and collaboration that allows close working relationships to develop.
Finally, lead the way. Be the first to take up the tools and build them into the way you work. Your team will follow.