Remote Teams – Getting Comfortable

By Chris Ihrig

The job market has only been this tight twice in my lifetime. This assumes you were alive in ’69.  It has me thinking about ways to attract and keep talent with this much competition. Of course, there are the traditional things like raising salaries and adding benefits but those only help up to a point. Living, as we do, in an era of disruptive change that is burying icons like Sears, Toys R Us, and Radio Shack takes relying on the same old solutions out of the comfort zone. Change now seems essential.

Remote workers aren’t new, but they are more available than ever. Whether you need to tap into the brain trust of Boomers who still have a lot to contribute or the Millennial wanderlust, the supply of both workers is better than ever.

Employers have been tapping remote workers for decades, but I still encounter managers who hesitate to use remote employees because they aren’t confident they will be productive. Stress over how to supervise them makes some managers reluctant to use remote workers. If the disruptions to icons like Eastman Kodak, Block Buster, and Sears show us anything, it is that the key to long-term organizational success requires us to find ways to expand our comfort zone. We can’t benefit from innovations if we don’t embrace change.

There are two philosophies about managing remote workers. One is to monitor every keystroke and the other is to focus on results and build trust that both parties will do what they are supposed to do. I’ve noticed that people generally live up to my expectations, so I prefer to trust people. To do that, I have found it’s better, if your business allows you the luxury, to only hire remote workers who meet certain criteria that makes them well-suited to being productive while working remotely. This is what we’ve learned through experience with remote employees:

  • Hire Self-starters: They are fueled by intrinsic motivation that makes them want to produce good work.

Key: Understand what motivates your self-starters. What do they ultimately want? Is it recognition, financial rewards, promotions, or increased knowledge? If they don’t get what they ultimately want, they will self-start themselves out your door to another business that will feed their fire.

Don’t add external motivation—feed their intrinsic motivation. Deci and Ryan did some fascinating research on motivation and self-determination. When someone who is intrinsically motivated is enticed with extrinsic rewards, their focus can shift in pursuit of the extrinsic reward which causes a drop in their intrinsic motivation. Deci and Ryan found that adding extrinsic motivation when someone was already intrinsically motivated caused the intrinsic motivation to flatline.  

  • Hire Confident Employees: Working remotely requires the employee to forge ahead or research answers that they might have greater access to if they worked alongside their co-workers. Sending frequent questions to their peers or boss interrupts the workday of the people they ask and employees that lack confidence may stop working while they wait for an answer to a question they could answer themselves with just a little initiative.

Key: If they aren’t confident that they can find the answer, they won’t look for it.

Another aspect of confidence: Remote employees must be good at asking for feedback and acting on the feedback they receive.

  • Hire ethical employees: It’s easier for someone to get away with wrongdoing when no one is observing them. Although ethics is important as far as whether the employee will be honest in reporting time, the more important factors are whether your clients will be treated correctly and making sure your reputation is protected.
  • Focus of a monk: No, you don’t have to limit your external employees to those who’ve spent months in a Tibetan monastery honing their ability to focus but the ability to focus on tasks and not be distracted is important. Life is full of distractions. The mailman delivers a package during the employee’s work hours. Does the employee set it aside or open it? If they open it, do they start enjoying it before remembering they’re at work? If they’re doing research, do they get distracted by things that aren’t related to their work or do they stay on task?   

Communication is Critical

Good communication is critical to success with remote workers. To that end, it can be worthwhile to establish communication policies. We’ve found the following help avoid misunderstandings and keep everyone on the same page:

  • The Benefit of the Doubt Rule: This rule is the opposite of the next rule. The benefit of the doubt rule requires employees to assume good intentions in their co-workers’ actions. This is a great way to avoid the hassles that can occur when someone assumes ill-intent and the resultant stress and hurt feelings that approach can cause.
  • Read it from the recipients’ perspective before you send: We know what we mean when we write an email but if the recipient is not on our wavelength, they can read unintended messages into what we write. If we deliberately put the recipients’ hat on and read what we wrote from their perspective before we hit send, we can head off misunderstandings before they occur.
  • Talk about it: If something seems off in the communication, assume there is miscommunication and pick up the phone with the intention of getting on the same page. Just being able to hear the tone of voice can be very helpful in preventing problems.

When employees are going to be long-term members of our team, we strive to build rapport between team members. Nothing beats spending time face-to-face for building connections that improve the ability to work in concert. Team training sessions do double duty by building rapport and increasing the team’s skills or knowledge.

We hope this has provided some useful information to help you during the tight labor market. Whether you’re hiring employees or freelancers, the ability to work well with remote workers increases your flexibility and your chances of continued success.