A remote workforce is a group of employees within an organization who primarily work off-site from a location other than a traditional office. While there’s no consensus on a minimum number, the term “remote workforce” usually indicates that there are several or more employees who usually work from a remote location. In some companies, all employees work remotely, an approach sometimes referred to as “remote only.” Others allow most employees to primarily work from another location, but still may have a few people who are regularly required to perform their jobs from a centralized office. This approach is known as “remote-first.”
Remote workforce management is the practice of effectively leading and managing remote employees. This typically comprises a mix of communication, processes and technology specifically designed for leading a productive remote workforce. Companies that are more fully invested in successful remote workforce management also often offer substantive training around relevant remote work topics, both for managers and employees.
Done right, remote work can be highly productive. Here are some tips and best practices for effectively managing a remote workforce:
- Establish clear guidelines and expectations: While you should avoid micromanaging your employees, you also don’t want to leave them guessing at your expectations in terms of work schedules, goals, performance tracking and other important aspects of their job.
- Set up regular check-ins: Create both one-on-one and team opportunities to check in with you on a regular basis to share updates, questions and concerns. These could be daily or less frequent depending on team culture and needs.
- Don’t just talk—listen: Make sure your communications is multi-directional, meaning you’re not just handing down updates or mandates, but truly listening to your team members. Invite feedback on all aspects of the remote work experience. Check in with them periodically about how they’re doing in general, not just for project updates.
- Invest in technology: Taking shortcuts with the digital tools and infrastructure your remote teams need to do their jobs will inevitably cause problems. Give remote workers dynamic, easy-to-use tools for meeting, sharing information and all other aspects of their daily routines. Also make sure that these technologies are well-designed not just for the web but also mobile experiences.
- Celebrate achievements: Be sure to recognize good results; it can be a common mistake to forget the importance of celebrating individual and team achievements when people aren’t working side-by-side in the same location.
- Make time for social interaction: Even a remote workforce can get together outside of work. Virtual game nights or happy hours, for example, are relatively easy to put together on the same platforms you use for business.
- Trust people: Remote workforce management depends on trust: When people are worried that their managers are doubting their remote engagement or otherwise looking over their shoulders virtually, their performance will suffer. Focus more on results than on “desk time.”
Many of the challenges involved in managing remote employees are rooted in the lack of physical, in-person interaction. This can make it harder for team leaders and others to “read the room” and see the warning signs of common workforce issues such as low morale, burnout, interpersonal conflict, miscommunication or lack of communication.
Other common remote workforce management challenges include:
- Distraction: Remote workers may be more likely to deal with interruptions or other distractions in their daily routine, especially if they work from home. These could include children or family members, home maintenance or chores, street noise and many other possible sources of distraction.
- Isolation: Some remote workers report struggling with social isolation, which can have various negative impacts. Even when people don’t feel isolated, the physical separation of people on a team can also make it more difficult to foster a collaborative, healthy culture.
- Communication: There are multiple potential communication issues that you should guard against, including: Over-communication (such as constantly checking in on a project status), miscommunication or people being left out (even incidentally) of an information-sharing loop.
Technology issues such as poor Internet connections (or outages) can also create remote workforce management challenges.
- Communication: While email remains a mainstay in the business world, remote teams almost always incorporate other communication channels into their routines, including chat apps (like Slack) and social collaboration apps.
- Meetings: While a form of communication, tools for effective meetings are an essential category of their own here. They include tools for videoconferencing, virtual presentations, whiteboarding and more.
- Project management and tracking: Virtual teams need ways to view and update key tasks and milestones in a shareable, easy-to-use way.
- Filesharing and storage: Remote teams need efficient, secure ways of sharing and stories documents and other file types.
Managing remote employees can lead to more flexible, dynamic teams that aren’t tethered to a specific physical location in order to do their jobs. This means you can hire and build teams with people based all over the world. This can boost employee satisfaction and retention, too, when hiring people who prefer remote work to going to a traditional office. Modern technology tools also make successful remote workforce management far more attainable than in the past.
“Remote workforce” and “mobile workforce” are related terms, but there’s a distinction between them. A mobile workforce is one particular type of remote workforce, but usually refers specifically to a group of employees who regularly work in the field or a variety of different locations.
A good example would be service technicians who do most of their work at customer sites, such as residences or commercial buildings. Mobile workforce management is the branch of remote workforce management focused specifically on leading teams of mobile employees. It also reflects the fact that many mobile or field employees can do their entire jobs from outside of the central office, thanks to a mix of mobile infrastructure, devices and applications.