Managing Home-Based Team Members
Working With Remote Staff
Home-based working is hardly new – book editors and graphic designers have worked from home offices for a long time, for example.
But modern technology has changed everything. And with broadband Internet access and tools like Skype and email, many remaining technical barriers to doing "knowledge work" at home have disappeared.
There are certainly many arguments in favor of working at home. It can make it easier for people to concentrate, free of the distractions and interruptions of a busy office environment. It can increase worker retention, particularly among those who need to care for relatives (like children or aging parents). Eliminating the daily commute is environmentally responsible – not to mention less expensive, considering the price of gas! And an ever-increasing proportion of the workforce rank work/life balance high on their list of criteria for choosing an employer.
Then, of course, it opens the possibility for your business to work with the best people in the world, wherever in the world they are (and not just in a one hour travelling-time radius).
What's more, it opens up the opportunity of running a completely different type of business that's been talked about for a long time: where self-employed "free agents" work together to deliver specific projects flexibly, adaptably, and on-demand.
But how do managers make this happen? Are you uncomfortable with managing people you don't see every day? Is it hard for you to trust people to work if you're not there to supervise it? How can you determine whether someone is likely to work successfully at home? How can you create team spirit if people work in different locations? And how do communications differ from those with your office-based team members?
We'll look at the specific challenges of managing a home-based workforce, and we'll offer some practical advice for ensuring high team performance – wherever the members of your team are based.
Make Initial Preparations
With any kind of management, the foundation of successful management home-based workers is having the right people in the first place. Not all job functions can be done from home. And some individuals may be productive in an office, yet their contributions may drop if they work remotely.
The key to succeeding here is to restructure the way that you manage work, so that you bundle activities up into clearly defined projects with a defined end date, and a specific end result that you need to be delivered. If people deliver these projects on time and to a good level of quality, then you don't need to worry too much about whether they're at their desks at a particular time of day.
Other types of work (particularly those where people "just need to get on with it") are much more problematic, and require significant self-discipline. Unfortunately, some people don't have this, or find it hard to sustain over a period of time.
So if a team member asks to work from home, clear guidelines will help you assess both the job function and the individual (more on this later). Without guidelines, you may feel forced to let unsuitable team members work from home in order to be "fair." Or you may lose valued team members who want to work from home for personal reasons (and would do so successfully) because you don't want lots of other people to make the same request.
As well as this, your organization must be ready to adapt in order to support team members who start working from home. Make sure the various departments that will interact with the team member – IT, accounting, human resources, and so forth – have adequate systems and protocols for doing business "long distance."
Finally, of course, look at your own ability to manage home-based workers. You may be a good manager of an in-house team, but you'll almost certainly need to develop some new skills to meet the different demands of a home-based staff. In particular, you'll need excellent communication skills. For example, if you typically rely on body language to recognize people's moods, you may need to improve your listening skills or be more proactive in asking questions.
Think about how you communicate and get information. In an office you might not realize how often you simply look to see if people are busy before you interrupt them to discuss something. So, when you call people at home, start by asking whether it's a good time to talk. Or better, use instant messaging/chat technology or email to check if you can call. The other person may reply, "I'll call you in 20 minutes" – so you'll know that he or she is currently in the middle of doing something.
Develop Your Home-Based Working Guidelines
Your clear guidelines for considering requests to work from home – or even for deciding whether a new job function could or should be home-based – will depend, in part, on the nature of your organization. But you'll probably want to include the following questions:
About the Roles/Job Functions
- Can work be bundled up into specific projects, with clear deadlines and measurable deliverables?
- Do the job functions involve tasks that must be done in-house (for example, running meetings that can't be held as teleconferences or videoconferences)?
- Do the roles involve technology that can't be accessed from home, for practical or security reasons?
- Are the people responsible for developing other team members?
- Will there be a negative impact on other team members if this job is done out of the office?
About the Individuals
- How self-motivated are these people? If you don't know, ask them to provide examples of when they've previously worked on their own and produced substantial deliverables.
- Are they people who are self-motivated at work, or do they need regular supervision if they're going to deliver results?
- Do they have appropriate work space at home? Is it quiet enough? Is it sufficiently free of interruptions by children or others living in the house?
- Do they have realistic expectations abut what they'll be doing at home? Few people can concentrate effectively at the same time that they're looking after small children.
- Why do they want to work from home? Will the reason for wanting to work from home motivate them to work carefully and productively on their own?
- If they want to work outside normal office hours (for example, early mornings and/or evenings, so they can drive children to and from school), how will this fit with the office-based team?
- Are they still developing in their roles, or do they already have the skills and knowledge they need? Staff who are still developing skills may need to stay in the office to work more closely with you.
- How will they feel about this as individuals? Some people need the "buzz" of everyday social interaction in the workplace if they're going to be happy. Others don't
If working from home looks like a productive solution, consider having your human resources department help you create a formal agreement. This should include a trial period, after which both you and your team member decide if the arrangement is beneficial. It should allow for regular reviews, where you have the right to change things if working from home isn't working out, or if the job changes to make it less appropriate. And include exact details of schedules, deadlines, work methods, frequency and content of regular communications, payments, and any other specifics of your work process.
Build Your Team
People may work from home only part of each week, and report to the office the rest of the time. Or they may need to attend occasional meetings in the office. If "virtual" team members live far away, you may never even see them face-to-face.
Occasional in-person meetings are great, if they're possible. As time goes on, you and your team may discover new methods and improvements to the ways your particular group works best. As the manager, try to establish a policy of openness to suggestions in these areas, and be ready to adapt as appropriate.
Cards, and even small gifts during holiday seasons, may be more significant for home-based workers than for regular office staff. These can help strengthen the link between remote individuals and the organization.
Customize Your Communications
Remember why each person is working from home. Be aware of schedules, preferences, and needs as best you can. Respect their lives, and work as reasonably as possible – and they'll deliver for you.
Remember, too, that it's the result that is important, so learn not to worry about the process – as long as you trust the person.
Manage as Usual, Except...
Managing your virtual team isn't that different from traditional management – except that you manage remotely. Focus on results, and try not to dictate what process an individual must use. Your home-based staff must be judged on what they achieve, and trusted to manage their own work methods. (If they more-than-infrequently fail to deliver, then they can't be trusted to work from home.)
A schedule for regular, frequent feedback from both sides should be part of your agreement. Emails and phone calls don't always communicate attitudes or uneasiness, so it's important to have regular interaction, and to increase the frequency of those chats where you talk about how things are going and how people are feeling about their jobs.
Another key management technique is motivation. For home-based workers, you often don't have to deal with daily "ups and downs" like you might with in-office staff. But keep a close watch on the enthusiasm of remote team members. Make sure they don't lose interest and become less "connected" to the team. Provide work-at-home team members with regular incentives, opportunities for professional development, and ways to contribute to planning.
What's more, don't fall into the "out of sight, out of mind" trap. Make sure that you pay as much attention to remote workers as you do to people who you deal with every day face to face.
Be consistent and disciplined about receiving all deliverables on time. Don't make special allowances that you wouldn't make for your in-house staff. Again, remember that it's all about achieving results!
See Working in Virtual Teams for more tips on managing team members in different time zones or communicating with those who have different first languages (even if they're in the same building!).
Make sure you have the right people and communication skills for managing home-based team members. If in doubt, communicate more than you usually would, but don't harass or irritate people. There's a difference!
Before allowing anyone to work at home, create a set of guidelines, and apply them fairly to all requests. Always include a trial period, even for team members who have been with you a long time. Have regular evaluations, and create ways to motivate your long-distance workers. Maintain an ongoing interest in each individual, and show your appreciation for work well done.
And structure work around specific deliverables, delivered to a good quality, and to specific deadlines. That way, you don't have to worry about whether people are at their desks at a particular time, and you can give them much greater freedom to live their lives the way that they want to.