Should we or shouldn’t we embrace a remote workforce? Am I hiring the best talent or hiring the best talent closest to my office? These questions should at least be the subject of ongoing debate in a good manager’s mind. If your company has a large number of remote workers -- employees that work outside of the office frequently -- or if you have no brick and mortar presence at all, you’ve likely realized the benefits of a distributed workforce. On the other hand, if most of your workers are onsite, you may be reticent to enter into the remote workforce arena. In this case, it is likely your organization has decided that collaboration and creativity are directly correlated to face-to-face interactions. And you would be right. And wrong.

As the leader of an almost exclusively remote workforce in multiple countries, I often get the question, “Which is better, remote workers or workers who are on site?” My answer: “Better for whom?” In a nearly zero unemployment economy, finding top performers and subject matter experts increasingly means taking a leap of faith by looking beyond geo-cubicle borders for the best talent.

Motivating and managing those teams requires that organizations and managers find ways to create and maintain a company culture based on more than bean bag chairs, ping pong, and beer Fridays. If your current company culture and business success are dependent on having everyone in the same place at the same time, you might want to ask yourself who is benefiting from that model and what opportunities are you missing out on. While there are challenges, the benefits and flexibility of having a distributed workforce are worth the time and effort invested – if remote teams are well-managed, motivated, and engaged.

If you’re looking to enter into the remote workforce arena, or you’re looking to better motivate and manage your distributed workforce, here are 3 critical factors to successfully hiring, managing, and motivating a remote team.

#1 Getting started: Hiring a remote workforce

Although 43% of employed Americans say they spend at least some time working remotely, according to a Gallup survey, not everyone is a candidate for remote work. While most people can manage working from home one or two days a week, it takes a certain type of person to be able to sustain a remote job 100 percent of the time. If a job candidate thrives on the socialization and companionship of an office environment, the isolation of working from home may be too much of a barrier to that person’s success. Of course, there are things you can do to make remote employees feel less isolated, but a good candidate for remote work is someone who doesn’t mind working independently most of the time.

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An ideal candidate is someone who is self-aware enough to know the type of working environment best suited to their success. They are detail-oriented and self-disciplined. While your remote employees must be able to work independently, look for those who are also great collaborators. It takes a lot more effort to collaborate with teammates when they aren’t sitting right next to you. Employees who are highly emotionally intelligent are more likely to create positive, collaborative relationships with other team members. In addition, these people are most likely better at self-reflection and self-monitoring.

Begin your search for any open position with a solid job description that includes the tasks and expectations for the position. If the role is exclusively remote, be sure to include the soft skills a person will need to be successful.

In addition to positive personality traits, be sure your potentially remote candidates have a physical environment conducive to working away from the office, including:

  • A quiet workspace free from distraction, especially if the work is phone related
  • The necessary equipment such as high-speed internet and a fast computer
  • A family or living situation which allows for productive work time

#2 Human-to-Human: Communication is key

Your remote workers still want to feel connected. They need to feel that they are part of the conversation and that their input is valued. Help your remote employees feel more connected and overcome some of the challenges of isolation and disengagement by establishing a cadence of regularly scheduled communication and/or a collaborative workspace.

Video conference: Getting face to face doesn’t require being in the same office, but it does require some face time. Be sure to schedule and attend regular video meetings with your remote employees. Don’t restrict those meetings to one on ones. Get the team together weekly to collaborate and share challenges and successes. Encourage people to ask questions either in these scheduled meetings, or anytime outside of formal meetings.

Build community: Your goal is to make your remote teams feel as though they are cube mates. Encourage them to engage in internal messaging to each other through an IM application, such as Slack, Skype, or similar app. They should be working as part of a team and communicating with each other as much as they are communicating with you.

Company meetings: When teams are gathered together for all-hands meetings, be sure to include remote employees via virtual meeting applications. Be sure to have a method for collecting and answering their questions and suggestions during Q&As or discussion periods.

Get togethers: Meeting virtually is critical and meeting in person once in a while is preferable. At least once a year – travel budget permitting -- gather as many remote employees as you can afford in one place to socialize and collaborate. Remote teams will leave these gatherings feeling more connected and better able to sustain relationships over the next year. It’s amazing.

Publicly recognize contributions: In a recent Harvard Business Review article, CEO of Rainmakers, Michael Ferguson notes the importance of top executives knowing the names of the individuals responsible for good work, so they can drop the employees a note congratulating and thanking them. He references a Gallup survey that states that 28% of employees said that manager recognition is most memorable and 24% said recognition from a high-level leader or CEO is best. When you plan to deliver recognition, make sure it’s public. Keeping remote employees in the spotlight helps other employees to understand their contributions and make them part of the larger team.

My father is a retired software engineer. He worked for some of the biggest names in computing in the 60’s through 90’s. Freakishly talented. He’s critical of the remote work methodology and will always try to remind me to this day that ‘people who work remotely are forgotten easily.’ If he was a manager today, I predict he’d be behind schedule and understaffed.

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#3 Making it work: Expectations and measuring success

Even as the number of people working remotely gains in popularity and necessity, some organizations have pulled back and asked employees to appear for work daily. The reasons for this are many, but a majority stem from a break-down in management. Productivity doesn’t depend on a worker being within eyesight, but it does depend on visibility of progress and transparency of work completion.

It’s rare to find a white-collar job that requires a person’s presence in a cube every day. However, there is still a degree of fear and lack of a comfort level among managers who feel that having an employee sitting at a desk ensures productivity. I would argue that the office environment is often not conducive to productivity. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. In addition to the time it takes to walk across the building for coffee, snacks, and access to the bathroom, office distractions can cut down on productivity – especially in the open office configuration so popular these days.

Depending on the distance between the employee’s home and the office, hours every day are dedicated to commuting. Those same hours are typically used productively by people who don’t need to leave their homes to go to work. If you’re already home, you don’t need to leave early to pick up kids, go to an appointment, or leave for other outside commitments. Here in the SF Bay Area, it’s not uncommon to spend an hour or more each way from the workplace, even if the mileage is short. Talk to your team members, I would argue that each one will rave how much more work they get done in a day when they don’t commute.

Getting the most out of employees in the long run begins with setting expectations up front. While you’ll need to establish a relationship of trust, don’t rely on the employee to set their own deadlines and deliverables without input from you. As you would with any employee, set regular meeting to discuss progress on projects. Be sure to have processes in place to measure success. Depending on the role, measurement metrics may include:

  • Meeting deadlines on deliverables
  • Call metrics
  • Virtual data entry clock
  • Daily time sheet to reflect time spent on specific tasks
  • Weekly progress report

In addition to formalized reporting and measurement methods, establish some informal methods of checking on employee engagement. If you have an internal IM system and an employee isn’t responding to messages in a timely manner, it may be time to talk to that individual about time on task. Be sure to set up a work schedule with each member of your team so that you will know when to expect to connect with them, especially if the work is flexible and not necessarily based on a typical 9-5 work day.

A remote workforce hired with the right expectations, motivated by trust, accountability, transparent expectations, and clear communications can offer many benefits to both your company and to talented employees. Not to mention, hiring outside your geographic location will open up your candidate pool, allowing you to truly select the best talent for your organization. Which is better, a remote workforce or one that’s inhouse? The real answer is neither. No matter where your employees do their jobs, today’s workers are looking for job experiences that are fulfilling and for companies that align with their values and goals. Good management, trust, and transparency are the things that will make any employer/employee relationship more productive and long-lasting. Easy to say, hard to do.