The Challenges of Remote Work for Employers

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For many companies, working from home was a luxury before the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, with social distancing guidelines in place around the world, remote work remains the only option to keep the business running smoothly. Remote work offers flexible work arrangements for team members, but also presents a series of challenges for employers.

Communication

Communication is an issue in many workplaces - it's not unique to remote employees. Flexible schedules and time zone differences create workflow issues. According to the State of Remote Work 2020 study, 20% of respondents say their biggest challenge working remotely is collaboration and communication. That said, 32% of those surveyed say the ability to have a flexible schedule is the biggest benefit.

Employers should strive to provide leadership and structure to set the tone for communication among staff members. There are a number of tools and processes to improve communication, but they are only as effective as the people using them. This means taking the time to assess people throughout the hiring process, looking closely at how they communicate. Experiment with communication tools like Slack and Skype to find the ones that work best for your company. Ask your remote workers for feedback and do your best to accommodate their preferences.

Overworked employees and time-off management

Eliminating the daily commute to the office removes the barrier between home and work. When home is the workplace, it becomes difficult for employees to "switch off" once it's time to clock out for the day. Remote workers are often attached to their devices at the hip due to conference calls, emails, chats and other notifications. These don't necessarily stop at the end of the workday, especially if other team members are working different hours in different time zones. To solve this problem, create your own version of the commute, even if you don't go to the local coffee shop for a change of scenery. In the morning, before work, shower, eat breakfast and read the news. Once you're done for the day, turn off the computer, step away from your desk and take a few minutes to relax before moving on to tasks like cooking dinner.

When it comes to time off, many remote workers don't take vacation or sick days because they can make up for missed work on their own time. That's why you need to develop a policy regarding sick and paid time off, just as you would in a traditional work environment. Your remote team shouldn't have to make up time off they've earned just because they can do their work at any time. You should also account for breaks just as you would in a traditional office.

Prioritization and Project Management

Working from home offers flexibility in scheduling, but with that flexibility comes the possibility that workers may struggle to properly prioritize their work. For most telecommuters, the temptation to watch an episode of a TV show, take a nap, or clean the house is always there when they put off work for one reason or another.

To get the most important work done for your employees, encourage the use of distraction-limiting tools, such as browser plugins that will block social media sites during work hours. Encourage them to manage their energy, rather than their time. Let them work when they know they are most productive, rather than trying to force them.

Help them prioritize tasks by using a cloud-based project management tool, so your team can connect anywhere there's an internet connection - from their computer, smartphone or tablet. Options include Basecamp, Trello, Podio, Asana or Freedcamp. Invest in demos of these products until you find the one that makes the most sense for you and your team.

Technology

In the office, chances are you give your employees the computer and software subscriptions and whatever other tools they need to do their jobs well. This is often not the case for remote workers, who often have to use their own devices. This can create inconsistencies, cause problems when transferring information and even slow down production. For this reason, it's best to treat remote workers the same as if they were in the office and provide them with everything they need to do their jobs.

Purchase laptops, laptop bags and wireless mice. Before you send the items to your employees, load up all the business software they will need, using cloud-based options when possible. Cloud-based options are better because they update in real time and there's no need to worry about upgrades. If some of your team members want to use their own hardware, you'll save money, but it's important to make sure everything they use meets certain standards to avoid problems in the future.

Security

Keeping information secure throughout your organization can be difficult. No matter where your remote workers do their work - whether they're traveling the world or working out of their basement - your team is responsible for keeping their personal and company information safe at all times. You need to ensure that your company's sensitive and confidential information remains safe, no matter where your team is working or what device they are using.

This is where education and training can help. Create security policies to set requirements for creating passwords, clicking links in emails, uploading and downloading files, and anti-malware software. Help your team understand the risks and do their part to reduce them on a daily basis. Offer licenses or reimbursement for security software. Let your team know that you don't want to spy on what they're doing, but that you want to keep their devices and company information safe.

Advance

Remote staff are just as interested in moving up the ladder as an existing team member. But when managing a remote team, it can be difficult to know which team members should be considered for promotion. To keep your best team members happy and engaged, you need to set clear performance criteria and promotion guidelines so employees know where they stand and where they are going.

You should hold all remote staff to the same standards as face-to-face staff. Use your current employee evaluation process for your remote team, making only minor adjustments as necessary. Focus on the quality and quantity of staff progress, rather than how long they work each week or how long they work with you. Communicate with all members of your team and ask colleagues and managers for feedback. If you are in regular contact with your team, it won't be hard to tell who is going above and beyond.

Visibility

Many organizations like to see their staff doing things so they can validate tasks. However, it's important to remember that just because someone is physically present in the office doesn't mean they are productive. Even if you're not able to see your team remotely, you can look at things like project status updates, timestamps, and communication threads to keep tabs on how things are progressing. In this way, tracking the progress of an in-person team is no different than tracking a virtual team.

Using cloud-based applications means you'll have time-tracking tools, as well as audit trails that allow you to see dates, changes made, authors and other information to help you know who's doing what and when. If it's not reasonable to have a daily check-in call, aim for short weekly check-in meetings where everyone reviews their work and then asks and answers questions as needed. If you require weekly reports from all your employees, make sure there is an effective reporting system that doesn't require a significant time investment - from you or your team.

Consistency

Consistency is important to any business, and it has nothing to do with where your staff is located. It's about how you welcome new team members, how you build your company culture, and how you connect each employee's role to the company's goals. Your team is a walking advertisement for your company, so it's critical that they understand your mission, goals and brand. Consistency is easily the most difficult challenge for remote teams.

Implement a robust employee onboarding and training program to ensure everyone is on the same page and knows how to communicate with everyone inside and outside the company. Involve everyone in discussions about the company's goals so that everyone understands where their job fits in and contributes to the strategy. Add logos, style guides, letterheads and any other templates the team may need to use to cloud storage that all team members can easily access.

Retention

While the freedom and flexibility of working from home may seem like enough to retain employees, for many it can be a challenge. Remote employees are likely to feel isolated. This sometimes leads to a lack of connection with their colleagues. Some may feel more pressure because they are telecommuting. When it becomes too much, some employees may feel the need to leave your company in favor of another that helps them feel more satisfied.

To avoid high turnover, take steps to ensure your team can maintain a healthy work-life balance. Keep them connected to each other and bonded through virtual conferences, virtual water coolers, rewards, hugs and kudos, etc. The more you can make your remote workers feel appreciated, respected, and ultimately included, the more likely they will want to stay with your company.

If you're just starting to work with a remote team or have had to adapt your way of doing business due to the pandemic, it's not all negative. In fact, there are many benefits to working remotely for employers as well. At the end of the day, you need to do what you think is best - equip yourself and your team with the tools they need to succeed.

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