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THE YCEO: 5 Essential Keys to Leading a Remote Workforce

Technology has truly transformed the modern workplace. Once upon a time, employees did all their work at the office. That’s where the files were (before computers) and the phone was (before cellphones) and the place colleagues collaborated (before GoToMeeting).

The traditional office setup confers certain advantages: When employees merely have to walk down the hall for an impromptu discussion with a colleague about a collaborative project, great ideas can emerge from that spontaneous fusing of thoughts. (The flip side is that this type of availability can at times result in indulgent conversations about fantasy football or the latest television show.)

Nonetheless the work environment of today for many employees takes on a different dynamic, as staffers might accomplish many business functions from the comfort of a neighborhood coffee shop or anywhere that’s connected to the Internet. Not only has technology changed the way many people do business. It’s also changed the way managers must lead.

As a leader, you’ve probably already managed an individual or team remotely. If you haven’t, chances are high that you will at some point.

Here are five keys to leading a remote workforce:

1. Set expectations.
An all-too-real fear for managers is wondering if staffers working remotely will abuse this privilege. Would the virtual work arrangement turn an otherwise productive team member into a television-addicted slacker who only occasionally checks his inbox to give the appearance that he’s engaged?

But it becomes abundantly clear if someone's not in the right work arrangement. You’ll know because you’ve established the following clear expectations.

Availability. Clearly communicate to team members when you expect them to be “online,” reachable by phone, text, email, chat or otherwise. For instance, between the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., employees would be available to the rest of the team or clients. If not (due to a doctor’s appointment or lunch meeting), they would communicate this to a supervisor the same way they would in an office environment.

Productivity. A remote worker's output should be no different than that of an employee who reports to a cubicle every day. Simply stating shared and measurable objectives for a remote team member eliminates the temptation to micromanage the person for fear he or she is slacking. 

Meeting attendance. If you have the right people onboard, then it’s likely members of your team will thrive while working remotely. As employees enjoy the work-from-home benefits, they may become accustomed to the freedom. This might result in some rebelling against required office visits.

Leaders need to set team expectations early. Let employees know at the beginning of the quarter which meetings they’ll be required to travel to. Leave some wiggle room by telling them to expect the occasional unplanned meeting. It’s far better to establish expectations for a higher number of mandatory in-person sessions.

2. Leverage technology.
Just because you won’t see team members in the flesh each day doesn’t mean that all communication need be relegated to the handful of times everyone gathers together in person. Take advantage of GoToMeeting, Facetime and Google Hangouts.

These tools will help the manager connect with members of the team and get a feel for their emotions. Don’t forget old-fashioned phone technology. A quick call is a great way to stay in touch, further relationships and find out what’s going on.

3. Be available.
In office setups, you may be the epitome of the “my door is always open” type of leader. How do you maintain that sense of availability for a remote team? For starters, you can choose to use an “available or unavailable” signal: In many email programs, built-in status tools can let staffers know when a manager is available. This is similar in effect to leaving the door to an office open or closed.

Should workers switch to working remotely, you might want to schedule more one-on-one meetings or calls throughout the month. Scheduling these sessions would force you to connect with the team members involved, as well as cut down on impromptu calls.

Since the team would know they have a designated time for the manager's undivided attention in the near future, this would reduce all but the truly urgent and important calls. Or it's possible to simply let team members know which hours are alright for contacting the manager -- much like how a professor sets up office hours.

4. Remember the power of the face-to-face meeting.
Your company’s travel policy and the proximity of each team member may dictate the amount of face-to-face opportunities, but go to all reasonable lengths to be in front of each team member on at least a few occasions throughout the year.

I’ve personally spent eight hours in a car to get to a one-hour face-to-face with a key employee. Is this always realistic? Probably not, but don’t underestimate the power of the one-on-one meeting, particularly as it becomes an increasingly rare commodity.

5. Trust your team.
Trust your team to do what they do best. Flexibility in remote work arrangements, when done correctly, is one of the true win-win benefits a company can offer. I believe it’s a trend that will become more popular, so my advice would be to get comfortable and proficient with managing a remote team now.


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