The pandemic took remote workforce management from an option to a necessity, and businesses had to adapt fast. Many are now realizing the long-term benefits of managing remote employees: no on-premise costs, a larger and more diverse hiring pool, and the freedom to blend work and travel, to name a few. But to stick with a remote workforce in the long run successfully, it needs to be done right, and with the right tools.
Tech.co has had a remote workforce since our founding in 2006, so we know a thing or two about how to do it well. Our team spans three states in the US and three countries in Europe, across multiple time zones. So, what have we learned?
- What Is Remote Workforce Management?
- Tech.co's Top Tips for Managing Remote Employees
- Best Remote Workforce Management Software
- Common Challenges With Remote Workforce Management
A remote workforce is a group of employees in a team or company who work offsite and are physically isolated from one another, some or all of the time, rather than together at a single office location. Remote workforce management is a set of processes that a business uses to maintain the productivity of employees who are physically distributed.
In other words, if any members of your team work from home some or all of the time, or from any place that's separate from you, then you're part of a remote workforce – and managing those team members' output and progression is remote workforce management.
The Pew Research Center found that 70% of workers were fulfilling their duties remotely in December 2020, compared to just 20% the year earlier. Thanks to today's internet infrastructure, US workers can work just as well from home, and can save an average of 54 minutes per day of commute time in the bargain. It's an attractive proposition.
With the correct technology and practices, a remote workforce is just as effective as an on-premise workforce. In fact, some studies have found that it may be even better – one academic survey of more than 30,000 workers logged monthly responses for a period from May 2020 until March 2021, and found that 40% of respondents reported greater productivity working remotely than at the office, with only 15% saying they were less productive after the switch.
Remote Working vs Hybrid Working
Remote workforces aren't always fully remote. Some companies operate from one main office location, with only a percentage of employees operating remotely. This is called a hybrid workforce, or a workforce with both in-office and remote workers.
Hybrid workforces can take many forms. At Tech.co we have some employees who work from the main office five days a week, some who come in for two or three days a week, and some who live and work a significant distance away, but fly in once or twice a year to touch base.
Providing both an in-person hub and remote flexibility means staff can opt for their preferred arrangement, something that is particularly useful for members of the team with children to look after.
Some employers offer flexible shared workspaces through companies such as WeWork, to provide an in-office experience to otherwise fully remote employees. There's no one right way to do it. But there may be wrong ways – which brings us to our top tips to know before diving into remote workforce management.
6 Top Tips for Managing Remote Employees
Managing remote employees isn't entirely different from managing in-office team members. Many typical management goals remain the same: you'll want to encourage two-way communication and daily productivity while giving employees chances at both short- and long-term career advancement. But the change in environment means those goals must be made more explicit and handled with less face-to-face guidance.
Here are the best tips we can give you, based on our 15+ years of experience.
1. Establish Clear Expectations for Virtual Conduct
Social norms might be easy to figure out in person, but a remote workplace needs to make them more explicit to ensure everyone's working together effectively.
Teams should discuss and decide on their preferred virtual collaboration conduct, such as how promptly co-workers should expect a response to a question.
We recommend taking advantage of business communications platforms like Slack (what we use), which can let you set different statuses such as ‘do not disturb', ‘on lunch' or ‘out of office'. Tools such as Google Calendar allow you to display your standard working hours as well as arrange meetings, and can integrate with tools like Slack.
When working remotely, the more information you can convey to one another about the nature of your workday, the better the team's synergy will be.
2. Check In on Employees Even When Nothing Is Wrong
There are plenty of reasons staff may choose to work remotely, but it can be a strange and lonely experience for them if they're kept out of the loop. With no daily coffee run or passing small talk, it's easy for remote employees to feel disconnected from members of the team who see one another on a more frequent basis.
If a remote worker is struggling, they may not feel able to reach out in the same way as they would in the office – so you've got to be proactive about keeping in touch, and ensure that regular contact becomes the norm.
Kathryn Smithson, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at PathSocial, suggests that managers should check in on employees even when nothing is wrong.
“Meetings on a regular basis build a culture of open communication… 1:1s are an excellent way to stay on top of progress toward goals and get to know your colleagues better, (and) when things go wrong, you will be better able to put out the flames before they can spread.”
Besides, if you're only contacting employees when something is wrong, you run the risk that employees will start to associate your presence with exclusively negative interactions, and you can bet your bottom dollar they won't stick around for long.
3. Celebrate Achievements and Make Time to Socialize
In addition to checking in on employees at appropriate points during the day/week, it is crucial to celebrate your team's achievements and put aside time to socialize with them, even if they're fully remote team members.
Celebrating milestones your team members have reached or outstanding work they've completed can have a huge impact on productivity and overall success. In 2021, a Great Place to Work study revealed that 37% of workers think the biggest driver for great work is recognition – more than training, promotions, and even salary raises – so communicating to staff that you can see they've gone above and beyond can really make a difference.
On top of positive, ‘work-related' catch-ups, however, hosting additional meetings where the ultimate goal is team bonding and having fun will also contribute massively to your team's morale.
After-work quizzes, weekly and monthly roundups of company ‘wins', one-to-one sessions, and appraisals are all examples of meetings that could boost your team's cohesion and staff morale. There are a surprising number of activities that can actually be done remotely, from wine tasting to mock game shows (we'd highly recommend recreating Family Feud), and you could even get staff to take it in turns to run virtual social events.
4. Set Team and Individual Goals
Every company has performance goals, whether that's beating a certain competitor, growing revenue a certain amount or securing that next round of funding. It's easy to get bogged down tracking that overall end goal, and forget to take a step back and set team goals on a regular basis.
Making sure to set and communicate team goals is one of the most important things you can do to keep your team on the same page, no matter where they are. This blends well with a collaborative, results-oriented management strategy, and can add some structure to remote meetings and check-ins. It can also help replace or temper the granular time tracking that often discourages remote workers.
Employees who are aligned with a common end goal can then develop their own personal objectives to reach it, says Corey Walters, founder and CEO of online marketplace Here:
“The best way to measure success in (a hybrid) environment is to ensure each person understands their responsibilities and meets deadlines accordingly, which can be tracked through quantitative KPIs to determine team efficiency.”
Individual goals for specific staff members that contribute to the team goal can be tracked with performance management software.
Leaving staff members wondering exactly what their manager expects of them is a recipe for disaster. Even a motivated, enthusiastic staff member will struggle to move in the right direction if they're never told what that direction is.
5. Don't Forget About Remote Training
Leave plenty of space for training and e-learning if your team is working remotely, as most educational material will need to be self-taught. Fortunately, there are a wealth of training resources for you to choose from online, including ways to make online courses, tests, and presentations that employees can do at their own pace. Degreed, Udemy, Workday and Cornerstone are all popular choices.
If utilized correctly, remote training courses and e-learning modules will contribute to your employees' professional development whilst also refreshing them on important aspects of their roles. For example, cybersecurity e-learning modules that cover important principles – such as ensuring confidential data is being stored correctly – can be repeated every six to 12 months to ensure best practices are being maintained.
E-learning courses, and all types of remote training, will also have positive consequences for your business' management team. They'll free up valuable time that would otherwise have been used to host training sessions on the same topics or rectify mistakes made by poorly trained employees.
6. Install the Right Technology
As anyone who's rushed to install Zoom or Teams over the past couple of years will know, having the right technology to actually implement all of the tips discussed above is just as crucial as following the tips themselves.
Luckily, there's a whole world of tools out there specifically designed to help your team flourish in remote settings. In fact, remote workforce software and prices are only getting more and more competitive as the number of remote workers continues to increase. We've listed our must-have software picks below.
Best Remote Workforce Management Software
As with most workplace challenges, there are solutions in software. The technologies that a remote manager is likely to find the most useful can be broken down into a few general categories, some of which correspond to certain challenges and tips mentioned in this article:
- Web Conferencing Services
- Project Management Software
- Business Chat Tools
- Password Managers
- Remote Access Software
Here at Tech.co, we've researched all the remote workforce management software we're about to discuss in this section (as well as plenty of others that we thought weren't so good) and subjected them to rigorous testing processes that take weeks to complete. Plus, all members of the Tech.co team are either fully remote or taking a hybrid approach to work, so we use a lot of the tools we're about to talk about on a daily basis, too.
Web Conferencing Services
The most important tool for a modern remote workforce is a good video conferencing service that allows for face-to-virtual-face conversations and meetings.
Although few pieces of tech can replicate all the important elements of an in-person conversation, many of the top providers are getting pretty good at it. The number of updates that have been rolled out since the mass shift to remote working in 2020 is staggering, and now video conferencing services like Microsoft Teams have a long list of useful features.
Our tests found that the best video conferencing service is GoToMeeting, thanks to superior video and audio quality, good features and user experience, and a lower price than comparable services. Another strong option is Google Meet, which is a great option if you're already a Google Workspace user because it will seamlessly integrate with Google Docs, your calendar, and Gmail.
The lowest starting price for a paid plan. The lowest price available for your business will depend on your needs.
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Public Wi-Fi hotspots, which remote employees may use if they’re working in coffee shops, airports, or other public spaces, are extremely unsafe. With the right technology, a hacker can easily see exactly what you’re doing – and when you’re working from home, your internet service provider can do the same.
That’s where VPNs come in. A business VPN, like PureVPN for Teams, will allow all of your employees to securely access your company’s intranet and cloud resources from remote locations by creating private, encrypted tunnels between their devices and your organization’s servers.
What’s more, business VPNs like NordLayer have network control features that allow you to dictate what data each team member can access. Considering the average cost of a data breach in 2021 was $4.24 million, a full-featured business VPN is worth every cent.
Project Management Software
Out of all the tech on this list, the most multi-dimensional software that you'll be making constant use of in a remote working environment is project management software.
While web conferencing services will help you collaborate and a business VPN will keep your company's data safe, project management software offers somewhere to upload all your day-to-day work tasks, track project progress and employee productivity, plan and forecast, create charts and graphs, organize data, brainstorm new ideas, create feedback forms and surveys, and perform various other duties essential to your work life.
Most project management software will integrate well with your current tools – for example, Microsoft Project Review works well for those already fully in the Microsoft ecosystem.
There are plenty of different providers out there to choose from, all of which will suit different businesses depending on their size, the technical-mindedness of their employees, and their need for customization. Read more project management tips. Below is a screenshot of Jira, one of the top project management providers for tech teams, showing one of its roadmap planning features.
Business Chat Tools
Remote teams will need a text-based communication platform to supplement a video-based option, for ad hoc updates, questions and more. Many teams around the world still consign the bulk of their communications to email, but this is often unsatisfactory for urgent conversations or group discussions that demand collaboration.
The popular-for-a-reason Slack is our top pick. It functions in some ways like a consumer-facing app, which means it's very user-friendly.
The popular-for-a-reason Slack is our top pick. It functions in some ways like a consumer-facing app (there are aspects of the interface that feel like Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook) which means it's very user-friendly, and there are fun little quirks that make it seem less dreary, like being able to create your own emojis.
Then there's the Microsoft-lover's favorite, Microsoft Teams, which has great video conferencing abilities as we just mentioned. But it's much more than that – Microsoft Teams is a one-stop shop for business communications. There are channels for different teams to chat on, places to store and share documents, and seamless integration with Microsoft's email and other services.
Weak passwords create easy entry points for hackers. What’s more, if a threat actor manages to crack just one of your employee’s account passwords, your entire company network could be compromised. For many business owners, that’s not a risk worth taking. Investing in a business password manager for your team will mean everyone can create complex, unique passwords without having to keep track of them.
LastPass is a secure, inexpensive option for small companies. LastPass’ plans for businesses will let you and your staff store all of your login credentials in separate, encrypted online vaults that only the relevant person can access (from wherever they are working).
There are other solid options out there too, including 1Password and NordVPN's password manager, NordPass. We've covered the ins and outs of all the best password managers in the industry if you'd like to learn more.
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A password manager can create secure, complex passwords for you. You won't need to remember them yourself.
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Remote Access Software
Remote teams need remote IT support, and good remote access software can help. The last thing you want is a technical difficulty stopping an employee from working for an entire day, or even longer, which can become a reality if you're not adequately prepared.
In a very direct sense, not having remote access software will lose you money, and fast – so the less downtime the better.
Which remote access software will suit your business may depend on the size of your company. TeamViewer is one of the most well-known and trusted providers, and it's what we use at Tech.co. As well as remote access, TeamViewer offers file sharing, real-time chat, session recording, screen sharing, and much more.
Remote employees can figure out how to use new software, adapt to modified schedules and, with the right support, succeed just like they would in a physical office space. But this doesn't mean the challenges that are part and parcel of working remotely will simply disappear, so it's important to be aware of what they are and make continued efforts to minimize their effects as much as possible.
Here are the five biggest concerns that companies should keep in mind when managing remote employees.
1. Poor Access to Technology and Information
One major challenge of having employees working from remote locations is getting them the same level of secure access to the institutional data and files they'll need.
This starts with hardware, like laptops and phones. Don't assume employees will have all the technological means they need to complete their jobs, unless you've made this a clear requirement before hiring them (or before approving a remote working transition).
Many workers will not have personal devices with the processing power needed to run the apps required for their role, and supporting the transfer of information and updates to appropriate devices has its challenges, too.
The Answer: Offering a company device, or a stipend to put towards one, puts all employees on an even playing field. Remote work will likely also call for a good remote access software program, as well as an additional layer of security, such as a company-wide password manager and VPN. Consider what your priorities and risks are for the remote roles you have in mind, and what fits with your budget.
2. Blurred Work-Life Boundaries
Working from home can lead to employees taking hours-long breaks to run errands or shop for groceries, and then having to make up the time later. It can also lead to an unhealthy “always-on” feeling and, eventually, burnout.
The Answer: Offer emotional support, and be clear that staff can “clock off” work guilt-free, without the expectation that they'll still be available, after a certain time. Most importantly, don't skimp on encouraging flexible work options.
“Allowing teams to be flexible lets them execute their tasks in their own unique ways. As a manager, you must pay less attention to the process and more attention to what is being accomplished. Simply tell your staff what you expect them to do.” – Fahad Jamal, CFO at Puretuber.
If you're unwilling to be flexible, you may find your pool of prospective employees dries up pretty fast. Around two-fifths of workers would think about quitting if employers didn't offer flexible work-from-home policies (Bloomberg News, 2021), with that number rising to about half for the younger millennial and Gen Z generations.
3. Social Isolation
Rates of loneliness in remote workers are declining, with only 16% of remote employees rating it their top challenge in 2021 versus 27% in 2020 (Buffer). But it's still a common challenge that many remote employees face.
The Answer: Managers must facilitate remote social interaction. Stephen Light, the CMO and co-owner of Nolah Mattress, leads a hybrid workforce himself and says the power of small talk is one underrated key to the job:
“Little workplace discussions help to build relationships and make people feel seen as human beings, not just workers. With remote work, this laid-back friendliness becomes difficult and can feel like quite a loss, so it’s up to leaders to build new avenues for casual communication.”
This can be as easy as opening a team meeting with chit-chat, but you could also organize bigger social events such as remote office parties around the holidays. Remember, just because your team is remote, doesn't mean they always have to be – occasional physical meetups can contribute heavily to making remote staff feel involved.
4. A Lack of In-Person Supervision
If you're an in-office manager, there's every chance you're used to hands-on supervision. When operating remotely, you might be tempted to pivot into micro-management in order to maintain the same visibility. But according to Neil John, a software engineer at One Computer Guy, that's a mistake.
“Managers may be anxious and even upset that they no longer have constant visibility over their people, but they should not react by micromanaging.”
The Answer: Create a check-in structure. This could be daily, weekly, or every other day, and ideally each check in won't last long. Employees can mention what their short-term focus and goal is, and will have an opportunity to bring up any questions they might have. A video chat, audio chat, or simple message on a platform like Slack could do the trick.
5. A Lack of In-Person Training
It's difficult to replicate all the aspects of in-person employee training in remote environments, which can reduce how engaged employees are, and the effectiveness of important messaging. This might lead to confusion and misunderstandings, or even cause legal compliance issues. However, there are virtual training solutions that new employees can extract the same value from.
The Answer: When building a remote-friendly training course, try the “synchronicity sandwich”: start with synchronized learning, shift to asynchronous, and then end with another real-time get-together to solidify the takeaways.
For example, you could open with a brief presentation that explains the basics of what new employees should know, and close with a follow-up Q&A. In the middle, you might offer plenty of in-depth documents, slideshows, or demos that employees can work through in their own time.
Managing a Remote Workforce: Are You Ready?
Remote workforce management is no easy task – plenty of businesses struggle with everything from the transition to remote working to day-to-day collaboration.
But through a combination of being aware of the challenges of remote working, implementing key initiatives (such as team bonding time and daily check-ins), and equipping your staff with the right software, you can ensure you'll be well placed to succeed, wherever your team members are based.