Let’s face it: Lots of office jobs could be done from the bottom of the ocean if there were a good enough Internet connection. As the workforce undergoes dramatic shifts due to changing demographics, economics, and advancements in technology, more workers are clocking in from home now than ever before—about 2.6 percent of the American workforce, or around 3.2 million people. Working remotely is also on the rise as a bargaining chip for employment negotiations.
Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and Founder of FlexJobs, which specializes in remote and flexible job listings, offers this advice for small businesses considering a work-from-home situation for their employees.
Q. Who is—and is not—a good candidate for remote work?
A. Some employees do a great job working from home, while others thrive in a traditional office environment. People who are good candidates for remote work have lots of self-discipline, resourcefulness, the ability to work independently, self-management skills, and above all, excellent communication skills.
On the flip side, these traits may signal that someone is not a good candidate for remote work: a lack of organizational skills, poor time management, a dislike of being physically alone for much of the day, and people without great communication skills.
The communication tools a remote worker needs to master are email, phone, instant messenger, chat boards, web conferencing, and many other resources.
Q. What’s the best way to get the most from your remote workers?
A. Remote workers tend to thrive when their managers have given them clear goals, tie those goals to company-wide objectives, and set up a regular communication schedule so that they can stay in touch. Because a home office is such a flexible work environment, it’s also a good idea, whenever possible, to offer other types of flexibility, such as flexible scheduling.
Remote workers will do very well when they are able to work the hours that make the most sense for them—whether they are morning people, night owls, or somewhere in-between.
Q. How do you make up for the lack of face time and accountability?
A. Accountability can certainly be earned with a regular and consistent communication. Whether it is meetings with your team every week, or a daily email employees send their manager to keep them aware of everything they’re working on and accomplishing, those regular check-ins will go a long way to showing that accountability as a remote worker.
As for face time, that regular communication will also go a long way. The other thing is to remember that those water cooler conversations that you would normally have in an office can and should be re-created in a remote work situation. Ask your co-workers about their recent vacations, hobbies, weekend plans, and anything else that you might chat about in a regular office.
When you work remotely, it can be easy to be focused too much on work. Be sure to keep forming and building on your work relationships.
Q. How do you create the best remote-work situation possible with an employee who asks for it?
A. When an employee request remote work, it’s important to give a solid understanding of the expectations you have for as a remote worker. If you want him or her to work set hours, be sure to detail those. If you need a check-in at certain points throughout the week, or to attend in-person meetings, make all of that clear up front. The more you do to build a solid foundation for the remote worker to succeed, the more likely their success.
Also, a trial period of two to three months is a great way to test the plan you’ve put into place, knowing that you’ll have a set time to revise and improve on it after seeing how it performs.
Q. How do management strategies need to change for remote workers?
A. Managing remote workers is different than managing in office workers. For one, you can’t rely on face time as a measure of whether someone is working or not. As a manager, you need to be proactive with your remote workers and actively engage them on a regular basis to find out what they’re working on, where their stumbling blocks are, and how you can help them succeed. In most of the high-profile situations where companies have banned telecommuting, poor managerial skills or ill-equipped managers were a big part of the problem.
All managers should receive training on how to manage remote workers, if that’s what they’re going to be asked to do.