7 Challenges and Considerations Before You Go to a Remote Workforce

Remote working, distributed teams, telecommuting. They all speak to a decentralized community of co-workers who rarely see each other, and even more rarely, get to know one another in person.

But in today’s competitive economy, it’s becoming more common and even necessary for companies to embrace telecommuting as a core strategy in hiring and retaining talent.

It’s definitely a trending topic lately, with companies like Yahoo ending their historically lax remote hiring/working strategy in 2013, to other companies fully immersing themselves into the remote working culture. It’s certainly been critical to my company as we’ve built a highly productive, engaged team in an industry that fights over every last scrap of talent.

But a remote workforce doesn’t necessarily mean a dilution of company culture.

Indeed, a successful remote working policy can strengthen a company’s productivity and increase its sense of community and culture. But getting to that point requires employers to ensure employees are dialed into its vision and able to carry the torch so far away from headquarters.

Here are a few thoughts and considerations about remote working, and some of the challenges that come along with it.

1. Trust — the two way street

Hiring workers you rarely, if ever, see requires a lot of trust from both the employer and employee’s end.

We’ve had success with folks who worked locally in our office but then moved to another area of the country without any previous telecomm uniting experience. We’ve also had problems with proven remote workers who did boast years of remote working gigs.

In both situations, trust is critical. Without it, remote working is guaranteed not to succeed.

2, Due diligence

Employers need to be really rigorous with their interviewing process, and with the methods by which they measure productivity and engagement. These are both hard to get right, and every company has unique needs.

Regular check-ins and ensuring everyone understands the general guidelines for (online) presence and availability. It’s a little lot of legwork, but it goes a long way, and ultimately builds trust and transparency.

3. The law

Employing people in different states means you’re subject to employment laws of those places, as well as being on the hook for state income tax filings.

This can get interesting with employees in California and New York, both states with more stringent employment laws than elsewhere in the country.

4. Face time is still important

Depending on the role and services of the company, in-person time with colleagues may be a luxury or an absolute necessity.

An open invitation for employees to make the case for travel to an office is an excellent start. Likewise, keep a steady hand on culture and the social aspects of a growing company by considering quarterly on-site get-togethers.

Just being in the same room for a couple of days every few months goes a real long way. It also gives employers the option of doing in-person reviews.

5. Brain twister – local remote working

Some companies, like ours, offer the option for on-site employees to work remotely at home, cafés, etc. It saves on commute times, and for many professions, it can increase productivity.

The most important thing to protect against, though, is that employees don’t treat remote working as flex time. They’re separate policies.

Remote working is a tool, not an allowance, so employees need to be just as available, accountable, and productive as they would be in the office.

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6. Security, tools, and workspace

Supporting a remote workforce with good technology is tough. Companies are subject to residential phone lines, consumer Internet connections, and home offices.

To ensure a remote workforce can be just as efficient on a technical level as on-site employees definitely requires some infrastructure.

A fast, secure VPN, for example, will ensure access to company networks is uninhibited from remote locations. Using a well-designed soft phone system ensures a good communication experience when clients and customers call.

Lastly, companies need a way for IT support folks to diagnose and resolve technical problems of remote employees.

7. Communication and presence

In a remote team, you can’t swivel your chair around to talk to a co-worker.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to communicate. There are a ton of tools out there to help.

Skype and Google Hangouts are awesome (and free) for live video conferencing, instant messenger apps like HipChat are great for group communication and water cooler chats, and project management tools like Basecamp keep communication flowing transparently with remote teams.

In a recent chat with my team (most of whom were remote at the time), I asked whether our remote policy was a critical factor in their choosing to work at and remain with our company. For local folks working remotely, and our actual remote employees alike, the answer was a resounding “absolutely!”

The need to go where the talent is

But digging into why, it came down to the simple but powerful message our approach sends to our team: the company trusts me. Our remote team works because it’s led us to trust implicitly in our co-workers. Likewise, our company has managed to extend our culture and operations to where our employees are, making them know we value them wherever they are.

Lastly, it’s made us more efficient. From documentation to ensuring we have regular, scheduled chats with folks far and near, we’ve gotten much closer despite the geography that separates us.

With the right mix of expectations, talent, and tools, a remote team can be just as effective as traditional companies. Done really well, it can also produce a better work/life balance for everyone.

These days companies need to go to where the talent is, and more and more that means hiring folks who meet all criteria for a job with the exception of a willingness to relocate.

Craig Bryant is a cofounder of We Are Mammoth, a software services and consulting firm in Chicago, and the founder and product manager of Kin HR.

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17 Comments on “7 Challenges and Considerations Before You Go to a Remote Workforce

  1. Thanks for sharing, Craig. I very much enjoyed and could relate to your article. I work for a 100% virtual company and manage the team of instructional designers. I wrote about this experience in a recent article:
    http://www.sweetrush.com/6-tips-for-working-with-remote-instructional-designers/

    In my role, I am often the ambassador representing the company. It is possible to convey a company’s culture and values virtually.

    I really do appreciate your point about trust going both ways. Sometimes this is a bit of a challenge for folks newer to the virtual world. Yes, there is more freedom, but one must be self-motivated in getting tasks done on time and proactive in reaching out for help.

    I was a strong performer in a traditional workplace, but feel like I thrive in a virtual environment. I enjoy connecting face-to-face, but cannot imagine going back to a traditional structure ever again.

    1. Hey Catherine –

      Good self-managers will always be able to recognize when a location or environment isn’t working, right? That sounds like you!

      I entirely agree that culture/values transcend geographical location … that’s a bit different than distributing your vision and mission in a PDF to everyone (still critical, mind you!) and ending there. Companies need to work to ensure operations and togetherness implicitly speak to those values. It’s a tough, but entirely attainable, goal.

      Something I don’t mention in the article above is that, despite our local-remote and fully-remote work policies, me and my cofounder still choose to work almost exclusively onsite at our office. That means a loooonnnngggg commute. But, alas, I’m more productive (most of the time) here, and the commute actually tunes me in/out of whichever phase of my day I’m entering. Something I wrote about here: http://wearemammoth.com/2013/10/shift-commute.

      Thanks for the read!

      Craig

  2. Companies now seem to either trend towards a “campus model” like Apple and Facebook or “remote work”. Let’s face it — both have their advantages and disadvantages. “One size doesn’t fit all.” This is no exception.

    1. Hey Jacque – yep, absolutely. Regardless of ‘where you go to do your job’, you still want/need/deserve to be plugged into the company’s culture and operations. Large or small, campus model or not, every company’s responsibility is to make that connection.

      Thanks for the read 🙂

      Craig

  3. Craig,

    Great article! Many companies are shifting to remote workers (not always by choice!) and managing this new employment model correctly will be critical for them.

    Just watched your video for Kin as well. Looks like a great tool! Well done!

    Kevin

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